Meet Heidi Shin, 2016 Restorative Narrative fellow and multi-media journalist sharing the stories of refugees
Elderly women preparing to free dive for abalone and conch, off the coast of South Korea. For centuries, their work was considered base and a source of shame. But now, as the tradition comes to an end, there’s a new respect for the women, who have been the breadwinners for their families and the economic engine of Jeju Island. See the full story here.
Heidi Shin (@byheidishin), one of ivoh’s four Restorative Narrative fellows, is an independent journalist based in Boston, Massachusetts. Shin’s work has appeared broadly in publications and media outlets including National Geographic Television & Film, PBS’ To the Contrary, and PRI’s The World.
Although her stories range in setting and topic, they always center around people whose voices might usually go unheard. Shin has traveled extensively as a reporter. Whether it be riding with rodeo champions in Chile or diving with elderly mermaids in South Korea, Shin is passionate about connecting with her subjects and telling their uncommon stories in a meaningful way.
As an ivoh fellow, Shin is interested in a population that is often misrepresented and unheard: refugees. Throughout her tenure as a fellow, Shin will produce a series of audio and multimedia vignettes, sharing the voices and stories of resilient refugees in Boston. We recently asked Shin about how the ivoh fellowship has influenced her work as a reporter.
Gloria Muñoz: What initially drew you to ivoh’s Restorative Narrative fellowship?
Heidi Shin: In 2006, I worked on a film about North Korea for National Geographic – I spent months watching footage of some horrific acts – executions in forced labor camps, starving children scavenging for food. It weighed heavily on me. And I actually left journalism for a short while.
But then I came back. And just last year, I had the chance to cover North Korea again, this time for PRI’s The World. But this time, I discovered something new about North Korea. Human rights abuses still abound – but its borders were opening up, and young people were learning to think for themselves, about life in the outside world. In fact, young people were even wearing skinny jeans! People commented saying it’s the first time they’d heard a story about North Korea that gave them hope.
That’s when I realized I wanted to tell more stories like this – about places that were deeply broken, affected by the many injustices in our world – but show signs of journey towards recovery.
The ivoh fellowship would enable me to do this.
Muñoz: Tell us about your story and where you’re at in your reporting process.
Shin: I’m producing a series of public radio + digital stories about refugee resettlement here in the US. The first tells the story of a health clinic in Lowell, Massachusetts, which was baffled when thousands of Cambodian refugees arrived in the 1980s. The clinic wasn’t equipped to treat these survivors of torture, from a country’s brutal genocide. That is, until they turned to some unconventional methods, like inviting a Buddhist monk and a traditional Cambodian healer to join their team.
I’ve also been following the story of a young Liberian refugee, with some incredibly creative ideas for rebuilding Liberia. He’s bringing social enterprise to a country which survived 14 years of devastating civil war and then more recently the Ebola epidemic.
Muñoz: How is the fellowship helping you develop and tell these stories?
Shin: The ivoh community – the staff and our cohort of ivoh fellows have been wonderful sounding boards, as I’ve been crafting my stories – helping me to highlight the elements of resiliency in a story, while still capturing the hard truths therein.
Moreover, I’m encouraged to have found like-minded journalists and storytellers in the ivoh community. In an age of fast-paced digital journalism, Restorative Narratives sometimes require you to stay long after the other reporters are gone, and the headlines have slowed. That sometimes the story is in the weeks, months and even years after trauma, disaster, or grief have struck a community. This is when recovery happens, and hope emerges, often in a slow and complicated way — and these are the kinds of stories I’m interested in helping to tell.
Muñoz: What have you learned so far about Restorative Narrative?
Shin: Frankly, I’ve become a more resilient person myself, in seeing how resilient some refugees can be.
The Cambodian genocide survivors I interviewed – they were young women, when they were sent to the country’s forced labor camps, where they faced rape, torture, starvation and other atrocities. Now 40 years later, many continue to suffer from frequent headaches and insomnia, which are common symptoms of PTSD.
But one of the women I interviewed, Bonnie Chan, noted one of the keys to her survival is keeping active. Since losing her factory job, she spends her days ricocheting between the senior citizen center’s fitness center and her meditation sessions. The days the snow keeps her from getting outside, at age 64, she lifts milk jugs at home.
Another genocide survivor worked long hours during the day, and then spent his evenings volunteering – greeting even more recently arriving refugees at the airport, helping them to adapt to life in America. In serving others, he found meaning, and could ward off loneliness and memories from the past.
These stories inspire me. I’ve also learned that stories about people and communities recovering from disaster and trauma are complex – even those who are most resilient aren’t transformed overnight. They are steady journeys, with setbacks and the daily reality of grief, punctuated by signs of recovery and for some, astounding resiliency. In coming alongside survivors in this journey, I’ve learned so much about how to find possibility, and how to see hope.
Muñoz: What advice do you have for other media practitioners who want to tell Restorative Narratives?
Shin: Be patient. It can take a long time to build trust with survivors of trauma, and for an authentic story to emerge. Sometimes the story you hear the first time, isn’t the story you hear during a retelling later. In some cases, it’s because trust has been built, at other times our re-telling of stories, our selective memories are shaped by our immediate circumstances, or the filter through which we remember the past, at that given moment.
I like to come alongside someone’s life, and to hang out until they forget I have a microphone. That’s the kind of access I feel like it takes sometimes, to hear an authentic story.
Too often when people hear news stories about tragedy – be it war, poverty, natural disaster – their reaction is often to perceive those in the story as “other.” There’s a sense of a relief that that’s not me, and a certain wall goes up. My goal in telling a restorative narrative is to move people away from this kind of thinking. Rather, I want to raise questions and encourage responses, such as, “I’d like to know more about that,” and “That’s changed the way I see the world.” To garner empathy and potentially even ask: “How can I respond or what can I do?”
Related: Meet Christa Hillstrom, 2016 Restorative Narrative fellow and journalist learning about recovery from a joint-lock ninja in Fargo | Meet Dan Archer, 2016 Restorative Narrative fellow and a pioneer of Virtual Reality journalism