Once upon a time, Eunkoo Lee worked at two different institutes in which she 1) interviewed North Korean refugees about abuses they suffered in North Korea and China and later 2) helped North Korean refugee youngsters with adjustment into South Korea.
 
Like a lot of other South Koreans who have worked with NK refugees, she thought the refugees were passive. In addition to her experience, one of her master’s degrees is also in North Korean studies. She and her colleagues were used to setting up everything for the refugees, then doing their best to make sure enough refugees showed up.
 
Then an earthquake shook her world. She began collaborating with an American who had completely different ideas. He challenged her expertise. He insisted, like a character out of a Field of Dreams: If you build the project correctly, they will come.
 
Even when it started happening, she didn’t believe her eyes. Now she has no choice!

 

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Jason Jung, editor of T-Club, has published excerpts from his interview with TNKR’s co-founders.

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A reporter visited the TNKR office, and stayed for about 9 hours. He conducted interviews with staff and refugees, analyzing from every possible angle. We set one hour limits for interviews with refugees, but the rest of us will talk all day long…

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On Tuesday May 8, the Teach North Korean Refugees Global Education Center (TNKR) and the Serpentem Scholarship Mission Foundation signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) that will provide scholarships for fifteen North Korean refugees studying in TNKR beginning next month. The partnership is aimed at providing support for North Korean refugees college students who may be struggling with their university studies and financial issues.

According to one study, an estimated 28% of North Korean refugee college students drop out of college (six times higher than the overall 4.5% rate) in South Korea, with an estimated 33% of refugees citing English as the major factor and 29% citing financial difficulties. More than 360 North Korean refugees have studied English with almost 800 tutors and coaches in TNKR, a non-political, non-religious non-profit founded in 2013.

“We know that many of our students are struggling with studies at their universities, that’s why our approach of having refugees choose their own study paths in 1:1 tutoring sessions is both popular with and effective for refugees,” said Casey Lartigue Jr., co-founder of TNKR along with Eunkoo Lee. “I hope this will also be a wake-up call for people who want to focus on socializing and hanging out with North Korean refugees, and recognize this as a clear call-to-action that we need to do all we can help to help North Korean refugees with building up their academic skills.” 

Serpentem Scholarship Mission Foundation, a Christian foundation founded in 2001 by Lee Johng-ho, highlighted the importance of helping North Korean refugee students with their studies and supporting TNKR in its mission of helping North Korean refugees.

“Supporting North Korean students who have come to South Korea after experiencing many difficulties is in line with the purpose of our foundation,” said pastor Cho Byung-hun, chairman of Serpentem Scholarship Mission Foundation’s board of directors. “We want to invest helping to support North Korean refugees who are doing well in their studies and hope that our partnership with TNKR will help motivate them.”

The fifteen TNKR students who are awarded scholarships can have their scholarships renewed by demonstrating they have improved their grades. They can receive two different types of scholarships: 1) English Achievement Scholarship, receiving 250,000 won of support per semester. 2) Grade Achievement Scholarship, 400,000 won of support per semester. To be eligible, students should have studied in TNKR for at least three months or are joining TNKR now and are committed to studying in TNKR for at least three months.

Here is the Serpentem Scholarship Mission Foundation notice announcing this partnership with TNKR.

 

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Friday was a slow day at TNKR, so we did a lot of planning. We did have one TV interview in the morning and one tutoring session in the afternoon.

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Today’s big events and activities at TNKR:

  • PARTNERSHIP: The big news today is that TNKR finalized the details of a partnership that we will be announcing on Tuesday during an MOU signing ceremony. This will be absolutely fantastic for refugees studying in TNKR. We are thankful that a South Korean organization that is much larger than ours has found us and wanted to partner with us. Stay tuned! And separate of that, we had a second meeting about another possible partnership, but that one will take a bit more time.
  • MEDIA: Another day, another reporter at the TNKR office. This time, the reporter recorded TNKR senior fellow Tony Docan-Morgan having a coaching session with a North Korean refugee who will become internationally known. We have already seen her improve really quickly, it will be impossible to stop her once she has sharpened her English.
  • TUTORING: We had a tutoring session with one of our tutors who joined us last month but has had many tutoring sessions already. I love it that she and her student she tutored today make it a point to meet at our office. One day when TNKR is a large organization then we will be able to hold more study sessions.
  • PUBLIC SPEAKING: Scott gave another speech. We weren’t able to make it, but I’m sure he was great. He has an incredible story and I can see how much he has sharpened his public speaking in the last couple of months.
  • ACTIVISM: We couldn’t make it, but I heard that Hwang In-Cheol and Youngmin Kwon had a great meeting getting prepared for a press briefing at the Press Club in Seoul.
  • OUTREACH: TNKR co-founders Casey Lartigue and Eunkoo Lee, and TNKR Senior Fellow Tony Docan-Morgan will be speaking at the 2018 Korean Association for Multicultural Education International Conference on May 24 from 4:20 pm at Korea University.

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The non-profit organization Teach North Korean Refugees held its 74th Language Matching session yesterday. We had 11 North Korean refugees and 18 tutors participate (1 tutor canceled and another was a no-show). The session started at 2 pm–the first refugee to register for the session arrived at our office at 9:50 a.m. That’s right, slightly more than 4 hours in advance!

Why was she so early? Simple! First-come, first-choose! The refugees get to choose their tutors based on when they arrive to the session. So the refugee who arrived first was able to choose first. She is a returning student with us who first joined us in 2015 at the ABC level.

The others were so disappointed, especially the ones arriving three hours early who found out they were already sixth and seventh in line.

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TNKR Special Ambassador Ken Eom was a special interviewee today! Reporters have been calling us for interviews, but a lot of the refugees in TNKR who are usually ready to do interviews seemed to be busy this week (exam week) or not interested in discussing specifics about the summit. Ken answered the call today and had numerous media requests. So you can expect to see a few news reports in the next few days. He did three interviews today back-to-back-to-back before he had to rush off for a different appointment.
 
He’s a new father and also juggling grad school. Thanks to those of you who participated in his online baby shower. You can also send support for their baby adjustment time directly to Ken.
I also had a busy day–a speech in the morning at an international high school, an interview with an international reporter, and an in-studio interview with long-time radio host Henry Shinn.
And I’m proud to announce that TNKR will have its first student club!

I was out of the office most of today, here are the things that I know about:

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Back in the day when I was a college reporter, I learned that a good reporter talks to at least three sources for an article. Relying on one person is the laziest form of reporting. I used to get surprised by reporters who didn’t want to talk to others, but I got used to it. I don’t mean enemies and ideologues who even hate what I have for breakfast–I mean, even someone who can add perspective and knowledge about what we are doing with TNKR.

I encourage reporters to talk to others in TNKR who have leadership positions. There is some risk in this, because some reporters only see what they see, and they will report the observations of newcomers who barely understand TNKR. A volunteer who stands up and says someone off-the-wall is a great man-bites-dog story. When I look at some articles about TNKR a few years ago, some include volunteers who probably haven’t thought about TNKR in years, didn’t know much about it then beyond their limited experience, and had no idea about things we were planning or dealing with to build the organization. 

This reporter who is working on an online article interviewed me, co-founder Eunkoo Lee, Assistant Director Dave Fry, Academic Coordinator Janice Kim, tutors, and refugees in TNKR. Plus, he stayed for more than 3 hours to observe one of our matching sessions. He has also followed up with questions. He could, like many reporters, get some facts wrong, but it won’t be because he didn’t try to get an understanding about TNKR. It would be because, like most reporters, he didn’t show me the article in advance. As I’ve learned, most reporters would prefer to get complaints about what has been posted or published rather than discussing it in advance to check for misunderstandings. 🙂

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TNKR co-founders Casey Lartigue and Eunkoo Lee were interviewed twice–once for background, then the second time “for real” for the article.

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When Columbia University professor Young Seh Bae visited South Korea in 2016, she stopped by our office to do some volunteer work. Unlike so many volunteers who want to help the refugees directly, she provided expertise helping us develop TNKR. Sometimes I get surprised when people say they want to help build up TNKR. The result is such indirect help really does help refugees. A strong TNKR is able to help refugees more efficiently and effectively.

Prof. Bae wanted to know about some of the things we wanted to do. She then zeroed in on our process of learning about what refugees wanted to study. We didn’t have a set curriculum, so we needed a better process of learning. She then designed an Individual Education Plan beyond what I would have ever done. I then tweaked it based on interviews with refugees, and continue to tweak it.

It is a great example of a professional helping us to build up TNKR.

  

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When refugees join us now, we start with the IEP. TNKR co-director Eunkoo Lee will also interview them in Korean to make sure we have a good understanding of what they want. It helps that Eunkoo is at TNKR every day, rather than just talking with refugees in her spare time.

We aren’t probing or engaging in data-mining for the sake of collecting information–we focus on how we can help them have a better experience in the program.

Sometimes it is really moving because so many of the refugees know who we are, some even want to take photos with us (with their cameras). Some consider us to be heroes. One began crying recently as she thanked us and others who help refugees. Many of them are curious about we are doing this, when clearly it is not lucrative and we could both be doing other things to make money.

So many of them say: “Don’t forget about me.” They know we have a long waiting list, so they want to make sure we don’t forget about them. Some have called us, insisting they be able to visit, even when we tell them that they must wait. Many of them even contact us directly, eager to let us know how much they want to study. 

 

It is good to know that TNKR has such a solid reputation among refugees. Some of the newcomers don’t realize how difficult it is to have such a good reputation, and of course we still have some vultures around us who use any excuse to meet the refugees socially (a common trick now is the playboys who hang around the program and try to find opportunities to meet refugee females, and some even highlight that they used to be TNKR, but now they are not so it is okay to date or hang out).

The last few weeks have been busy, with a number of speeches, events, meetings, and planning. Plus, to keep myself from going poor, I am now teaching at a university, meaning that I can’t focus on TNKR completely these days.

I had a Volunteer Leadership Academy orientation in mid-February to get people to start thinking about ways they can get more deeply involved in TNKR. I was hoping to have someone take charge of that, but it looks like it will still be up to me to get it going. So I am now planning another session for April 15.