Rutgers alumna and lecturer brings refugee monks to Newark Campus
Natalie Jesionka brings refugee monks to Newark Campus, students to Cambodia
Natalie Jesionka first encountered the monks of Myanmar in 2007, when she stood on the sidelines filming them for a documentary as they led protests against the country’s military government.
Returning to the region months later to report on life in the hushed aftermath of the protests following a crackdown, Jesionka, then a master’s candidate in Global Affairs at Rutgers–Newark, found their situation had altered radically. Threats of retribution by the junta sent the protest organizers fleeing into jungle hideouts in neighboring Thailand, where they awaited resettlement in the United States.
“I was working on a piece on the Burmese refugee schools in the Thai jungle for South African television, and the monks were living nearby in a secret Buddhist monastery,’’ Jesionka said. After they became reacquainted, the monks’ begged her to prepare them for the move by teaching them English. The humanitarian in her quickly agreed.
The monks spoke mostly of their hopes and uncertainties about their new life – snow, American girls, the overwhelming choices they would face – in a mix of Burmese and English. She sketched out images of an American life in pencil and crayon drawings. Since moving to Utica, New York, several months ago, they keep in close contact, calling nearly every day.
“We have a close friendship now. They’ve stayed at my apartment, visited my family’s home,’’ she said. This fall, Jesionka arranged for three of the monks to speak at Rutgers–Newark, where they urged a rapt audience of students, professors, and activists to stay focused on their country’s plight. It was the saffron-robed monks’ first university talk since fleeing Myanmar.
“I know they need money for the democracy movement and also so they don’t have to derobe and pursue other careers,” Jesionka said. “So I asked the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights if they could earn a fee by speaking about the revolution.” The talk drew media attention and other universities have since invited them.
Jesionka, who has spent much of the last decade pursuing a joint calling as a journalist and human rights activist, is also a part-time lecturer at Rutgers and directs the Human Rights House on the Douglass Campus. Her undergraduate class, “Human Rights in the Globalized World,” is an introduction to rights issues and ethical dilemmas, enlivened by her firsthand accounts of these conflicts from travels to South Africa, Chad, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Haiti, and Korea, among other countries.
But Jesionka is not just drawn to the grand conflicts splashed across newspaper front pages. More often, her call to “witness history,” as she puts it, leads her to “forgotten, neglected, and underreported stories’’ that often involve marginalized groups living in impoverished exile.
Before heading to Myanmar, she collected 30 cameras and digital memory cards to distribute to people living precariously on the Thai/Burmese border. Together, these amateur reporters are assembling 3,000 photographs of daily life there that will be shown on the internet, in blogs, and in Flickr accounts.
Recently, she led a group of 18 students from the Human Rights House on a trip to Cambodia to learn about the genocidal regime of former leader Pol Pot from scholars there and from archival materials at the Documentation Center of Cambodia in Phnom Penh. (The documentation center has a branch at Rutgers–Newark and scholars travel back and forth between the two institutions to conduct research.) The Douglass group met in Cambodia with Khamboly Dy, a graduate student in global affairs at Rutgers–Newark, and the first Cambodian to write a textbook on the Khmer Rouge.
The group also spent a week getting to know some of the more fragile citizens of present-day Cambodia – the children living at a garbage dump in the capital.
The child of Polish immigrants, Jesionka was raised with a global outlook. What prompted her particular take on the world, however, was losing a friend at an early age to domestic violence. Larger human rights causes became “a way to process it,’’ she explains.
She got involved in international campaigns by joining Amnesty International at age 13 and made a foray into journalism soon after, filming a documentary on Chinatown youth gangs that was sponsored by P.O.V., the PBS television series that broadcasts documentary films.
In 2004, while a Rutgers undergraduate, Jesionka traveled to Ansan, Korea, to document the country’s treatment of refugees, people she described as “living in shadows with few social supports or skills training.’’ She focused on a group from Congo, living at a migrant shelter. The group came to her attention following the death of a 3-year-old boy who was refused medical treatment.
UNESCO distributed her documentary, and it was picked up by Korean broadcasters. Similarly, her films on the perils of mining in South Africa have been shown on television stations in that country.
Jesionka is equally busy while in the states. She founded her first nongovernmental organization, the Prizm Project, in her dorm room as an undergraduate.