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Biking the Balkans for North Korea’s Kids

UCSB Grad Suzanne Heibel Mounts Up to Raise Money for Beneficial Bakeries


Riding bikes through the Balkans in order to raise money for bakeries that support poor children in North Korea sounds like a good plotline for the next David Lynch film. But this good deed-gone-global is really happening this summer, thanks to the efforts of UCSB grad — and former intern for The Santa Barbara Independent — Suzanne Heibel and her fundraising team of bike riders.

After interning at The Indy, graduating from UCSB, and doing a short stint as a staff writer for the Hispanic Business Times, Heibel took off to Washington D.C. and looked for jobs in New York City before deciding to teach English in Asia. First was Thailand in 2009, and then came South Korea less than a year later, where she was taught kindergarten in Seoul until about one month ago. After learning to love bicycling, meeting plenty of friends from Eastern Europe and elsewhere, and becoming interested in the plight of North Korean children, this crazy mission emerged as her next step in life.

Heibel embarks on the three-month trip this summer along with her boyfriend, Andrew “Ski” Godlewski, and two other friends, Stephen Sessions and Katie Tibbetts. They’ll travel more than 5,000 kilometers through 13 countries, and hope to raise more than $10,000 to benefit the nonprofit organization Manna Mission’s Love North Korean Children project. She recently answered some questions about her upcoming adventure.

Did you do much biking in Korea? Had you done much before?

I started biking in Korea because I needed something to do out of my expat community in Bundang, a small city connected on the southeast side of Seoul. My two friends were really into cycling the countryside on the weekends, so my boyfriend Andrew and I bought a couple of $500 bikes and basically we became a foreigner biking troupe. Neither Andrew or I hadn’t done much serious cycling before but we learned quickly — very quickly! With our friends who run marathons and do Iron Mans, we had to! During the spring and fall (summers are too hot and rainy), we biked nearly every weekend we had free. It was a great way to see a part of Korea that most English teachers don’t get a chance to see and it’s seven or eight hours of vigorous activity every day. What could be better?

How much is the plight of North Koreans and everyday concern for South Korea? Is there more animosity or pity for their neighbors?

The North Korea-South Korea relationship is something very interesting to behold. Amongst the older generation, reunification of the North and the South is something they still very much want and strive for. Some of them still have family members — brothers and sisters or grandparents— t hat unfortunately were on the wrong side when the line separating North and South got drawn.

But the younger generation, they don’t have much family from the North. Their parents’ grandparents are dying off, so the youth are becoming more and more disconnected from their heritage in the North. As a result, their opinion toward their northern neighbor is one that is more hostile and apathetic. If reunification doesn’t happen in the next 10 years, it seems very likely that it will never happen.

Raising money for North Korea while riding through the Balkans is an interesting combo. How’d it come about?

Yeah, it is a bit of an odd combination! Well, I always wanted to cycle through Turkey and Greece and a two-week trip quickly turned into a three month, 3,000 mile adventure. It was actually Andrew’s idea to cycle for a charity; if we were going all that way, why not raise awareness for something that mattered to us?

Since all of the four cyclists that are going on this Balkans trip have been English teachers in Korea for two years, choosing a charity that had something in common to all of us was very important. We hear a lot of mixed reviews from South Koreans about their neighbors to the North and we thought it would be a good thing to show in our own small way that we appreciate how Korea has enriched our lives and this was our way of sort of saying thank you to them.

Although not all Koreans would support us raising money for North Koreans, there are a lot of hungry kids up there and winters are really tough above the 38th parallel. We’re just hoping to give back. Those kids could have been our students if the line between the North and the South was drawn a little differently. As a teacher, that is really something to think about.

How did you select the route through the Balkans?

We all love to explore the unexplored. I honestly never knew Macedonia was a country until we were planning this trip. We wanted to go somewhere unique that would catch people’s attention. Honestly, how many people have cycled Europe? I mean, that’s awesome but we wanted to go further and do something a little bit more different. Plus, I’ve always wanted to eat a Turkish kebab from Turkey!

What do you hope to accomplish with this mission?

On a trip like this we will definitely all be in amazing physical condition and all of us will be incredibly mentally strong — those are the me-oriented things I am excited about. But we, of course, are really excited to help Manna Mission raise awareness for child hunger in North Korea and to get people empathetic towards a people who are usually only seen as communist enemies. These children certainly didn’t choose to be born into such a harsh environment and we are hoping to garner a little interest, empathy, and of course a little dough to help out.

Do you plan to return to Korea? Any chance that you’ll get to go to North Korea?

Three of us — Andrew, Katie, and me — will be most likely returning to teach just for one more year. But who knows? Maybe we’ll meet someone who is inspired and offers us a job…you never know who you meet when you travel.

But if/when we do return to South Korea, the charity has told us we have a very good chance of seeing where the money we raises goes and actually see for our own eyes North Korea in its true form. We will surely be chaperoned and limited on picture-taking, but there is a very good chance we will get to go there and even see the children who receive the bread.

Have you heard much about what it’;s like there?

Our Manna Mission contact, Dr. Shirley, has told us some pretty wild but very sad stories about her visits to North Korea. When Andrew and I first met with her, we did so to see if this is the charity we wanted to cycle for. By the end we were completely captivated by her stories and we immediately knew we wanted to help this charity. I mean, the power goes out at least 10 times a day, workers at the bakery are given two bags of rice per month as a salary — and that’s a high paying job! Shirley told us about how beaten down the people were and how extremely harsh the conditions are. They are really, really horrifying.

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To donate, learn more, and follow along, see bikingthebalkans.com. To learn more about the Love North Korean Children project, see nkchildren.org.

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