Stars of environmental ecology launched in foreign country
▲The KUSSO members at the ship graveyard near the Aral Sea
Good things have strength. When you have done something good with good people, even those bad and difficult moments are remembered as part of a beautiful memory. Most of our fond memories are borne from good things overwriting bad things. For KUSSO volunteers, being young is a part of it. They even reminisce about the painful moments when they all suffered from enteritis as ‘fun’ moments because they were together. Working as volunteers in a country far from their home, they shared unforgettable memories and created unbreakable bonds. Metaphorically speaking, they painted one of the pages in their early days with rainbow colors, and their eyes shine with bright ideas and absolute trust with one another.
“All you can see on the way to the Aral Sea is a desert. It took over 10 hours to get there and back by jeep. The roads were unpaved. They were so rough that we could not sit tight in our cars. It was very painful for us to drive on unpaved, seemingly endless roads, especially when we all were suffering from enteritis. However, ironically, I recall it as a happy moment. There was nothing we could do but talking on our ride to the destination. We talked about our stories and dreams. It could be the hardest time but we shared the happiest memory.”
▲Attendees showing their enthusiasm at a conference held in Uzbekistan
▲A child met during the expedition in Uzbekistan
‘The Aral Sea Expedition for Environment, Ecology, and Sanitation’ was an overseas volunteer program for the summer season which was developed by the members of the KUSSO and sponsored by Korea University in commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the social service organization. The Aral Sea in Uzbekistan has long been regarded as a representative of global environmental issues such as deforestation, environmental pollution, drinking water contamination, and disease. Situated on the border with Kazakhstan, the Aral Sea was once the world’s fourth largest lake. In 1960, then Soviet government constructed two dams and changed the water path to secure water for agricultural use. This has gradually caused serious impact on the lake, reducing the total amount of water by 90%. The KUSSO addressed the environmental, ecological, and sanitary issues incurred by the shrinking Aral Sea. It planned a five-region tour conference to have in-depth discussions with students from local communities in those five regions. This was the journey—a trip of 1,600 kilometers from Tashkent to the Aral Sea from Aug. 14 to 26-- begun.
“Most of the volunteer programs related to environmental issues are known as ‘labor-intensive service.’ They all focus on restoring the environment through labor. We decided to take a different approach. Uzbekistan is one of the countries with the lowest GDPs in the world. When international companies take natural gas from the Aral Sea without any prior consent, villagers living nearby do not think it as a serious problem because the money they earn immediately comes first. Many students in Uzbekistan are also primarily concerned about economic issues rather than environmental ones. We wanted to change their mindset towards the environment if we could, so that they can take their very first baby step to protect their own environment. That was why we chose to hold a conference with them, not to provide a typical, labor-intensive service.”
▲The KUSSO went on a 3,200km-long round trip from Tashkent to Nukus.
Conference for Growth
The expedition team comprised 5 key members from the KUSSO and 16 general students. The team was named as ‘KUARA,’ a coined term with KU (Korea University) and Aral. They were divided into 4 sub-teams, each of them preparing for a conference on different subjects. Ha-bin Park (’16, Department of Spanish Language and Literature), Soo-hyun Choi (’14, School of Biosystem and Biomedical Science), and Ji-hyun Kim (’16, Department of Nursing) acted as leaders for the sub-team 2, 3, and 4, respectively. Ye-ju Lee (’15, Department of Nursing) was the captain of the entire expedition team. Ji-in Chung (’15, Division of International Studies), who unfortunately could not go on the journey for personal reasons, still worked as a strong supporter for the team.
“We had four workshops before we left, but once we got there, things were different from what we had expected. Facing those unexpected moments and going through some time times, we learned a lot. When it came to our fifth conference, which was the last, we realized that we made fewer mistakes and got better in emceeing than before. We learned what it felt like growing up while facing challenges.”
At the 1st conference held in Tashkent, the KUSSO members encountered a few setbacks. Originally, it was agreed there would be presentations from speakers at the Tashkent State University of Economic, but the venue was changed abruptly, just two days before the conference, to Turin Polytechnic University. What’s made things worse was that due to lack of promotional efforts, less than 10 local students came to the conference. Master’s degree holders and PhD holders of the university had to present on their own thesis rather than on environmental issues. The interpretation service was not smoothly provided. Everything they had prepared seemed to come to nothing.
▲The KUSSO members successfully communicated with local students in Uzbekistan through a series of conferences they planned and coordinated.
“We stayed up all night fixing problems. The next day, we had a 2nd conference planned at the KOICA’s Vocational Training Center in Samarkand. We fixed all the problems by 3 a.m. and moved to the next destination only two hours later. We were all set and good to go. Fortunately, the second conference was received well. Many of the attendees had learned the Korean language before and were friendly to our country. They stayed in their seats till the end of the conference, cheering for presenters enthusiastically. We also put performances on stage, which we did not dare to do at Turin Polytechnic University. Actually, we prepared quite a lot of performance including K-pop, a violin solo, K-pop duet songs, and the traditional Korean mask dance. After all of our performances finished, we had a time to dance to the traditional Uzbekistani music together with the conference participants. It was the moment we finally recovered our confidence.”
The 4th conference, which took place in the Urgench National Defense Center, was also supposed to be held in a different place. However, 21 members of the expedition team did not panic any more. Instead, they assigned different roles and responsibilities to each of the members. This expedited the preparation process for the conference despite such a sudden change of the venue. Even after the kinks were worked out in the conference series, the team members did not rest on their laurels. They had numerous overnight meetings as they perfected the conference organization. Foremost on their mind was how to capture participants’ attention and motivate them. Their efforts finally paid off when the last conference successfully took place at Nukus Medical College. The preparation work done by the team was great, and the presentations and performances prepared by the medical college were second to none. The conference was even broadcasted by a local news network. It was an unforgettable memory for everyone involved.
“Before the 5th conference, we went to the Aral Sea and realized how horrible the real situation was. The water stank, and dead insects were floating in the water. We also went to the ship graveyard. It had once been the sea, but due to deforestation, ships had been abandoned and the area became a graveyard for ships. Standing there and looking at the reality, we understood in our hearts why we needed to preserve the environment.”
▲Ships abandoned due to the receding shorelines of the Aral Sea
The sea had become so small, but the night sky still stretched to infinity. When they spent a night at a lodging house on the desert near the Aral Sea, the team members lay on the terrace of the house. Listening to a song titled ‘Through the Night’ by IU, they looked up the star-studded sky. Those moments they cried or laughed together were remembered in their heart as a sort of music video.
“Nowadays, we are involved in a program operated in collaboration with the Seongbuk District Health and Multi-cultural Family Support Center. The program, offered every other Saturday, is called the ‘Rainbow School’ and is designed to support children from multi-cultural families. I feel truly happy and grateful for that I can do something good with my good friends.” This is a sort of friendship that has solidified through volunteering together. Youth with a warm and sincere heart cannot be more beautiful than theirs.