Birth of a Humanitarian

A course taken in her final year at F&M launched Bola Han ’02 into a career as an advocate for the oppressed and the displaced

Near the border of Thailand and Myanmar—halfway around the world from Franklin & Marshall College—a typical day for Bola Han ’02 resembles something most of us see only in foreign coverage on CNN.

She meets with immigration officers, police and border patrols; coordinates partnerships with NGOs (nongovernment organizations); and raises awareness about human rights violations, such as forced labor, arbitrary arrest and detention, extortion, restricting movement, and limited access to education and health care. As an associate field officer with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Han is often in dangerous locations with no electricity (she and her colleagues rely on office generators), no postal service and no paved roads.

But while Han’s work has taken her to some of the most remote places in the world, in many ways she is very close to a small classroom at F&M, which is where she says her work to secure human rights for people displaced by war and conflict began. Work she did in the course “Human Rights/Human Wrongs” led her to Thailand and Sudan.

“Ten years have passed since the class,” she says, “and I have worked four years in Thailand and Sudan, protecting and advocating for the rights of refugees and internally displaced people. The course deserves credit for opening my eyes and channeling my open-ended interest in international relations and public service into a specific field which turned out to be very gratifying and satisfying, both personally and professionally.”

In her senior year, when Han signed up for Professor Susan Dicklitch’s seminar that tasks students with building cases to support immigrants seeking asylum in the United States, she was simply trying to fulfill a credits requirement before graduation.

Instead, the course ended up laying the path for Han’s career in humanitarian work.

As a senior at F&M, Bola Han ’02 took a seminar that tasks students with building cases to support immigrants seeking asylum in the United States. That experience launched her into a career with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (Photos submitted by Bola Han)

South Korean by birth, Han grew up in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), moved to the United States in 1998 to attend college in Washington, D.C., and in 1999 transferred to F&M, where her sister, Sela Han ’03, was enrolled.

Han signed up for the Human Rights course, and had the transformative experience of assisting in a case that won asylum for an asylum-seeker from Togo.“An immigration judge granted asylum despite some conflicting witnesses, and the story was reported in the Lancaster local newspaper at the time as a success story of college students playing a role in the human rights at the local level,” Han recalls.

After graduation, Han worked at a law firm—which she quickly realized wasn’t her passion—then earned a graduate degree in international development from Brandeis University. She applied to the Korean Foreign Ministry’s junior professional officer program for the United Nations, a program the country started to increase Korea’s profile within the U.N. She was accepted and given her first assignment in 2006.

Han was assigned to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, known as the organization’s Refugee Agency—and actress and activist Angelina Jolie’s charity of choice. Han is passionate when describing the work of her division.

“When a war breaks out or general violence in a country threatens people’s security, or when people are persecuted for their identity or political activities, they flee from their homes,” she says. “In displacement, people are without homes, deprived of basic needs to sustain life, and vulnerable to abuses of human rights. (My agency’s job) is to ensure that people, even in displacement, enjoy a life in safety and dignity according to standards agreed upon by the international community.”

Han’s first placement working for the United Nations was with a refugee camp on the border of Myanmar and Thailand. Many people from Myanmar have fled their country due to military rule and conflict in the region. The placement also brought her back to where she grew up.

“I landed in the U.S. for the first time to start college in 1998,” Han says. “I marveled at its abundance and functioning systems and thought I had landed on another planet.” Returning to Myanmar, she says, was a “reverse culture shock. Spending time in the U.S. had raised my expectations for living standards and taking certain rights for granted.”

That first U.N. assignment was an introduction to human rights work: Han visited refugee children in detention centers and advocated on their behalf, cared for survivors of sexual violence and malnourished children, and lobbied the local government for legal protections for the refugees.

In 2010, Han’s second assignment with the U.N. was in Darfur, Sudan, working with internationally displaced people. The work involved assessing their needs—physical, legal or psychological—and providing aid. Additionally, she would help monitor incidents of human rights abuses within the sites of internally displaced people or stateless people and help appeal violations.

She was directly applying some of the skills she first gained back in that senior seminar with Dicklitch, associate dean of the College and director of F&M’s Ware Institute for Civic Engagement.

Laying the Groundwork

In the seminar, students are assigned the case of an asylum applicant from the Lancaster/York area. Han and her project partner, Gina Forte ’02, were paired with a husband and wife from Togo; the husband was in prison. An immigration attorney would represent the man in court, and Han’s job was to research supporting documents for his case. She and her partner compiled data and visited the applicant in prison several times.

“The applicant spoke French and limited English,” Han recalls. “My partner and I had passable French, which made it difficult to communicate the specifics and details, particularly through the (prison) glass.” Han was ecstatic when the man was ultimately granted asylum.

In the fall, Han emailed Dicklitch to thank her for helping her chart her life’s course. Dicklitch remembered her former student fondly.

“I was so very proud of her and thrilled that she continued her work in human rights, making a real impact in this world. Watching the video of Han’s work in the field in Thailand literally brought tears to my eyes (,” Dicklitch said.

“It is the most gratifying feeling for an educator, to know that your students have picked up the torch and are carrying it forward. We really want to hear from you. We really want to celebrate your successes and continue to help you along if you are struggling. It is a lifelong commitment that we make to our students.”

In 10 years, Dicklitch’s course has evolved, and she and her students have helped win 26 asylum/withholding of removal or Convention Against Torture cases. Han says her experience with the class is a great example of the power of liberal arts education, which emphasizes a combination of learning and doing.

“Liberal arts education can sound abstract at times,” she says. “But this class was very much hands-on, and the impact of our work was visible and immediate and gratifying. There was a human face to it.”

From Sudan to Myanmar (Again)

In fall 2012, Han was reassigned, again to Myanmar (her parents live in Yangon, the capital).

“The Myanmar I remember from 1998 was a reclusive state under economic sanctions and with a limited number of flights to neighboring southeast Asian countries,” Han says. “Now, foreign goods and people are found everywhere in the commercial capital and in different states.”

But Han’s current location, Maungdaw, in the northern Rakhine state, is “extremely isolated, surrounded by rice paddy fields and little else.” For the meetings with border patrols and immigration officers and raising awareness about human rights violations, she and her teammates often travel with armed guards and radios.

And for Han, a “tough day at work” can have very real implications for other people’s lives. But she remains diplomatic about any resistance her group might encounter. “Government reluctance to acknowledge the refugees or displaced persons and their basic human rights is often the source of frustration,” she says.

Han says what keeps her going is the “commitment and spirit of colleagues,” as well as the “kindness of the most deprived people and their hope and will to persist.”

In one example, on World Refugee Day, June 20, 2012, the refugees Han works with painted posters to celebrate. She recalls one that showed people suffering at the hands of the army and another that used a cliff to illustrate how the U.N. helps people move from harm’s way to safety. It is moments like that one that remind Han of the vital role she plays in people’s lives.

There are lighter moments, too. She spends down time with colleagues who all live in the same compound. “For fun, we go for a walk outside, surrounded by rice paddies, cashew nut trees, children walking with firewood, cows, trucks carrying fresh vegetables. We cook, chat, exercise, watch whatever is on TV and laugh at each other’s jokes.”

Han says the only work she could imagine being as rewarding as her current work is teaching, which she can envision doing as a second career.

“A good citizen who is aware of disparities and suffering—abuses of power in the world—is the seed of change,” she says. “My current work engages with it at a macro level, but an individual approach with students—young minds
that can be shaped—would be equally fulfilling and effective.”

Han characterized her professors and administrators at F&M as “extremely supportive and genuinely caring.”

“I am reciprocating the care that I received from F&M to third parties in my work.”

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1 Response »

  1. Dear F&M magazine,

    I read with great interest your article about Bola Han's work in Myanmar and with the UNHCR more broadly. I've also been involved in related global health work in Haiti and Tanzania through Partners In Health (NGO based in Boston) and the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, where I am a member of the faculty. If Bola were willing, I would like to get in touch with her about a fellow Brandeis University graduate.

    Thank you very much,
    Mary Kay Smith Fawzi (F&M class of '87)

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