How adversity inspired these leaders to help others

08 Jun 2018 |

These three extraordinary people are using the difficulties and troubles they have faced to make sure that other people do not suffer in the same way. Their adversity has prompted both study and education in order  to make the world a better place.

They told their inspirational stories to delegates at the closing plenary of the Global Education & Skills Forum 2018 in Dubai.

Sungju Lee is now working on a PhD on Korean unification after being smuggled out of North Korea as a teenager by his father. Before he escaped, he had been living on the streets as part of a street gang, forced to beg, steal and forage for food to survive.

He had started life as part of a privileged military family in North Korea, but his father fell out of favour with the regime and was forced to flee.

A life devoted to reunification

After his father smuggled him into South Korea, he managed to resume his education, before going on to study in the UK and the US.  But adjusting to life outside of the brutal regime he had left behind was not always straightforward.

He described the moment to delegates at the Global Education & Skills Forum when he finally understood the concept of freedom. “I needed a pen, and went into a shop,” he recalls, he tried each different pen before suddenly realising he was “free” to choose the one he wanted.  

“What freedom means to me is choosing a pen that I like,” he told delegates.

Having lived through hardship and hunger in North Korea, and then struggling to make sense of life in South Korea, he has now devoted his life to the reunification of both Koreas.

His dream is to build a bridge between North Korea and South Korea, and believes it can happen within a generation.  “Hope is never lost,” he concluded, “unification will take time, but it will happen.”

The power of coding

Teenager Emma Yang built the Timeless app after watching her much-loved grandmother struggling with alzheimer’s.

When she was seven, her grandmother forgot her birthday. This was the start of a pattern of forgetfulness that eventually came to be diagnosed as alzheimer’s, and it was not just special days and appointments that were being forgotten, but also the people she loved.

The experience of watching the decline of her grandmother inspired Emma to make the app Timeless, after having fallen in love with coding as a young child. The app she created offers alzheimer’s patients the chance to recognize people through facial recognition tools, helping them to stay connected and engaged with friends and family, as well as reminding them of appointments and tasks.

Bill Gates has recently tweeted his admiration for the project, and it has also won the $50,000 prize at the Women Startup Challenge Emerging Tech.

“Children are only bound by their imaginations,” Emma Yang told the conference, calling for children to receive more support to help achieve their aspirations.

Creating an inclusive society

Rodrigo Mendes’ life was turned upside down when he was shot in his home country of Brazil, and was left paralysed from the shoulders down.

He had been an able student and a keen soccer player, but his disability forced him to drop out of school because of the therapy that he needed.

It was this situation that led to his lifelong passion to make sure disabled people are fully included in society, whether that is in sport or education.

“It is not acceptable to separate people based on their differences,” he told delegates. “The complete separation between the Olympics and Paralympics is incompatible with an inclusive society,” he said, calling for the Olympic flame to stay lit between the two games.

Having seen how the education of many of his peers at hospitals and clinics was overlooked, he was determined to change this.

He now campaigns for the rights of all disabled people to receive an education, proving how his own adversity has served to help others.

Now in its sixth year, the Global Education & Skills Forum welcomes global leaders and education practitioners to solve education, employment and equity for all. Follow us onFacebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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