About This Fundraiser
Comedian Chris Rock has said, "If you see a homeless guy with a funny sign, he hasn't been homeless that long." I'm reminded of that because, six months ago, Eunkoo Lee quit her paid job to become a full-time volunteer for Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR). I checked, yes, she is still smiling.
With new free time, we have learned a lot in our 1:1 interviews and feedback sessions with refugees, using an Individual Education Plan developed by Columbia University professor Bae Young-seh.
Unlike researchers with endless data-mining questions leading to research papers rarely read, we ask refugees to explain their learning and professional goals so we can build a community of support around them. In other words, we ask questions with a specific purpose leading to action, not to probe out of curiosity.
We have identified five main categories of refugees who join us so they can study English.
One, college students and those applying for college. Many of the refugees who are college students explain their learning and professional goals to us and tutors at "language matching" sessions. The refugees often highlight their difficulties with classes using English-language textbooks and materials. In addition to adjusting to South Korea and university classes, they are studying new and difficult subjects in a different language. Those classes in North Korea where they had to memorize propaganda about the glory of the Kim regime and the imperialism of the U.S. probably don't look as bad compared to the beatdown many go through as university students in South Korea.
The South Korean government has made it easier for many North Korean refugees to start college by relaxing standards, but one side effect has been many refugees attending universities above their current academic levels. It would be similar to allowing a lightweight boxer having his first fight to take on the heavyweight champion. For many refugees, the number of textbooks using English comes as an unpleasant surprise, akin to an American moving from Texas to Louisiana, then finding out she has to speak in Swahili.
Two, refugees with established careers. Some of them escaped North Korea 15 to 20 years ago, but English levels were lower then and South Korea was less international. We have had refugees with established careers as professors, doctors, nurses, business owners, musicians and traditional dancers come to us because they have been missing out on business, professional and international opportunities because of low English proficiency. Some are embarrassed to admit they don't know English or worry they are too old to start.
Three, employees. Refugee unemployment rates are much higher than those of South Koreans according to various articles. Many of the refugees who have joined us have specifically cited cases of losing out on promotions because they lacked English. Many say they remain quiet as South Korean colleagues interact at higher levels of English proficiency with foreign business partners, patients, and colleagues.
Four, self-improvement and independence. We have had several refugees with children who say they have come to us because they want to learn English along with their children. A few optimistic ones even said they hope to teach English to their children. Other refugees have said that, at last, they are free to travel, but they don't like having to rely on others to translate. We have had some refugees who wanted to focus on travel English so they could maneuver through airports as they take their first trips since that first flight bringing them to South Korea from Mongolia or Thailand.
Five, public speakers. There are some refugees who come to us so they can tell their stories in English. Some want to talk about North Korea's human rights abuses or to discuss escaping from China to raise awareness about what is happening to North Korean refugees. Three of the refugees in TNKR have published books and we have about three more who want to do so.
Regardless of category, 100 percent of refugees ask to be corrected immediately by tutors and that they don't want tutors to go easy on them. Some many ask for strict teachers and welcome homework. Probably 95 percent say, after one year, they hope to be able to converse in English with native speakers and most say they have an "English emergency" (we require independent documentation). One said she didn't have a specific English emergency "except in my heart."
I do warn researchers and reporters not to project what refugees in our program say onto all 30,000 who have escaped to South Korea in the last two decades, that these are refugees who have found us and have specific reasons for studying English. As we conduct the interviews, it isn't just Eunkoo Lee smiling as North Korean refugees gleefully tell us that they feel they are about to break through the barrier of English.
Casey Lartigue Jr., the volunteer International Director of the Teach North Korean Refugees Global Education Center (TNKR), can be reached at CJL@alumni.harvard.edu.
On March 1, 2012, I made a commitment to get involved with helping North Korean refugees. After a year of getting involved with various activities, on March 3, 2013, I co-founded along with South Korean researcher Eunkoo Lee an organization helping North Korean refugees.
Originally named "English Matching," Teach North Korean Refugees has helped more than 350 North Korean refugees with adjusting to living outside of South Korea. We have done this on a tight budget, relying on our volunteers and fans. Despite our limitations, we have had a number of success stories and are a non-profit that North Korean refugees seek out.