TNKR co-founder and National Director Eunkoo Lee received a phone call from a refugee who joined us recently. Her main comments and questions for Eunkoo:

Are my teachers okay even though I am an ABC level English speaker? They must be having a tough time dealing with me. So they might want to quit?

I was determined to try English only, but when I met my teachers, I guessed that some of them might be willing to use Korean because of my low level. But none of them have used it and one told me that it is against TNKR policy. I think this shows that TNKR teachers understand how refugees need to study English.

I am so happy to continue studying, but I am worried that my teachers will be bored helping a student like me who is so basic at English.

In addition to that student:

  • Eunkoo had three face-to-face interviews with refugees eager to join TNKR.
  • A refugee who is really eager called to ask if he can join the next Matching session. He recently joined us and wants to study more.
  • A refugee who has been studying in TNKR consistently since joining in early 2016 called to ask if she can rejoin soon.
  • A refugee who did not have a good experience in the past now sent a long message saying that she can now understand our approach. At that time (2014 or 2015), she thought there was a problem that we did not have a set curriculum that students had to follow. But she has heard from other refugees about the way the teachers adjust to the students, and she can see that she wasted her opportunity to study with us because she was waiting to be led by the teachers.
  • Plus many nice notes and messages from refugees in TNKR over the holidays and today.

When we have so much activity around us, of refugees reaching out to us, I think about those “experts” who “know” that refugees are passive and need to be led.


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Listen to the refugees in theory, or practice?

Yes, three face-to-face interviews with refugees (I was there for two of them). Even when people hear us say that TNKR is learner-centered and demand-focused, some really smart people will agree with us in theory, then in practice they will recommend we need to do things differently.

  • Refugees don’t ask for Skype, but many people have told me that we should do it anyway. And then some seem to think I am blocking them from Skyping with refugees, when I am just listening to what refugees are asking for when they join us.
  • We have a great curriculum designed by one of our volunteers, but refugees prefer choosing their own path. When I say this, professional educators seem to worry about our sanity. A few have insisted that we need to push the refugees to use the curriculum. When I speak at English teacher conferences, it seems that I am visiting a cult and denouncing their leader.
  • When I tell people that we have refugees choose their tutors, I have professionals and experts insisting that it can’t work out well for a host of reasons.
  • Refugees tell us they don’t want tutors to use Korean, but bilingual speakers try it anyway and we occasionally get messages from refugees telling us that we should not insist on English-immersion.

Over the years, I’ve probably had 500 people ask if they could Skype with refugees. By my unofficial count, there have been three refugees to ask for it. Some do ask for it in emergency situations, but very few ask for it. To accommodate tutors, some do acquiesce.

Back in 2014, we had a trial with Skype and also used it during parts of 2015. The results were not encouraging, and we got complaints from refugees that the Skype classes seemed less effective, that there were many cancellations, and we also noticed that the tutors we accepted using Skype almost never sent in reports and were less connected with our program. 

I recently started asking refugees in interviews if they would like to use Skype. I love what the refugee told us a bit earlier: “No. I studied English through Skype [in a different program]. But the classes were short, we spent half of the time checking the volume and getting set up. It was not a good experience. I really hope I can meet teachers face-to-face rather than dealing with Skype.

As I wrote recently, I also ask refugees if they want tutors to use Korean with them.

  • No, I hope not. I feel like it won’t help me learn, that I won’t get closer to my goal. I lived abroad for a few months, it took some time but eventually I got used to be in an English atmosphere.
  • Huh? No. I would lose interest in the class. Using Korean and Chinese are not my goal. I already know those two languages. I really hope the teachers will teach me only in English.

Minwoo drops by

I’ve known him for several years, he recently joined TNKR as a volunteer tutor. What caught my attention is that when one of the refugees used Korean, Minwoo politely but sternly reminded him to try English. After that, it was all English!

Almost all of our volunteers say they are willing to help with fundraising, but few do so. Minwoo raised 500,000 won with the Santa Pub Crawl and has now set up a fundraiser.

His statement:

◆Why we donate for Teach North Korean Refugees Global Education Center – TNKR◆
// TNKR (탈북민 영어교육 봉사 단체)에 기부를 하는 이유
Not many people know about the reality of North Korea. Kim Jeong Eun or the nuclear weapons are not everything about this country.
If North Korean refugees can speak English, they could make a great and heartbreaking speech like Yeonmi Park ( and raise awareness of the people of North Korea. She learned English at TNKR.
// 많은 사람들이 북한을 떠올릴때 김정은, 또는 세뇌당하거나 세상과 단절된 북한사람들 혹은 연변마저 떠올립니다. 북한사람들도 다같은 사람들이며 극소수를 제외하면 지금 이순간 까지도 참담한 현실을 겪고 있는 국제 난민이나 같습니다. 탈북민이 영어를 자유롭게 구사할수 있다면 영상의 박연미씨와 같이 강단에 설수 있고, 세계를 향해 목소리를 높일수 있습니다. 저희가 이번에 기부할곳으로 선정한 TNKR 은 탈북민에게 무료 영어교육을 하는 단체로서, 박연미씨가 영어를 배운 곳이기도 합니다.

















The Teaching Machine Returns!

That’s right, Grace Lee is back. She was a junior in high school when she convinced me that she could tutor refugees. As soon as the student sat down, she would do a quick assessment, then start teaching like a hurricane. She would teach but also constantly push the students to use what they had learned. We were then based out of the Freedom Factory office, she was teaching six hours a day, but had said she would like to tutor 8 hours a day. I said that might be too much, that the government might investigate me.

She has returned each summer or winter, and she says she will be back later this month to tutor, no kidding, from 9:00 am to 5:30 pm every day, with just one hour off for lunch.


Goodbye, Sooyeon…

Sooyeon, a tutor helping refugees on the waiting list, is now leaving us. She was really energetic in teaching. Hard to believe she is just a year out of high school. Unlike other tutors who make excuses about needing Korean, she never once used it.


Youngmin Kwon, Academic Adviser, Refugee Adjustment Transition Mentoring Program

Can there be a TNKR post without Youngmin? He is still saying he is Academic Adviser of In-house tutoring. But eventually he will memorize whatever new fancy name we come up with for refugees studying while they are on the waiting list.


New Trilingual Volunteer!

She learned about TNKR because of Yeonmi Park’s One Young World speech, then she began reading about North Korean refugees more deeply after that. After two decades of being with non-profits and engaging in volunteering, I have noticed that some volunteers who show up have already done reading about the organization they are joining or hope to join, and some others show up not even sure about the basics. Meru has watched many of our videos, read articles about TNKR, and was already familiar about many things about TNKR.


2018-01-03 Korea Times: N. Korean refugees to speak on plight by John Redmond

Waiting to get a full copy of this USA Today article.


South China Morning Post: Son of North Korea hijack victim still campaigns for father’s return nearly 50 years on – but pleas fall on deaf ears


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