We often have many North Korean refugees reaching out to us. But the last few days, our heads have been spinning with the number of phone calls, messages, visits, orientation sessions, applications, requests from and interviews with refugees studying, applying to or returning to TNKR.
Can you imagine our feelings when they praise us, come to visit us, or consider our rinky-dinky little project to be so valuable? I have heard that other programs must send constant reminders to refugees to join their meetings, conferences and workshops, but in our case, the refugees come looking for us. There are larger, well-funded organizations that ask us to “send” refugees to them. We have developed a great program that has minimized socializing, dating and hanging out, and instead have volunteers who give their time to make sure that refugees learn. Refugees ran from North Korea, but they run to us!
Some people think I am exaggerating when I say such things, it apparently drives some people crazy, and others don’t believe me.
“At a recent party, I bumped into an influential South Korean colleague who insists she tried not to be prejudiced against refugees. She has heard from others working directly with refugees that they lie and cheat with impunity, don’t show up for classes or events, are always late, show no sense of responsibility, and are passive until they are pushed. She then told me that I must be having the same problems.
“She didn’t believe me. She had heard a little about our project and even checked a few of my email updates, but she said that I am the first person to work long-term with refugees who says they can be disciplined, thankful, and aggressive in a positive way. She said that her colleagues working with refugees have horror stories and social welfare workers routinely get their hearts broken.”
I’m not surprised by the failure of top-down programs with workshops and conferences that refugees aren’t really interested in to join fun camps and socializing opportunities mixed in to entertain but not necessarily assist them in reaching their goals.
There are other wonderful stories from refugees who came to visit us in the last week, but I can’t highlight them all. Yesterday we conducted four interviews with NK refugees who hope to join TNKR. We had five more refugees stop by to drop off their applications for a scholarship program we have with our partner organization Serpentem Scholarship Mission Foundation.
Naturally, because of security issues around refugees, we can’t tell every story, and with so many it is hard to keep track of everything. I can, however, mention three who are public:
Chanyang “Praise”: I met her in 2012 shortly after she arrived in South Korea. We stayed in contact, then she joined TNKR a year later shortly after we began connecting refugees with volunteer tutors. She has studied on-and-off in TNKR during our entire history and we always welcome her back. She was the first refugee we matched off-line, the first refugee to give a speech in TNKR domestically and abroad, and the first refugee to offer a public testimonial. She roasts me whenever she gives speeches at our events, much to my delight. Here is a touching testimonial she gave about me that I watch every day.
Eunhee: “The Joy of Freedom.” She joined TNKR in April 2015, not ready to show her face or use her name. She has gone through a metamorphosis that still leaves me stunned every time she talks. It really feels like I am talking to a new person. She was the first refugee in TNKR history to go from anonymous to public. She is a thoughtful lady who gets all that she can out of life, always seeking to learn new things, and eager to enjoy her freedom. I wrote about her in a Korea Times column after she joined one of our English speech contests. Her testimonials about TNKR are moving, she never fails to inspire me.
Lovely Sharon: There is always a feeling of love when she visits TNKR. She first joined us in early 2015. I will never forget it because she messaged me on her birthday. She started at a low level, but also hoped to tell her story. Her speeches often have ladies in the audience crying. She is now married with two children, but we have done our best to keep her involved with TNKR so she can continue studying. She was first featured in a Daily Mail article in 2015. I call her “Lovely” Sharon Jang, always thankful that I got to meet her.