Jin Sook Lee: Mother. Wife. Activist.

06 May 2020 17:19

*A Statement from Her Family

Since Jin Sook left us, on 7 April, my daughters and I have been in a daze, trying to find our bearings in a new life without her. We are swimming in sorrow, trying not to drown, hoping to reach safe shore in due time. We are also remembering her and celebrating her struggles and accomplishments as an activist/organizer, made poignant by sincere and powerful words of tribute from her colleagues and friends around the world. 

My daughters and I thank you for your words of comfort and remembrance of a fallen warrior. We felt through your words that our mother and wife had lived a noble life, though it was, at times, extremely difficult from our vantage point. And so, as a way of expressing our gratitude for your kind words and participating in a collective tribute to her, I would like to share some thoughts. 

As it is true with all people, it’s difficult to describe Jin Sook Lee, let alone in few words. As her husband of 27 years and as her friend of 30 years, I’d like to remember her through several words: simple, complex, focused, and basic. 

SIMPLE. Jin Sook laughed easily, belting out a roar, face turning crimson, hands clapping, after hearing a funny story or a good joke. Her tastes were simple. Like most people, she preferred simple home cooking and her own bed, especially after long travels. Our apartment was always clean, comfortable, and minimal. Her clothes dated back many years and sometimes decades, and her accessories were few (her most prized accessory being the zirconia earrings I bought for her in Frankfurt, Germany during the 2004 Book Fair). She liked bags but usually toted around things she had collected from labor events over the years. She liked being home, doing nothing. She enjoyed walks. Mostly, she enjoyed being around us,  her family, even if we didn’t speak, didn’t do anything, just occupying the same space. Watching a movie at home or a murder-mystery serial was our usual entertainment. 

COMPLEX. She was deeply immersed in major issues, such as: changing geopolitics and resulting threads of impact on women and migrant workers; the difficulties of lending support to vulnerable workers with finite resources of time, funding, and people; evolving labor movements in South Korea, United States, Europe, and elsewhere. She was always seeking and absorbing information, analyses, and insights about moving variables that ultimately affect workers. Racking her brain, she tried to devise a road map for various situations, looking for actionable practice that would have an immediate impact and contribute to a longer-term goal. She often verbalized these thoughts to the family, mostly me, to just listen and occasionally react. After returning home from field visits or major events, she emptied her bag of experiences and observations as she emptied her luggage of goodies that she bought for the family. She always had many heartwarming or heartbreaking stories about the workers with whom she organized. She told many stories, some as ongoing saga, about her fellow activists/organizers. Ambet (Yuson), BWI colleagues in headquarters and the regions, Rita (Schiavi), Peo (Per-Olof Sjöö), Gail (Cartmail), Kirsty (Drew), Chidi (King), Bill (Street), Carmel (Abao), Elizabeth (Tang), and many others have become famous names in our household. 

FOCUSED. As her husband, I sometimes got upset with her, because I saw her running on empty, running on fume. I tried to be gentle, diplomatic, or forceful, asking, sometimes demanding, that she be selfish and put her health before anything else. But she was always focused on her work, which was almost always connected to workers struggling at their respective work sites. 

Seven years ago, during her breast cancer treatment, which started with the gift of a cancer diagnosis on our 20th wedding anniversary, Jin Sook and I played hide-and-seek in our small apartment, where she often snuck away during family movie or TV time to make a call or email someone. Not understanding her motivation and always concerned about her health during that period of intense chemotherapy, I tried to coax her into surrendering her mobile phone and laptop, sometimes threatening her with an ultimatum: I would move the family to a remote mountain cottage without electricity if the phone and laptop remained turned on. This was playful initially but became a little heated after her calls became more frequent and her voice became more intense. Eventually, she explained to me about the preparations for World Cup 2022 in Qatar, about the significance and magnitude of launching a sports campaign to safeguard basic worker rights for thousands, about the immense challenge of building dialogue and cooperation with the Qatari government and FIFA while also coordinating with global trade unions and key leaders, and about the day-to-day struggles of migrant workers at the construction sites in Qatar. Her passion and sincerity silenced me, once again. 

Early this year, when her endometrial cancer returned after the final treatment had ended just two-and-half months before, she struggled with intense pain and fear, plagued by the thought of another grueling round of treatment and the possibility that she might not be so fortunate this time. And yet, I saw her on the phone and typing away on her laptop. This time, I was angry. I demanded that she stop everything and rest. Clearly fatigued and struggling to maintain focus, she said migrant workers in Qatar were quarantined due to the Covid-19 lockdown. Their tight living quarters put every one of them in danger, so she searched for both solutions and people able to make a difference. In a frail voice, she said, “Who is going to protect these workers?” 

BASIC. Oftentimes, Jin Sook’s words were few in describing her childhood, her upbringing. Over the years, she told me in bits and pieces about her mother’s death, which happened when she was age 15 and her sisters were ages 14 and 12. As a young teenager, who typically needs a mother’s warmth and care, she assumed the unenviable role of being surrogate mother to her sisters. Feeling empty and overwhelmed, everything was difficult, even cooking the next meal. And she carried a deep sorrow of losing her mother under difficult circumstances. But she worked hard on everything required of her as a sister, university student, young feminist/activist, grassroots organizer, and trade union campaigner, starting in Canada, then in the United States, South Korea, and Switzerland. 

I think she saw pieces of herself in women and migrant workers. Of course, she acknowledged she was privileged, compared to workers toiling in foreign lands, earning meager wages that sustain their families back home. But she identified with the pain of family separation and one’s longing for a loved one. Through her own immigrant experiences in Canada, she understood some of their struggles, in trying to adapt to different cultures, languages, rules, and norms. Most of all, she saw them simply as people with families, as someone’s wife or husband, mother or father, sister or brother, no different from her or anyone in this world. To her, lending support to women and migrant workers was both necessary and natural. To her, what really mattered the most was workers receiving fair wages on time and returning to their families unharmed. She never lost sight of those most basic and sacred objectives. The endless back-and-forths with governments, organizations, and people about international standards and protocols, agreements, site visits, etc. were all necessary parts of a journey that should end with the fulfillment of those objectives. If those objectives were not met—when workers were not paid their fair share for their hard work, when workers were injured, when workers died at job sites—she exploded with rage and anguished for the workers and their families. It was as though she failed and everyone and every organization involved in the journey had also failed. Conversely, if workers received fair compensation and completed stadiums and other structures without accident or death, if safety and training and decent work conditions were met, she breathed a sigh of relief and looked forward to another day of striving toward those objectives for workers so far away from home. 

When Jin Sook was young, she dreamed of traveling the world. She eventually lived the life she wanted. She loved her family; she raised two independent young women; and she saw the world, the whole wide world, not as a tourist or bystander, but as someone striving to make it fair, just, and humane. 

Kyung Kyu Lim

Geneva 28 April 2020