Northwestern University in Qatar students Juyoung Choi and Saad Ejaz have won international acclaim for their film on Yemeni refugees in South Korea – and say their Education City experience has transformed their lives and goals.
They may have been born thousands of miles apart, but Qatar Foundation students Juyoung Choi and Saad Ejaz both harbored and pursued the very same childhood ambition: to become global storytellers and hold a mirror to society through the art of film-making.
For 22-year-old Choi, who was born in South Korea but spent much of her childhood across the Middle East, what acted as a catalyst for the path she would go on to take were the false perceptions from those in her home country about the Arab world.
“It was heartbreaking to see how many South Koreans had negative perceptions about the Middle East, and Arabs,” she said. “This was mainly caused by a lack of resources in Korea’s media and triggered by fake news in Korean media, and this largely affected the Yemeni refugee crisis in South Korea.”
It led to Choi becoming adamant about pursuing a career to dispel fake news and show human injustices across the world.
Meanwhile, for Ejaz, a Sony video camera gifted to him at the tender age of seven ignited a passion for filmmaking that has never diminished.
“The seven-year-old me would take that camera everywhere, filming myself and my family and then playing the best bits to anyone polite enough to watch,” the 21-year-old recalls.
The pair would later meet when they began their higher education at Northwestern University in Qatar – a Qatar Foundation (QF) partner university – with Choi studying a major in Communication, and Ejaz studying Journalism. Both keen storytellers, they met through The Daily Q, Northwestern Qatar’s student-run online newspaper, and quickly forged a firm friendship. And through being within the academic environment of QF – which, over the past 25 years, has built an educational ecosystem offering a real-world learning experience that empowers young people to realize their potential – that their creative horizons expanded.
We were good partners, so we were always interested in working on a project together. We were both passionate about doing stories on migrants and refugees
“We were good partners, so we were always interested in working on a project together,” said Choi. “We were both passionate about doing stories on migrants and refugees.”
Separately, the pair were already notching up accolades and achievements. Choi’s time at Northwestern Qatar led to her becoming a Pulitzer Center Reporting Fellow, enabling her to report on Yemeni refugees in Jeju Island, South Korea.
Similarly, Ejaz gained international expertise, including reporting for the Guardian newspaper in New York on voting rights in the US. He was also elected to be a Rosalynn Carter Fellow for Mental Health Journalism, during which he worked on animating an explanatory piece about mental health through the effects of violence in Pakistan.
Together, they wanted to do more to showcase human rights issues, and devised the idea for their first joint-funded film venture - Home to Home: How A Yemeni Refugee Found Love in South Korea.
“The film is about a Yemeni refugee, Mohammed Ameen, in South Korea,” explained Choi. “He came to Jeju Island from Malaysia hoping for a better quality of life, as the living conditions for refugees in Malaysia worsened.
“In Jeju Island, Ameen met Ha Min-Kyung, who hired him as a chef. Min-Kyung wanted him to help run the Yemeni restaurant she had opened for the Muslim refugees from Yemen. As they worked together, Ameen and Min-Kyung fell in love and eventually got married.
“The theme of the film focuses on harmony and peace; how, despite the cultural differences between Koreans and Yemenis, there’s always room for acceptance and love.”
The pair applied for a reporting grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and their proposal was selected to represent Northwestern Qatar. With funding in place, the duo were able to begin filming.
“For pre-production, it was challenging to get in touch with refugees in South Korea while we were still in Qatar,” said Choi. “We had to build a relationship with sources while we were thousands of miles away.
As a filmmaker and a student at Northwestern Qatar, I got so many amazing opportunities to really get out of my comfort zone
“When it was time for us to travel to Korea, many of our sources backed out, fearing negative consequences of speaking to the media. We eventually earned their trust for them to share their stories.
“As we were both new to Jeju Island, learning to navigate the city from scratch and finding sources on the ground to connect with more Yemeni refugees was a challenge, but a breakthrough came. In post-production, we edited in both Korean and English. The language barrier was something we had to overcome, and we had to piece together the film because of that.
“Finally, we were able to publish our work on the official website of the Pulitzer Center.”
The film gained instant recognition and was selected to be showcased at the Hong Kong 1905 International Human Rights Film Festival, to be held in November 2020 – a huge accolade which Choi says she and Ejaz are “very excited” about, and a platform that they hope will bring their work more recognition.
Both Choi and Ejaz, due to graduate in May 2021, credit their achievements to the skills they have learned while at Northwestern Qatar.
Northwestern Qatar has provided me with the resources and guidance necessary to create my very own stories – and find my own voice and ideas
Describing her time at the university as “magical”, Choi says: “As someone coming from a low socioeconomic background, I would never have imagined myself to be where I am without Northwestern Qatar.
“As a filmmaker and a student at Northwestern Qatar, I got so many amazing opportunities to really get out of my comfort zone. My lifelong best friends and a mentor I met at Northwestern Qatar shaped me into a confident woman and a fearless filmmaker.”
Similarly, Ejaz believes studying at Northwestern Qatar has been “transformative”, as he says: “It has helped me to bridge my passions for storytelling and hands-on video production.
“The journalism degree offered here was a dream of mine and has given me ample opportunity to learn from some of the very best and gain experience reporting in an environment similar to Pakistan.
“I came into the university interested in only a narrow slice of the media world, but now I see myself doing so many things. Most importantly, Northwestern Qatar has provided me with the resources and guidance necessary to create my very own stories – and find my own voice and ideas.”
But what is the next step of their journey? For Choi, her dream is to be a storyteller that people can trust by, she says, “becoming a documentary filmmaker who can expose hidden truths and healing the wounds of marginalized minorities through my work”.
“I want to keep telling stories that knit together humanity and challenge conventional thinking,” she says.
As for Ejaz, his goal is to bring the skills he has learned at university to the media industry back in his home country of Pakistan. “I see myself doing this by creating a media outlet of my very own that will help foreigners and Pakistanis better understand our piece of the globe.”