Global Issues TED Talks

6 talks about incredible escapes

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Hyeonseo Lee talks about life growing up in North Korea at TED2013. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

North Korea is one of the most isolated countries in the world. So it’s exceptionally rare to hear a first-hand account of life there — in English, no less.

Hyeonseo Lee: My escape from North Korea Hyeonseo Lee: My escape from North Korea In today’s brave talk, given at TED2013, Hyenseo Lee gives a riveting account of what it was like to grow up in North Korea. “I thought my country was the best on the planet,” she says. “I was very proud … I often wondered about the outside world, but I thought I would spend my life in North Korea — until everything changed.”

Lee tells of seeing her first public execution at age 7, and witnessing the death and desperation around her during the terrible famine of the 1990s. She doesn’t actually remember much about her escape — only that, at age 14, she was sent to stay with distant relatives in China. She ended up living there on her own and wouldn’t see her parents again for another 14 years.

It’s easy to think that, once the border is crossed, the worst is behind a North Korean refugee. But Lee tells her story to stress the point that the struggle continues long after. In China, Lee lived under the constant threat of discovery — which would end with her being deported to face execution, torture or imprisonment. Even after seeking asylum in South Korea in 2008, Lee says life was still hard as she faced a deep depression adjusting to a new life all over again. And then she discovered that her family was being targeted after money she sent home was intercepted.

To hear this powerful story, watch the talk. And here, see more stories of escapes from incredible circumstances.

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Sophal Ear: Escaping the Khmer Rouge
TED Fellow Sophal Ear’s family is Cambodian, but he grew up in Vietnam. At TED2009, he tells the story of how the Khmer Rouge forced his parents to leave their home in the city of Phnom Phen and work in a labor camp. And how his mom had the foresight to get them out, using her crude knowledge of Vietnamese.

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Jacqueline Novogratz on escaping poverty
The Mathare Valley slum outside Nairobi is known for poverty, drug use and poor sanitation. In this talk from TED2009, Jacqueline Novogratz tells the story of Jane, a mom who had to work as a prostitute there but dreamed of being a doctor. She reveals how a sewing machine helped Jane out of poverty and enabled her to fulfill her dream of helping others.

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Leslie Morgan Steiner: Why domestic violence victims don’t leave
Leslie Morgan Steiner thought she’d found true love in her early 20s. Instead, she found herself married to a man who regularly pointed a gun at her head and routinely abused her. In this talk from TEDxRainier, Steiner tells the story of how she escaped — by breaking the silence that surrounded her situation and telling everyone she could.

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Kevin Bales: How to combat modern slavery
Modern slavery exists because it underpins industries in Asia, Africa, South America and, well, everywhere but Iceland and Greenland. In this talk from TED2010, Bale shares personal stories from his research that shows that people tend to voluntarily step into slavery because their families are hungry — and then aren’t able to escape. The key to ending this? Breaking the idea of people as disposable.

Theresa Flores: Find a voice with soap
As a teenage girl in the Michigan suburbs, Theresa Flores found herself manipulated into a human trafficking ring. Now, she tries to help girls in this situation. At TEDxColumbus she shares an idea — how wrappers on bars of soap in motels could give women the resources they need to find help.