STORIES of people who managed to turn tragic experiences into successful advocacies never fail to inspire. That’s why listening to the stories of this year’s recipients of the Ramon Magsaysay Awards was a welcome breather from all the negativity in the news and on social media.
Among this year’s awardees are two journalists, Ko Swe Win of Myanmar and Ravish Kumar of India. The three others are our own musician Ryan Cayabyab, business executive-turned-anti-bullying advocate Kim Jong-ki of South Korea, and nurse-turned-human rights advocate Angkhana Neelapaijit of Thailand.
While I can somehow relate to the difficulties that Swe Win and Kumar went through before they were recognized for their courage to succeed, I found the struggles of Kim and Angkhana more touching.
Kim was at the height of his career as a business executive handling market operations in China for a giant Korean electronics company when tragedy struck in 1995. While traveling in China, he received a call from his wife in Korea, telling him their 16-year-old son had committed suicide.
“Suddenly, I became the most miserable father in the world,” Kim said when he received the award at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) in Pasay City last September 9. “The shock and sorrow of losing my son to school violence drove my family to despair.”
Kim said his son’s death “pushed me deeper and deeper into despair” that he lost the motivation to live. He said he also felt guilty because he was tied to work and neglected his family.
But then, he came to realize that it was not what his son would want, so he quit his job and turned his attention to finding solutions to problems of the young people as a way to seeking forgiveness.
“I mustered the courage to live and help other people. I could not stand to see another child being bullied,” he said in his lecture at Ramon Magsaysay Center last September 12.
“I have gone through extreme hardships, but poured out my passion, money and personal connections to fulfill my goals,” Kim said. “To be honest, there were times I wanted to give up, but this work was my promise to my son.”
As he was speaking, I was hearing the voice of a father whose heart was crying in so much pain.
He started his advocacy by raising awareness of school violence and providing counseling for students and families who suffered from it. He put up the Foundation for Preventing Youth Violence, the first organized effort in South Korea to address school violence as a systemic social problem affecting students, families, schools and the community.
He said it was difficult because, at the time, bullying was not yet recognized as a life-threatening problem, but dismissed as simple fighting common among teenagers. There were no experts or studies about bullying, and school authorities’ disapproval of what they were doing made their work more difficult.
Kim said he led a nationwide signature campaign for the legislation of an anti-bullying law. With almost half a million signatures urging the law’s passage, the parliament came out in 2004 with the Special Act on Preventing and Handling of School Violence. The law, he said, includes penalties on school authorities who would ignore complaints of violence involving their students.
“Finally, we were able to make positive change, such as reducing school violence through various campaigns and legislation,” Kim said. Education authorities have also started building nationwide measures to stop school violence.
So far, Kim said, the incidence of school violence in South Korea has gone down from 20 percent in 1995 to only 6 percent this year.
South Korea was reported to have one of the higher suicide rates among the world’s developed countries, with teenage suicides at a disturbing rate of 7.6 students for every 100,000. More than half of the suicides were directly related to school bullying, according to a 2005 statistics from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
“We started with only five people [in the foundation]; now, we have 340 staff members nationwide,” he said.
Kim and the foundation developed a holistic program of detection, protection and management of youth violence. They conducted wide-ranging anti-bullying campaigns such as seminars, rallies, concerts and film showing;operated a hotline that now receives 30 to 50 calls daily; and lobbied for needed government policy and the passage of the anti-bullying law.
Kim’s foundation has become so popular that it now works with Korea’s Ministry of Education in handling counseling and dispute mediation as well as in its reconciliation program that gives as much attention to reforming the bullies and healing families as they do to protecting victims.
With these achievements, including the Ramon Magsaysay Award, Kim said: “I am sure my son is smiling at me from heaven.”
Kim was recognized “for his quiet courage in transforming private grief into a mission to protect Korea’s youth from the scourge of bullying and violence, his unstinting dedication to the goal of instilling among the young the values of self-esteem, tolerance and mutual respect, and his effectively mobilizing all sectors of the country in a nationwide drive that has transformed both policy and behaviors towards building a gentler, non-violence Korean society.”
Ma. Lourdes Carandang, a Filipino clinical psychologist, noted that Kim’s story was extremely relevant and timely to what has been happening in the Philippines where school bullying recently became a big issue involving high school students at a premier university.
“Until recently, bullying was not in the consciousness of the Filipinos. They may have termed it differently,” she said, citing a recent observation by Albert Muyot of Save the Children Foundation about the increasing rate of bullying incidents in Philippine schools.
The time has come, Carandang said, for Filipinos to scale up efforts against bullying and come up with a program to reform the bullies, parallel to the measures in healing the bullied.
As Kim stressed, we can no longer be silent to violence in schools.
(Next week, I will share the story of Angkhana Neelapaijit who had to raise her five children after her husband, a human rights lawyer, was abducted and never found.)