Is it really helping? by Safia Southey

We attend a school for politically minded students, for those who possess an insatiable curiosity regarding the world and all its complex intricacies. Adorned with our elitist education and politically and culturally-astute sensitivities, we are driven by a desire to go out and do good in the world, help underprivileged and disenfranchised communities.

This gets complicated very quickly. While most of us are highly critical of US interventionist policies, we can be hypocritical in this regard ourselves, embarking on a journey to provide disadvantaged groups with what we feel will help them most. Take TOMS shoes for example - while they dedicated their entire mission to giving children in Africa shoes, this really wasn’t necessary and had no real impact on the community; the money could have been spent in much more effective ways (Buying TOMS shoes is a terrible way to help poor people).

That’s not to say all smaller NGOs are useless, and that the ones focused on more individual-scale issues should be completely disregarded - as the cliche goes, helping one person might not change the whole world, but it could change the world for one person. This being said, it is important to see what impact is really being made. New Western NGOs pop-up every day with identical mission statements, created by idealistic youth who believe that they know best, when in reality the money that is used to establish new programs in low-income countries could be so much more useful if given to already developed organizations with the proper connections and infrastructure to actually make a substantial difference. Of course innovation is important, but for the most part these organizations don’t truly hold any unique qualities.

Somebody once told me that it is necessary to consider when starting a new job or traveling to a new place under the guise of humanitarian work, are you doing more for the community, or is the experience doing more for you? There is a thin line between traveling to gain experience and using the information to learn in a useful manner (if there is one), and taking advantage of a place. “White savior complex” is a common phrase, but I believe that the definition should be more broad than some Westerner who visits war-torn communities, volunteers in unsustainable ways, and takes selfies with POC where the visitor is still the center of attention. Many NGOs are guilty of this same syndrome, never asking what the communities actually need and instead imposing their preconceived notions of good onto them.

What is truly beneficial is a complex network of intersecting trajectories. Some may consider that simply learning about the world and sharing these experiences is enough, however it is necessary to weigh out the positives and negatives of entry (particularly considering the profound carbon footprint, whether the money you spent on flights could have been spent on actually making an impact, etc.). The money spent on voluntourism and mission trips, (which are often unsustainable, succeed primarily in making the attendees feel good about themselves), could be used towards actually making a difference.

Sometimes international studies can be orientalist in themselves, and oftentimes people romanticize other parts of the world and try to help in a way that can do much more harm than good (The Exploitative Selfishness of Volunteering Abroad). Despite this, I believe that intent and application of these studies are instrumental in establishing if someone is taking advantage of others’ difficult situations for their own good, whether that be for their career, personal imagine, or sense of morality.

There is no easy answer to these considerations, it is just necessary to maintain a sense of self-awareness and to constantly be re-evaluating your intentions. This is something I am trying to navigate myself, and honestly don’t have many answers. Still, I try my best to keep a critical eye and to practice effective altruism, and encourage others to do the same.

Why I Will Never Go On Birthright by Safia Southey

Propaganda is not necessarily a monologue that intends to incite reflection. but rather works to produce echoes. Now, W.H Auden may not have been talking about Israel and their underhanded tactics, but his understanding of propaganda can definitely be applied to describe and explain birthright.

‘Taglit-Birthright Israel’ or simply 'Birthright' is a well-known Jewish heritage experience that many young Jewish people take part in. In its description, it sounds like a fantastic cultural experience that is packed with authentic cultural and historical experiences - and it's free! Unsurprisingly, this has led to me being asked the same question an umpteen number of times: "Why haven't you gone on Birthright yet Safia?” I continuously toss this question aside, having no intention of getting into an intense political conversation with family members and acquaintances who mean no harm - but then despite my efforts, I am bombarded with the same old slew of comments, "You really must go!” or  “It’s an unforgettable experience, you’ll just fall in love with Israel!”

But now, down the rabbit hole we go after all - once and for all I’d like to explain why I have never, and will never will, go on Birthright - even if it's free.

Taking into account the dozens of accounts of the trip, I can begin to piece together a slightly precise idea of the overall experience one receives from the trip; Sarah Rosenblatt, a popular illustrator, affirms that “The Zionist indoctrination I experienced on the trip was far more insidious and violent than I had expected.”

Escorted by IDF soldiers at most times, Birthright trips are meticulously designed to present a comprehensive flawless (and highly fictitious version) of Israel, ostracizing and obscuring any possible traces of Palestinian life. These trips, quite clearly,  are devised to establish cultural and political support for Israelis (which sheds light on why American Jews and the US, in general, are such avid champions of Israel); it doesn't end there though, the trip tries to obstruct the consequences of the country’s highly problematic policies that include but are not limited to:

  1. Israeli occupation of Palestine,
  2. an abundance of apartheid laws that actively discriminate against Palestinians in daily life,
  3. and the denial of rights to Palestinian refugees to return home.

I had a hearty laugh when I heard about various instances of tour groups visiting Palestinians schools - these school visits are intended to show young and impressionable Jews that YES! Arabs are in fact people too, and Israeli Jews and Arabs live in harmony and eat hummus and couscous together!

Ok, maybe I am being cynical, but what about the other elements of the trips? Another itinerary event involves quickly driving through Gaza with the sole purpose of saying, “look, no genocides here!” - the propaganda and manipulation are almost poetic at this point.

However, quite recently, Taglit-Birthright Israel’s education department made an announcement stating that all trips must cease any interactions with Israeli Arabs or Palestinians in their program. Brilliant! that was the authenticity that was missing from this propaganda trip - an established rule that now prevented contact with any non-Jewish state citizens. This is truly indicative of the problems with Birthright as Arab Israelis make up 21.6% of the population of Israel; they are a crucial part of Israeli culture and history. How can one truly learn about Israel, when they can't even interact with almost a quarter of its citizens? The idea that a proper dialogue was present before was quite ridiculous, but the lack of any remotely different perspective is frightening, especially for a 'heritage' trip. Tunnel vision is damaging,  multiple perspectives add multiple dimensions to any dialogue, thus neglecting and censoring them would be detrimental to actual growth or discovery - ironically defeating the purpose of Birthright trips.

To explain the depth of the consequences of birthright, bear with me as I share a bit of history and Palestinian perspective; during the 1948 Nakba, Palestinians were driven from their homes in the dozens, never to return. Many of them kept the key to their houses with them when they left and passed them down over several generations with the hopes that one day they would be able to return - not only can they never sleep in their own beds, they can never visit their own homeland of Jerusalem, the holiest place for most Palestinians. Now, in the status quo, take a moment and consider the 18-year-old American with a vaguely Jewish background, possibly not even Bat Mitzvahed, who is able to embark on an all-inclusive ten-day trip to Israel with every experience meticulously planned and censored.

Yes, I do agree, it’s a great opportunity for a free trip, but the pretense and political implications behind it are glaring. How can we ever expect to see anything but support from the young impressionable adults that only ever see such a one-dimensional view of their supposed 'homeland'? Furthermore, not only are these non-Israeli Jews given a chance to visit Israel, but they are also given the right to settle in Israel (with automatic citizenship) according to the 1950 Law Of Return. All these privileges while the while the people who built their homes and started families on those same grounds are locked behind guarded walls. It is well known that one of the primary goals of Birthright is to persuade young Jews to one day take advantage of the Law of Return and move to Israel. The intention is distinctly obvious, they are working towards ensuring that  the majority in Israel always remains Jewish, despite the presence of 1.8 million Arab Israeli citizens. The Israeli government is safeguarding the political power of Jewish people by maintaining this majority and thus will continue to build settlements and further assert their dominance over Israel and its surrounding territories, and subsequently the people who lived there before.

As Jewish Voice for Peace aptly explains, “It is fundamentally unjust that Israel’s Law of Return extends a ‘right to return’ to any Jew around the world, regardless of their personal familial ties to Israel, while denying the right to return to Palestinians, whose families have lived there for centuries.” If you cannot see the fundamental flaw with this ideology and legislation, than no amount of information or statistics will change your mind about why Birthright is a fundamentally bad idea, and why Israel is an oppressor.

Many a time, during these discussions, I am told that I am not allow to have an opinion on something or somewhere without seeing or experiencing it myself - this argument is absolutely incredulous and flawed. Will you discount a man’s activism and active involvement fighting patriarchy because he hasn’t experienced it? Is it inherently logical to shun perspectives and opinions of non U.S Citizens on Donald Trump? If you support this rhetoric of ‘No experience, no opinion’, all you’re doing is suggesting that it’s wrong for anyone who is not North Korean to comment on the country’s dire state and Kim Jong-Un’s tyrannical rule and policies.   

As someone who is majoring in Middle Eastern geopolitics, worked extensively in the region regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and interviewed people on both sides of the issue, I feel that I have as much of a right to an opinion as that of an American Jew who attended a 10-day  government-funded trip to Israel after graduating high- school.

Some of you have told me that taking part in Birthright is completely fine as long as you go in with a critical mind and ask the right questions - here’s the problem,  by doing that, all you accomplish is perpetuating an inherently corrupt system. In my opinion, refusing to go on Birthright is confronting privilege head-on, a privilege constructed on dispossession and injustice. If not from here, hear it from the educated activists at Jewish Voice For Peace who say, “Whether or not a Birthright participant has intentions to be critical on the trip, or to protest a settlement or join an anti-occupation collective after their trip, their participation in the program reinforces the interests of the state and right-wing organizations that shape Birthright programming.”

Here is some extra reading for those who are interested!

Travels by Safia Southey

“I’m jealous,” I whine to my mom, “I never have the same kind of cool experiences as you.”

She was telling me about her many adventures, living on contraband boats from Iquitos from Belem and escaping from a Moroccan prison.

She laughed. “Sometimes when you travel, you get caught up in where you are in a way that doesn’t allow you to fully process the moment. Write down your experiences, because while they may not seem life changing in the moment, they mean a lot more when looking back.”

So the following is a brisk look back at the years and the moments that I never want to forget. And while they may only hold meaning to myself, I believe that one of the best parts of traveling is being able to share your experiences and inspire others to seek and explore, to investigate the habitat and lifestyle of the other, opening avenues of communication and tolerance.



After exploring Ramallah on my own for several days, I got stranded on a Sunday morning when the busses weren’t running. Needing to get back to Jerusalem to catch my UNRWA bus back to Jordan and barely speaking the language, I hopped in a taxi - however, Palestinians aren’t allowed to cross the border and enter Jerusalem, leading to a very confused and stressed state when I was dropped off at a checkpoint and told that I would have to make the rest of the journey myself. Waiting in line with hundreds of people waiting patiently to cross to the other side, I was internally freaking out, seeing so many having to turn back after being denied entrance. Eventually I made my way through and immediately began sprinting from the checkpoint to the UNRWA office through neighborhoods of Orthodox Jews and Muslim merchants, stopping the bus just as it was starting to roll out of the gates.


In the Masai Mara on safari, a pack of lions circled our car after being chased out of the shade of a tree by an elephant wanting a nap, sniffing out the warm breakfast we had packed in the back. My father was terrified, but I kept asking the driver to slow down so I could take pictures.

In Zarqa I lived with an Arab family during Ramadan, every night eating with the entire family, going house to house to visit children, grandchildren, uncles, nieces. Sometimes they would all crowd in one of the tiny houses, eating giant dinners filled with mansaf and dates, with fifteen children giggling while using all the English they could muster. Sometimes, the little ones would even put a hijab on me, begging their parents to take pictures. I was the only Westerner in the area, stubbornly walking to work every day in the awful summer heat, inspiring confused stares everywhere I went. Once I happened to be walking through one of the refugee camps for home visits on the last official day of school, getting to see children of all ages bursting out of the classrooms onto the streets, throwing their papers into the air and enjoying the new sense of freedom. The young boys would shout at me asking for my Snapchat, while the girls would shoot me bright big smiles.


Eastern Europe with Genevieve was filled walking and coffee shops; vlogging and exploring; nesting at restaurants for hours and hours. We travelled through the mountains by busses that were so hot they nearly gave us fever dreams, being the only girls surrounded with old men who’d spend every break smoking while I danced outside in the frozen tundra without any shoes in order to cool down.

And while I’ve previously written about my DPRK experience, I may have ignored some of the bits including snake vodka, Icelandic chewing tobacco, illegally filming military checkpoints, binging on North Korean beer, some wild karaoke, smuggled currency, nearly being stuck there forever, and many, many jokes about stealing children.


In Erbil, I would wander out into the weekend markets, crowded with men trying to buy cheap shoes and goods for their families. I decided to take a shared taxi to Dohuk, having to pass through the outskirts of Mosul on the way. Once the other passengers left, the driver was worried about me gallivanting through Dohuk on my own and decided to accompany me through the streets. While giving me a tour of the area, he recounted wild stories and showed me pictures on his phone of his time in the peshmerga, brandishing a huge gun as well as a proud smile. When a few boy gave me some trouble on the side of the street, my peshmerga guide threatened to hurt them if they kept talking, leading to a few pushes that luckily got stopped short before an actual fight began. “Arabs,” he said, shaking his head, “they’re all terrorists.” Eventually, we began the drive back to Erbil, stopping midway to full up the gas. We ducked into a dingy building in the middle of a desert, miles away from any semblance of civilization. In this little hut were maybe twenty young men, playing decades old arcade games and screaming at each other over FIFA games on miniature tvs. We played, and although I was horribly losing, my new friend let me win a couple matches in order to save my dignity. Eventually we got back on the road, after a couple hours of me trying to figure out if I was actually going to be taken back to Erbil or if this was my new life. With no phone service or way to get back otherwise, I was completely at the whim of my Kurdish driver. I didn’t have an ID with me, so I was stopped at a checkpoint near Mosul and almost forced to get out of the car and return to Dohuk, the authorities not believing that I merely forgot my passport at my hostel. Luckily, they let me through after some intense begging, and I returned to my bed just as sunset hit.



Sometimes my adventures are even more impulsive – in Muscat, I jumped off the side of a 20-meter sinkhole and nearly fractured my lower spine, not being able to walk for a week.



In Bagan, I rode around on motorbikes and scaled the sides of temples; I got food sickness from delicious coconut rice while watching the sunset, and talked to locals about the refugee crisis. In Inle Lake, I got stuck in the pouring rain while out on a tiny boat in a floating village. I biked miles to a vineyard to go wine tasting, before celebrating New Years Eve on the rooftop in remote village and then in a tiny local restaurant with live music and kids singing while using tables and pots as percussion. I rode on the back of a pickup truck overnight through the rain on my way to the airport, crying at the thought of leaving.

I walked around the Vatican at midnight, drunkenly singing panjang umurnya to my best friend during a surprise weekend full of day-time mojitos and corny jokes for her birthday.


In the middle of a field in Dusseldorf, I took the most beautiful pictures of Sonia, with sun sparks piercing the frame as her green eyes blended in to the world behind her - potentially due to the synthetic mushrooms we had just taken. Later, Sonia left me in Paris for two days to spend time with her close friends because she thought I would harsh her vibe, leaving me to traverse the city, visiting every museum, garden, monument, I possibly could. I went on Tinder, not to find myself a boy to hook up with but rather for a tour guide, and soon I had myself a Sorbonne-going Parisian boy to whisk me around the city on his vespa to every classic site, zipping under the Eiffel Tower and to the hole-in-the-wall gems kept secret by the locals. And at the end of the day, he dropped me off at my hotel with a kiss on the cheek, wishing me a good conclusion to my Euro adventure. At one point Sonia and I paid a visit to Vienna, guided by my friend Nils. In the dead of night, we ventured into a local fair where I excitedly ran to a towering pendulum ride, being the adrenaline junkie I am. At the top, with the hot summer air whizzing past me and sparks of rain hitting my face, I had literally never been happier.

And while camping out in the desert during a hike to Petra, I danced with bedouins swinging swords until the sun rose.


I traveled to Amsterdam to see my friend from years back, and after tripping (literally and figuratively) through the Van Gogh Museum trying to figure out how Van Gogh created that wiggly effect on his paintings, we hid out in the Apple Store afraid of the outside world and genuinely weeping out of happiness at how far away we were from our toxic high school.

When I was much younger, my mom and I visited Turkey, bringing along pool floaties to make our cheap overnight ferries to Greece more comfortable. My first memories were filled with strange men in colorful markets making passes at my mom, along with some accusations of her stealing a small blonde child (herself easily passing for Middle Eastern). “Do you want a donut?” someone once asked us, a temptation no small child could ever resist. I begged my extremely resistant mother to follow him, willing to go anywhere for a free sweet. When we finally got there, I remember seeing the panic in my vegetarian mom’s eyes as we realized that he meant donar, not donut, nearly running away at the sight. There were a lot more memories from that trip that are placed at the back of my mind, including my mom taking us from hotel to hotel in order to escape from skeevy men, serving as a warning to my future self to stay aware, “woke” and careful.


Fast forward maybe 8 years to the era of college visits, when I got flown to the UAE to visit NYU Abu Dhabi. Establishing a little group on my first night, we would stay up literally all night, surviving off caffeine pills and waiting until the morning when the coffee machines would start working again. Trapped in our little dorm buildings covered with cameras in order to regulate the gender specific floors, we discovered a secret room in the lobby where we would hide out from the disapproving supervisors, our jokes growing more and more hilarious as our sleep deprivation increased. From taking mini-naps during the info-sessions to getting scolding for posing for pictures in the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in my burqa, from sand surfing during a feast made by bedouins to riding on camels through the desert, it was a complete blur. I remember everyone putting on beautiful dresses and suits for the final ceremony, a huge banquet dinner, and falling asleep while standing up while everyone was dancing and learning to sing a traditional song.


On a visit to Yale-NUS a year later, I pulled the same stunt, not sleeping for the entire school visit. Having already decided to attend a different program for university, I wanted to make the most of my time, finding a student in a similar situation and exploring Singapore together instead of sitting through the tedious organized sessions. Hiding throughout the campus to avoid supervisors, we walked 20 miles a day (partially due to being stranded downtown after the metro shut down), sneaking into huge malls after closing horus through construction sites and staying there until they opened again. Chinatown at 3am, truth or dare on rooftops, singing in the Butteries, messily dancing in Clarke Quay, and buying way too many Chomsky books at the beautifully oversized bookstores: with no sleep to break up the days, Singapore will similarly stuck in my mind as a glorious stream of adventures that could have easily all been a dream.


Recently my dad visited my school in the south of France, whisking my friends away on a road trip through France to Andorra for my birthday. The entire car hungover, we magically maneuvered through the mountains during a blizzard, thinking that at any moment we would skid off the side into the abyss below.


I am extremely lucky to have experienced the things I have, being provided with immense privilege in being able to go to all these far away places. I often find myself defensive of my adventures, why I travel so often and where I choose to go, creating internal dialogues full of self-criticism and reassuring explanations. And often even more important than the places I visit are the people I travel with, and it’s a sad thing in my life that I haven’t traveled with many people I’d like to, such as my grandmother before she passed away or my best friend Vy. But no matter what, I’m fantastically appreciative for the experiences I have had; whether negative or positive, they’ve left an impact on me and changed the way I look at the world; ushering me into new ways of thinking and being and ways that i impact my environment as much as it impacts me.

Myanmar From a Different Perspective by Safia Southey

In the Western media, the Rohingya crisis seems to be a clear-cut moral issue: the military is conducting ethnic genocide of the Muslims of Rakhine State. The basic narrative regarding the conflict is agreed upon by both sides: Bangladesh Muslims emigrated to Myanmar, settled in Rakhine State, requested citizenship, and began to call themselves Rohingya in an attempt to assert their own ethnicity and achieve political recognition.


This, however, is where the narrative changes. According to some sources, such as the BBC, terrorist organizations such as a group called Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) emerged from these Rakhine Muslims, and frustrated by their lack of representation began to attack the military in an attempt to gain political power. The military, in part due to a general fear of Islam in Southeast Asia, responded with extremely harsh attacks on the Muslim communities. This is a different narrative than what is covered in the West, which is best exemplified by a CNN article explaining who the Rohingya are: “They have been raped, tortured and killed. They have been crowded on boats and ping-ponged between nations that don't want them. They have been forced into labor and have no rights to their land. Rohingya Muslims are among the most persecuted people in the world, and once again, they find themselves running for their lives.” The reports of the conflict from the Myanmar government have been proven to be enormously dishonest, as while the military and government denies their killing and raping of civilians, evidence collected by the UN and other agencies seem to prove otherwise. The government has tried to account for these differences, saying that the Rakhine Muslims were burning down their own houses and villages. As one Bagan local, named Christopher described, “It’s frighteningly similar to George Orwell’s, Animal Farm. Some people may think that something’s true, but nobody really knows if something is true or not.” 

However, speaking to people in the country exposes a much more skeptical perspective. Outside of Rakhine State, educated locals admit that there are attacks going on in the western part of the country, although they maintain these attacks are not as extreme as is often being reported. Christopher explained, “I don’t want to say I can’t believe it, but I can only believe one part. People say that their child was killed, but you would not throw a three-year-old child into a fire for no reason; it’s hard to believe. If you write about it, you need to have something behind it. I don’t want to say I don’t believe it, but people have their doubts.”


Buddhists in Rakhine State argue a more extreme narrative, claiming that the Rohingya were originally Bengali Muslims brought to the area by the British in order to fight against the Rakhine and to work the rice fields. Now, hundreds of thousands of Muslims have come over the Bangladesh border illegally and are now referring to themselves as Rohingya, while raping and attacking villages in the area. The issue as explained by these locals is not that the groups are simply Muslim, but that they are terrorists demanding citizenship and political rights that the government will not agree to. Some even argue that the military is in fact defending the Rakhine Buddhists, and that though the Rohingya were offered an opportunity to become citizens, they declined, demanding further independence.

The Washington Post recently published an article addressing this local anti-Rohingya mindset, blaming new technology for spreading “fake news” fueling ethnic hatred against the Rakhine Muslims. As the article explains, “an endless stream of provocative photos and cartoons claim that there is no “ethnic cleansing” against Burma’s Muslim Rohingya minority. Instead, according to the posts, international news and human rights organizations are falsely accusing the military of carrying out atrocities against the Rohingya to help terrorists infiltrate the country, kill Buddhists and carve out a separatist Islamic province… A recent study found that 38 percent of Facebook users in Burma got most, if not all, of their news on the site. And news feeds in Burma are rife with anti-Rohingya posts, shared not only by ordinary people but also by senior military officers and the spokesman for Burma’s de facto leader, Aung Sang Suu Kyi.”


There is truth to both sides of the conflict, and it is extremely important to consider all available information (which is quite limited). Western media definitely has a bias to it, as seen with the constant usage of the term Rohingya, which carries much more significance and meaning to it than is recognized in most sources. As explained by a Myanmar local, “we have eight major ethnic groups and 135 minor ethnic groups in the country… Rohingya Muslims believe that by naming themselves they can create their own ethnic group and their own state as a Muslim territory. That’s not how it works.”

Further, it is necessary to note the differences in why the conflict arose in the first place, as while it definitely seems like a “textbook example of ethnic genocide” in an attempt to rid the area of Muslims, it was also a reaction to small militant groups. Of course, it was an extremely disproportional and extreme reaction on the part of the military, carried out on a much larger scale than the original small group which conducted the original attack(s).

The treatment of the Rohingya is unacceptable, no matter what the context.

I did not write this to excuse the military’s behavior or the mass killings that are being systematically conducted against the Muslim communities in Western Myanmar. However, it is necessary to understand the mindset of the people on the ground, and to analyze ways in which information about the issue is being transmitted; propagating only one version of the narrative and offer a multiperspectival approach to a highly complex and volatile situation.

It is also crucial to consider Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s role in the Rohingya conflict. She has been consistently attacked in Western media for not defending the persecuted Muslim population, however there is uncertainty as to what this would actually achieve. The military has an incredibly strong rule over the country, and her speaking out against their actions may lead to her being removed from power, further hurting the democracy of the nation instead of fixing the humanitarian crisis in any manner. Most locals continue to support her as one of the sole protectors against the military rules, “I always supported Aung Sun Suu Kyi and I still believe in her, and I think she is going to do her best on the crisis. She doesn’t care about the religion, she cares about the country, and she’s going to make the country good. I never liked the military government, and if they take power again for some reason I will try to get out of the country as I don’t want to risk my child if they take power again.” Alleging that while she could be doing more to defend the Rohingya, it is perhaps politically shrewd for her to negotiate with the military behind closed doors. We do not know if she is fact attempting to do so, but it is potentially unfair to write her off already as disrupting the democracy that she previously worked so hard to achieve.

It is also interesting to note the similarities between this conflict and that of Israel-Palestine, with much of the same language being used in regards to an ethnic minority being displaced and systematically killed under the guise of being labeled as terrorists. However, when the West has less reliance on the country being called into question or political and economic care in the matter, it seems we are much quicker to call out genocide and mass murder.


North Korea: Part Four by Safia Southey


North Korea is a strangely idyllic world. Pyongyang, looking like a 1960’s film depicting the future with it’s space-age skyscrapers peppered with neon lights, is filled with bikes, pastel colored buildings, and a focus on the collective goals rather than that of the individual. People are careful and avoid eye contact with foreigners at all costs, and the streets are clean with not a speck of litter visible anywhere. People are seemingly happy, immersed in pride and adoration for their country and leader, but it is only due to their constant busyness, complete ignorance of the rest of the world, and the intense regime of propaganda imposed on them daily. Locals are severely limited, having to gain travel permits to enter or exit any city in the country, and must provide rationale for any internal movement. However, things are somewhat less restricted than I previously assumed, with people out ice-skating, children exploring playgrounds, and locals even playing beer-pong with us. Resources are limited, with lack of power forcing people to carry around flashlights in order to make their way through the pitch-black streets and underground tunnels at night, and I am confident that food is much more scarce than my tour would lead me to believe. There is a vast oversupply of labor and a lack of genuine work to do so people are overworked with menial jobs to make up for the difference, rewarded with food rations instead of wages, only to be awarded actually money as a potential bonus.


There is a stark lack of factual knowledge in the country, but as one of my guides explained, “what locals lack in information, they make up for with life experience. While they may at times seem naïve, they have lived long and difficult lives.” North Korea is the optimal example of a dystopian society, and I am extremely interested in seeing the progress of one of the mostly unusually ran countries in the world. From hotels to museums to any old teahouse, everything seemed to open up just for us; it is bizarre how much heating and energy is used in order to keep up appearances for the tiny amount of tourists that visit in winter. While I am more than confident that my experience was a highly curated façade of the true country, I am happy to have seen it for myself, if only to know that it was the wrong thing to do.


The amount of money I spent on this tour contributing to the economy and in turn the regime is menial in comparison to the destructive impact that the tourists have on the local community and way that the society is formed. I understand that it would only hurt the locals if the tourism industry disappeared as it employs so many people, but I genuinely believe that the exploitation of DPRK residents and general havoc that foreigners have. From taking pictures as if they were in a zoo to playing music and being loud and often quite disrespectful at monuments and public buildings (even libraries) to forcing restaurants and shops to open up solely for tourists, foreigners create an incredibly destructive environment, perpetuating the government’s child labor and ability to force people to create a fake society for visitors. I admit that I am a complete hypocrite, that I took photos and bought souvenirs and supported this entire tourism industry, but I cannot express the vast amount of shame that I now feel.

My overall advice: don’t go to North Korea, at least not for a simple tour. I am considering returning for a school program, after discussing it at length with Ms. Kim, but I am met with intense hesitancy. The country is amazing, beautiful, interesting to see – but you will not answer any questions; rather, you will just perpetuate a long lasting cycle of tourism and exploitation of the local communities, and if you’re anything like me, be overcome with an intense sense of guilt.


North Korea: Part Three by Safia Southey


The next day, half our group hung-over from drinking too much snake vodka, we arrived at the highly anticipated mausoleum. We had received strict instructions for this event – no jeans, no sneakers (I had to pick up a pair of flats in Beijing as my normal Adidas were apparently not acceptable), men must wear ties, skirts and dresses must be at or below the knee, shoulders must be covered, no smiling, no laughing, no speaking, no photography (they confiscated our phones and electronics), bowing three times at each leader’s tomb, etcetera, etcetera. As soon as I entered the mausoleum, I knew I would not be able to follow all the rules; two wax figures of Kim Il Sun and Kim Jong Il, each 3 meters tall immediately brought a grin to my face. I would love to describe the room but the only thing I can recall was how bizarre and excessive the entire experience was, but that was only the beginning. Walking in lines of 4, we entered the rooms holding the bodies of the 'great' leaders; it would have been a strange experience in itself just bowing to the huge leaders in glass boxes illuminated by red light from the ceiling, but the sobbing Korean women in traditional colorful dresses added whole other element. Crowds of women and soldiers accompanied us into the museum, visibly upset at the lives of their past leaders. I smile a lot when I’m uncomfortable, so viewing this made me so close to laughing that I thought I was going to get deported, or worse. The women looked genuinely distraught, but I am convinced that they are taught to cry at events and monuments such as this, essentially dishonoring their leader if they do not. We silently shuttled past all the medals, honorary degrees, and awards that Kim Il Sun and Kim Jung Il received from different countries during their years in office, shocked at the mere amount. It was overall a very surreal experience, being immersed in such a sense of national pride.


This sense of patriotism transferred over quite seamlessly into our next big visit, to the War Museum. Filled with captured US tanks, fighter jets, spy ships, bombs that “the United States Aggressive Forces attempted to exterminate Korea with,” and pretty much anything that could be used to humiliate and discredit the United States, the museum had a very clear version of history and a message to spread. We were seated in a small theatre to watch a film called, “What Divided Korea?” the answer to which, if you were wondering, is the United States. In the exhibit called “Atrocities Committed by US Imperialists,” the guides explained how America used chemical and biological warfare in conflict, dropping poisonous insects and napalm in order to exterminate their enemies and “kill as many Asians as possible.” To be honest, most of the information they were offering about the United States is most likely true or at least based in fact, although I believe they greatly exaggerated some aspects of American influence and demonized intention that were perhaps not as malicious as initially intended, while also minimizing other countries’ influence. We watched a panorama (the largest panorama in Asia, apparently) version of war and conflict with the United States, filled with dead US soldiers and burnt American flags, overlaid with propaganda and eerie traditional music. I purchased a book called “US Imperialists Started the Korean War” on my way out, to delve more into this version of history. Our tour guide gushed over the exhibit back in the bus, speaking of how important it is in order for school children to learn about the past conflicts using such proof as the museum provides (how reliable that proof is, I am not entirely convinced).



We followed up the war museum appropriately with a trip to the shooting range, where I shot my first gun (an AK47). Most fascinating part was how there were absolutely no regulations for the guns, as they were being tossed pretty much anywhere, and I’m a little cautious of any place that allows me to shoot a gun.


My opinion of the country and feeling towards this trip changed dramatically on the fourth day, and now I feel uncomfortable being here and sharing any of the pictures I have taken so far. We visited an elementary school, which I was vastly looking forward to, as I absolutely love talking to children. However, as soon as we arrived it was like nothing I had ever experienced; the children were waiting for us in the courtyard holding on to silks, ready to dance for us in an elaborate weaving ceremony. After they finished we were hustled into a room with a group of children in ballet costumes who immediately broke into absurd acrobatic tricks that made their small bodies look like spaghetti; definitely not things I believed eight year olds could do. A string of performances followed, including singing, instruments, Ping-Pong, more dance, English language skills, and even jump rope.


I believe I started crying at about Ping-Pong. What I was watching was not school, rather an exhibition. Putting aside the anti-America propaganda lining the walls with imagery of rockets and “satellites,” it was the optimum example of exploitation, with these children putting on full on performances with complete costumes for random tourists coming in 1-2 times per month in non-tourists seasons and 1-2 times per week in warmer months. I knew that people were not able to choose their careers, that the government chose it for them, but it was horrifying to see how forced it was at such a young age. It makes economic sense for careers to be determined by skill, but makes for horrendous human rights conditions. People were in awe at the performances, wondering how long it took for the children to achieve this level of talent, but to be honest I do not want to know the conditions that brought this about. I was genuinely afraid for any student who played a wrong note or forgot a single step, I could see the flash of fear run across their face with a quick look to their teacher every time it happened. It was the most forced and disingenuous show of education that I could imagine – especially as it was winter break and school is not currently in session, meaning that the students literally came in specifically to entertain us. Even the language classes were a performance with the children singing, “I like English, this is my classroom, I love it here;” it was as if I was watching a cult in the midst of brainwashing the youth. It was child labor, a way to remind foreigners of how impressive their society is when in fact it just reminded me of how horribly messed up it was; it was a factory, churning out talented workers from the time they are born against their own will for the improvement of the nation. It is a perfect demonstration of community over the individual, with complete disregard for decisions or human rights.


The rest of the day seems like an angry blur now, including a trip to a library where the guide blasted Beatles in a reading room in order to impress us with their technology, completely disregarding the people actually working in there. In fact, they turned on the lights in a different reading room specifically for us; I genuinely cannot fathom the amount of special treatment tourists get in order to make the country seem so much better from afar. We visited a large tower, some museums, historical sites, the metro system. The most interesting occurrence that happened was when we arrived at some museum a couple minutes too early and watched as the people scrambled to turn on the lights and look busy, opening up solely for our arrival and most likely closing as soon as we left. This seems to be a common occurrence. I asked our guide about feminism during this time, if women desired more power in society. She told me that men and women were equal in the DPRK, women are respected and given the same rights, especially if the woman have lots of children. Like most questions I ask here, I was left unsatisfied with the mostly defensive and vague answers possible. 

The night continued with bowling, beer, and karaoke – a very strange capitalist American-esque experience in a very anti-American society. The next morning we arose at an early 5:30am to board our flights and trains. I was supposed to take the 23-hour train back to Beijing, but I apparently misread the information and realized that you can only use the 72-hour China visa if arriving by international flight, so at the last minute we had to squeeze me onto an already full flight. It was very chaotic and at times I thought I was going to be stuck in North Korea for quite a bit longer (the next flight was days away). As Kim, my incredibly sweet DPRK guide, sat with me, she asked me how I liked the trip. I responded with vague compliments, knowing that I couldn’t give my true opinions. She smiled, “Please tell your friends back home that we are not the same as western media portrays us, we are just like all of you. I hope you come back soon."


North Korea: Part Two by Safia Southey


We were woken up the following morning with a power outage, lasting long enough for us to scramble to get ready for the day in the dark. Following a traditional Korean breakfast of spicy soup and rice, we embarked on the three-hour bus journey to the DMZ. Our ride was filled with the information about reunification from our guide Ms. Kim, who explained that “reunification is the greatest desire of all the Korean people” as we rode down Tongil (reunification) Street. “Who is the leader of aggression war, and who is really working for reunification?” she posed.

Outside Pyongyang, the land flatted out leading to absolute nothingness covered in snow, with the sun peeking out of the mountains in the distance. Every so often we would emerge from our cozy bus into the frigid -11 degrees cold to look at monuments or stop at teahouses and souvenir shops, during which all the tourists swarmed around hand painted propaganda posters depicting the destruction of the United States, promising a future with a united Korea. On the bus, our guides spoke of nuclear war, saying that they only add to their arsenal for protection and would never threaten countries without proper provocation. “We welcome foreign friends, but will give no mercy to the enemy,” our ex-military host warned us. He told us that everyone wants to serve the army in the DPRK in order to serve their country, but the government refuses people and forces them to go to university for the advancement of the economy.


Eventually, we were in the demilitarized zone, the DMZ. A DPRK solider patrolled us around, instructing us about the history of the division between the Koreas and stressing the desire for reunification. With maps behind him, he recounted tales of the North invading South Korea when they were different dynasties, as the South was too heavily influenced by Japan in what the North considers the 'Japanese occupation'. The USSR and China came to defend the North, while the US and other Western nations defended the South. The DPRK soldier proudly spoke of how they captured the American ships and massacred their military, leading to the “shameful defeat of the United States.” He gestured at the tables holding the armistice text, with a North Korean flag as well as a UN flag, proclaiming that “the US was so ashamed that instead of using their own flag they used that of the United Nation.” It was incredibly interesting to see how proud they were of this US defeat, which I am sure Americans would not necessarily agree with.

Looking over the border, we saw South Korean soldiers manning the area, which is apparently extremely rare as both sides usually trade off days to welcome tourists. There seemed to be a United Nations delegation visiting the site, potentially because of the talks that occurred the previous day between South Korea and North Korea regarding the Olympics. Our hosts were hopeful about the talks and what kind of agreement the sides would reach, not only for the Summer Games but for future relations and potential reunification.


We left, after taking a considerable amount of photos of and with any willing soldier, off to our next stop: lunch. We stopped at a little house, where 13 different dishes were ready for every guest; I would love to describe what each one was, but I genuinely have no idea. The only thing I am confident of was the Sweet Meat Soup – otherwise known as dog meat. Surprisingly tender! After lunch and finishing our delicious dog soup, we embarked on another journey to a factory which produced ginseng products, with propaganda lining the walls telling the women to keep up production in order to help 'the best country in the world'. The factory was eerie, with the sense that they started production as soon as we stepped in the door and were already finishing by the time we left, as they hurried us out the door to prevent seeing the stopping of conveyer belts. Women guided bottles down the line, ensuring to look busy and happy although I am not sure what exactly they were doing; it was as if we were watching a play.

On the bus, I asked our guide as to why there were so many bicycles on the road rather than cars, “it’s strange here,” he responded, “owning a car here is like owning a private jet in your country, and mostly reserved for companies and foreigners. Same thing with the phone lines – we have two cellphone carriers, one for foreigners and one for locals, and they are completely mutually exclusive.” Soldiers shoveled snow on the road to make way for cars; I had been thinking about this a lot since the airport, considering whether this was just because labor was cheaper than machinery. I came to the conclusion that it was to keep the people of the country busy with their work, distracted from other national issues and with the quality of life that they may otherwise be unhappy with. It was similar in our hotel: our rooms were cleaned twice a day, not because they particularly valued cleanliness, but because nobody was allowed to work for only half a day.


Next stop was the super market: a capitalist wonderland filled with Korean rip-offs of European candies, washing machines, flat screen televisions, live fish, chewing gum, and even an authentic American waffle stand. It was as if we stepped into a different world, created only for the richest of the citizens and to impress curious visiting foreigners. Suddenly, people had phones, and were using Chinese chat apps and debit cards; you would have never known you were in North Korea. The market is the only place where you can get local DPRK currency, but it’s illegal to take any with you out of the country. With what I thought was chocolate (actually rice candies), Soju, some authentic DPRK chewing gum, and 15000 smuggled North Korean Yuan, we went to dinner.

DPRK typically meals start with appetizers, such as kimchi and salad, followed by a number of main meat dishes – also appetizers, followed by bi bim bap, the actual entrée, followed by rice or fruit or yogurt for dessert. It’s a lot. At our dinner, our waitresses sang happy birthday to one of the members of our tour and presented him with an enormous cake (which I assisted in devouring, as if there wasn’t already enough food for us). It was definitely an interesting experience, as people sipped rice wine or poured ginseng vodka into their teacups. We were all excited for the next event, a showing of the first European-North Korean film in the DPRK international theatre – Comrade Kim Goes Flying.


Best. Movie. Ever. The movie was about a young North Korean construction worker, passionate about her job and about helping her nation. Always enamored with acrobatics and the circus, Comrade Kim moves to Pyongyang for a new construction project, and auditions for the circus even though she is scared of heights. Although she horribly fails and gets made fun of by the judges (“miners should stay underground”), she trains, teaching her fellow workers tricks along the way. The movie heavily focused on the unity of the working class, needing to work together to improve the nation and show their power. After eventually leaving her job to pursue acrobatics (with the permission and encouragement of her father, grandmother, and supervisors, of course), and doing tenuous training to accomplish the quadruple flip trapeze act, she quits! She gives up, she misses doing construction and being a part of the working class. However, her mentor tells her that she has to continue for “Our Leader,” as he wants Korea to have the best acrobatics team in the world. She returns to the circus, accomplishes the trick, and it is hinted that she gets married to her trapeze partner (after his mother gives full permission/arranges it).

So. Lots to process. It was exactly what I assumed it would be in terms of promoting equality amongst citizens, necessity for unity, power of the working class, the love for work and extreme productivity, the need to please the leaders, and the desire to improve the country. As well, constant happiness and kindness! Comrade Kim had a rough time in this movie, but with the help and permission of literally everyone around her (nearly all men), she was able to accomplish her dream. Everyone was just so helpful, from random men on the bus, security guards, supervisors at work, workers at different firms – everyone. And in response, she Never. Stopped. Smiling. Even when crying. Never. I never knew how happy North Korea was! I was not expecting some elements in the movie, such as the slight romantic overtones, lying to supervisors and workers in order to get around the rules (in order to help the greater good, but still strange), the tints of humor (possibly not on purpose), and the joining of the circus. Both in terms of its cinematography and screenplay, it had a little ways to go, as most scenes were filmed in front of an obvious photo backdrop and the writing was a little too to the point, at times making very little logical sense. But, it all made for fantastic entertainment, genuinely recommend it to every person who may possibly have the opportunity to watch it.

At night, we visited the rotating restaurant at the top of the hotel where Otto Warmbier was staying when he allegedly stole a propaganda poster and was arrested, terrorized, and returned to the United States, where he died. It is said that he went exploring into the forbidden fifth floor; on the elevator, there was no button for floor 5.


North Korea: Part One by Safia Southey


As the plane began its descent, vast areas of empty terrain divided into sharp rectangles was all I could see. Construction sites peppered with mountains and covered in snow filled the land, with the promise of new development in the years and decades to come. Small identical villages were visible every so often in the middle of this nowhere land, not seemingly connected by any major roads. “No filming,” my flight attendant told me, as I positioned my camera outside my window. On the plane, they tried to sell me “Royal Blood-Fresh,” a soybean extract for thrombosis (“Who says you can’t grow younger and cleverer”); I didn’t purchase any. We were provided with the local newspaper, with strict instructions not to fold them in a way which hurt the image of the country’s leaders on front. In-flight entertainment was a sole screen playing a concert recording of a young girl in military uniform singing passionately, although I am not sure about what. Her airy singing filled the plane, giving an extremely ominous aura in the moments leading to touch down. Finally, we hit the runaway, the only airplane in site. We were in the DPRK; we were in North Korea.

There was a snowstorm the previous night, so hundreds of workers were furiously plowing snow to make way for planes. It goes to show how low wages are, or practically nonexistent, when it is less expensive to hire so many people than simply to use machine plows. The airport was completely empty, except for the people on our flight who were either other members of the tour group, Russian diplomats, or local businessmen returning from workshops and such in China. I had to change my phone to reflect the 30-minute time change from Beijing, apparently originally made in order to differentiate it from Japan. The airport was white and clean and stark, empty except for a small Duty Free packed with tobacco and whisky and a small coffee shop with Nescafé, and plastic greenery every so often to add some color to the otherwise plain building. Soldiers patrolled the area, studying foreigners as they collected their luggage. Customs was surprisingly easy; I kept being afraid that someone would suddenly realize I was American and send me home, but luckily that moment never came. Officers asked to see my books, my computer, my phone, and while they didn’t search them as I was warned, apparently they took hours going through the belongings of the people who came to Pyongyang over train while searching for any offensive or problematic materials. Outside the airport, the area looked like a lost relic from Soviet times, every car dating back to the 60s in pastel colors straight from a Wes Anderson movie.


We were hustled into a tour bus out of the negative degree weather, while being introduced to our Korean hosts. Our guide, Kim, began by telling us the history of the DPRK (I noted how she never explicitly used the name North Korea). Each house we passed by was identical out in the countryside, each a pale pink buried in the snow, all with frozen lakes somewhat nearby.

“Do you want to hear a traditional Korean joke?” Kim asked us.

“Okay: Father and son are quarrelling because son is stupid and doesn’t know one plus one equals two. One day, the son’s teacher scolds the father for not teaching his son enough when growing up, so the father tells the son that he must learn more and would be tested the next day. The day after, the father asks son what one plus one equals, and the son said he learned it, but had already forgot! You idiot, the father yelled, one plus one, what does it equal? What do you get when you put you and me together? The son immediately responded: Two idiots!”

After some polite laughs, Kim proceeded to tell us the rules of the trip:

  • No folding newspapers on the face of the leaders
  • Pictures must be of the full leaders, without cropping
  • No posing in pictures with the leaders
  • No photos of military checkpoints or of soldiers
  • No photos of individuals
  • No going anywhere without a guard
  • No spreading religion
  • No trying to find Internet - “research centers may pick up your signal and give us a fine,” Kim warned.

I was mostly focused on the photography rules, especially as I was going to be taking the 23 hours train back to Beijing and knew that my photos would be searched. Our bus left the rural areas and arrived in Pyongyang, which was drastically different than I had expected. We got out and began to walk the streets, passing by tall building covered in lights and hoards of people returning home after work. In the DPRK, people work from 8 to 6, with a long lunch break during which people nap in order to improve productivity, I was instructed. The masses blended together, with everyone wearing a variation of the same black or dark brown jacket with matching black or dark brown pants (not jeans, however, because that would be too American). We passed by a large copy of the Arch de Triumph, which Kim proudly said was larger than the original in Paris. Hundreds of cars zoomed down the highways in what I assumed to be rush hour, past the colorful buildings and shops on the streets. Large building complexes were being demolished, with construction sites every couple of streets. Kim explained that all houses prior to 2014 were to be torn down and rebuilt with newer, modern versions. We began to talk about our lives and where I’m from and such, and I asked Kim why she had decided to become a tour guide. She looked down at first and gave a little laugh, and finally said that she hadn’t; she went to school for tourism, and the school chose her to become a guide. She had no choice in the matter, she explained, most people in the country did not get a decision in their career. Pyongyang nightlife doesn’t exist, the bars close before nine, and people want to get back to their families although there is no state enforced curfew. We passed by dozens of statues and mammoth portraits of Kim Jong Un and Kim Jong Il, illuminated with power that any of the dimly lit shops we were passing would die for. After exploring the elaborate and surprisingly beautiful architecture for quite a while, we returned to the bus and made our way to the hotel.

The group of individuals on this tour is interesting, representing nearly the entire Anglophone world, from South Africa, England, Wales, Ireland, Australia, and Iceland, along with people from Peru, Mexico, Italy, Croatia, Switzerland, and little me from Canada. There were 20 of us in total, a mix of middle aged men, recently graduated students, and travelers in their twenties. Nearly everyone was traveling alone, except for two Italian brothers and a South African family – the son, a 19 year old who worked as a software developer in China instead of going to university had surprised his parents the day before the trip by taking them to the info session and saying “guess where we’re going!” While some people were actually interested in the area, most were just looking for adventure, something wild to tell their friends back home.


The hotel was lavish, all the workers being women in matching beautiful traditional colorful dresses. Our dinner looked like it belonged at a wedding reception, with flashing party lights hooked up to the ceiling (genuinely thought I was going to have a seizure) hanging over the ballroom with oil paintings of North Korea fully covering each wall. The women presented us with free flowing beer and course after course of delicious food; I felt as if we were receiving more food than was available in the entire country. My table broke into laughter after few seconds, joking about codenames for the countries we were discussed (South Korea = K, North Korea = KK, USA = KKK, and Japan = Sushi), asking the waitress if she had a tinder (she didn’t respond), if she would sing for us (she did not), and general jokes about all our different homes and accents and cultures.

Eventually we broke off into our individual rooms, decked out with full sized refrigerators, heated beds, and luckily, no propaganda posters.