TES students reflect on what it means to be free

On Saturday, November 10, more than 50 students and staff attended the Oslo Freedom Forum in Taipei. The Oslo Freedom Forum is an annual conference where human rights advocates, artists, tech entrepreneurs, and world leaders meet to share their stories and brainstorm ways to expand freedom across the globe. Our students and staff were very fortunate to be able to attend this inspiring event, which was being held in Asia for the first time. In addition, we were honored to welcome Vanessa Berhe, the youngest speaker at the event, to our school today. Every student got a chance to hear her speak about her work and her fight for justice and human rights in her home country of Eritrea. Photo courtesy Taipei European School.
Article by Helen Gamble, TES

“The secret to happiness is freedom, and the secret to freedom is courage.” (Thucydides)

A man stands on the podium. With tears in his eyes he tells his story. It’s a story of unspeakable physical and emotional pain, of a boy growing up in North Korea, malnourished and hopeless. The boy lives in a country where food, electricity, and medicine are only for the privileged few. Yet to speak about one’s hardships can lead to imprisonment or death.

Desperate, the boy attempts to steal some coal from a mine close to his home, but passes out on a railway track due to his weakened state. He only wakes up when he senses a train coming towards him, but by then it’s too late. The boy, only sixteen years old, loses an arm and a leg and very nearly loses his life. At the hospital, death once again comes looking for him, as the doctors use primitive tools to treat his wounds with no aesthetic. When the traumatised boy left the hospital, he received no medical or psychological help. His country had abandoned him to his fate.

Realising that he couldn’t go on living like this, the boy decided to flee North Korea. With only one leg and the wooden crutches his father had crafted for him, the boy embarked on a 6,000 kilometer-long journey to freedom. The boy’s name was Ji Seong-Ho.

He is a man now. He’s been given prosthetic limbs, an education, and a reason to live. He stands on the podium and swears he will never give up the fight to help free his country from tyranny and oppression. As he raises the wooden crutches that carried him across the miles, the audience rises. They stand to award his courage, and to show solidarity for the fight for human rights in North Korea. They stand because they finally understand what it means to be free.

Understanding and defining freedom can often be problematic. The definition of freedom is so broad, and subject to so many individual interpretations, that even the Oxford English Dictionary struggles to define the notion in a succinct manner. Amongst other things, it encompasses the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants. It also means the absence of subjection to foreign domination or despotic government, and the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved. It covers freedom of speech, religious and sexual freedom, and the right to choose one’s leaders.

The notion of freedom is something that TES students have often grappled with in class discussions and assemblies, especially those students who are studying for their International Baccalaureate Diplomas (IBD) in the last two years of high school. In fact, the IBD expressly requires of students both a commitment to global mindedness and the ability to tackle big issues.

The subject of freedom was brought into focus at a unique event that took place in Taipei on November 10, 2018. On that day, over fifty students and staff from the Taipei European School High School gathered at the Shangri-la Hotel to attend the first-ever Oslo Freedom Forum event to be held in Asia. The Oslo Freedom Forum (OFF) is a thriving global community of people united by the common vision of making the world a more peaceful, prosperous, and free place. The Forum brings together leaders in advocacy, business, technology, policy, philanthropy, media, academia, and the arts to share their stories and discover ways to expand freedom and unleash human potential across the globe.

The Oslo Freedom Forum has evolved from an annual flagship event in Oslo that was inaugurated ten years ago, to include satellite events around the world, including New York, Johannesburg, and Mexico City. The decision to host Asia’s first Freedom Forum in Taiwan was no accident. Thor Halvorssen, founder of the Forum and a Venezuelan human rights advocate, referred to Taiwan as a country that has long been dedicated to upholding democracy.

Living in a country like Taiwan, where we are fortunate to be able to enjoy many freedoms, including being able to live as we want, worship as we want, love whom we want, and vote for the government we want, it is easy to be complacent. We often take these freedoms for granted. For this reason, the opportunity to attend the Oslo Freedom Forum was an important learning experience for our students – one that brought into sharp focus the fact that not everybody experiences the same freedoms that we do here in Taiwan.

Indeed, in their latest published report, the independent watchdog organization Freedom House has reported that “political rights and civil liberties around the world deteriorated to their lowest point in more than a decade in 2017, extending a period characterized by emboldened autocrats, beleaguered democracies, and the United States’ withdrawal from its leadership role in the global struggle for human freedom.” Consequently, there has never been a better time to make our students aware of the struggles faced by many in their pursuit of freedom.

Speakers at the Taipei event included Cambodian human rights activist and exiled opposition politician, Mu Sochua; North Korean defector and activist, Ji Seong-Ho; Vietnamese pop star and political activist, Mai Khoi; Egyptian actor, model, and LGBT rights activist, Omar Sharif Jr.; China bureau chief and Asia correspondent for BuzzFeed News, Megha Rajagopalan; Eritrean free-speech activist, Vanessa Berhe; Sarawak-born investigative journalist and founder of the Sarawak Report, Clare Rewcastle-Brown; and Russian democracy activist and coordinator of Open Russia, Vladimir Kara-Murza. The event also encompassed a Tech Lab and Interactive Expo, workshops, and time to talk to representatives of human rights organisations active in Taiwan.

No one attending the conference could fail to be moved by the speakers on the podium. Their courage and bravery, their pain and suffering, but also their commitment, determination and hope for the future were in evidence throughout the day. They provided the inspiration to act – to play one’s part in furthering freedom and justice for all. Freedom House has reported that democracy is in crisis, stating that “the values it embodies – particularly the right to choose leaders in free and fair elections, freedom of the press, and the rule of law – are under assault. Most worrying of all for the future, many young people, who have little memory of the long struggles against fascism and communism, may be losing faith and interest in the democratic project.”

The Taipei European School is committed to reversing this disturbing trend. By exposing its students to guest speakers who advocate for human rights, by offering co-curricular activities that focus on rights and free speech (such as Model United Nations and Debating), and by introducing topics that cover civil liberties and freedom, both within and outside of the classroom, the school actively fosters the attitudes of tolerance and respect that can transform societies. Furthermore, the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme calls upon students to be risk-takers and inquirers; to be open-minded, reflective, principled, and knowledgeable; most importantly, it calls upon students to be caring. These attributes, so movingly demonstrated at the Oslo Freedom Forum, provided our students with a timely reminder of what it means to be free.

Originally published in Dec 2018/Jan 2019 issue of Centered on Taipei