Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Journalist's adventures lead to lessons

Hailey resident Karen Day shares thoughts on Myanmar, humanitarian goals

Express Staff Writer

Independent journalist Karen Day shares tales of her recent trip to Myanmar with the fifth-grade class at The Community School in Sun Valley on Monday, Oct. 8. Day encouraged children to become ?courageous travelers? and to look for different ways to help those in post-conflict countries.Express photo by Jon Duval

"I love to come and talk to the kids because they are the most impressionable," said Karen Day, a self-professed humanitarian journalist, after regaling a class of fifth-graders with her most recent, and dangerous, adventure.

Day, a Hailey resident when not traveling to some of the more dangerous locales around the globe, recently returned from the Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar (formerly Burma), a mere month before a series of internationally televised protests began. This was her second trip in a year to the impoverished, war-torn country, which has been ruled by a repressive military junta since 1988. The end goal is to interview Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy—Myanmar's most notable opposition group—and winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, who has been under house arrest in Yangon for four years. She has been under house arrest or in prison for 11 of the past 18 years.

While Day continues the frustrating task of convincing the Myanmar government to allow Kyi to meet with members of the international media, she took time to share what she's learned about life in a place few would consider a tourist destination.

"I travel to post-war zones and try to give people who don't have a voice the chance to speak out," Day said during an interview last week at The Community School in Sun Valley.

This was the second time teacher Beverly McNeal had invited Day to speak to her class of 10- and 11-year-olds. Previously, Day shared stories about Afghanistan, where she was one of the first Western females into the country after the Taliban fell from power.

"Karen is a wonderful speaker," McNeal said. "She's energetic and able to hold the attention of 10-year-olds for over an hour with her engaging but sad tales of life in Afghanistan."

Day is currently finishing up her memoir about her travels, titled "The Last Time I Committed Suicide." She discovered her interest in humanitarian work in 2002 when she traveled to Afghanistan with Zainab Salbi, the founder of Women for Women International, a nonprofit organization that supports women in conflict or post-conflict environments.

"I got into this because I was a spectacular failure at writing fiction," the 53-year-old Day said, laughing. "What I was doing was entertaining to me, but not meaningful."

This was no small change in trajectory for Day, who was living and writing in Mill Valley, Calif., after running a successful talent agency for 10 years in San Francisco. Day saw Salbi speak and the ensuing five years have taken her to some of the more hostile countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

"It's like Orwell's '1984' with spies in every neighborhood," Day said of the Myanmar capital of Yangon, where residents attempt to gain favor with the local police force. "People live in fear, but it's a different kind than you find in Baghdad. In Myanmar, it's reprisal from the government and military rather than roadside bombs."

Day said the tremendous amount of corruption is noticeable, especially as the booming economies of Myanmar's neighbors India and China vie for valuable resources, from natural gas to teak, in addition to opium highly sought after by the Russian Mafia.

"Always go in the back door and keep your head down," Day said of entering environments where her work isn't exactly looked upon highly by those in charge. "And make sure you carry lots of cash."

As an independent journalist, Day said she faces fewer restrictions than her network counterparts, who are not only under the watchful gaze of governments prone to heavy censorship, but also companies worried about the liability of their employees. This allows Day to work herself into positions inaccessible to other journalists, as evidenced by a recent deal with NBC for Day's video footage of conditions in Myanmar.

"It also helps that I'm a Western woman with chutzpah," said Day, whose first trip to Idaho eight years ago resulted in the purchase of the Salmon River Lodge in Stanley. "I can weasel my way into a lot of situations that men can't."

"I can't believe Karen can see so much suffering and not get depressed," McNeal said after Day wrapped up a question-and-answer session with her students. "When you hear Karen's story, you realize how lucky we are and how truly horrible are some of the things that they do to people in other countries."

Day, who has four children, including a boy less than 2 years old, said that despite the fact that her work usually falls within the realm of adult interest, McNeal's elementary school class is a perfect audience.

"These kids are so fortunate to be able to travel," Day said. "They have an understanding of how much we all have in common, but they're growing up with an immunity to violence, especially because of the news coming from the Middle East every day. It's important to personify it."

Day said she hopes that her visits will encourage students to help make changes however they can.

"There's no easy answers to this type of situation," Day said of Myanmar, where the infant mortality rate is one of the highest in the world and the annual income is $142 per year. "It's important to carry information in and out of the country."

For Day, this means traveling to countries of conflict, even if the U.S. State Department issues travel warnings against doing so.

"These kids have a chance to make a difference, but they have to be brave," Day said of the Sun Valley students. "They have to be courageous travelers."

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