TNKR is gearing up for its 8th English speech contest! I led two orientation sessions over the weekend, and both were delightful. We usually use PPT or PDF, but over the weekend, I just decided to talk to the applicants. I am trying to find the right balance between having clear non-negotiable procedures but also having enough flexibility for the coaches so they can understand why we do what we do. These groups were really understanding and asked good questions.

It was great to have veteran coaches participating, they could add perspective to what we are trying to do. We will probably hold another orientation in about a week or so.

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Friday was a busy day!

* TNKR Senior Fellow Tony Docan-Morgan held 1:1 feedback sessions with coaches in Track 2 (public speaking).

* TNKR Ambassador Eunhee Park gave a fantastic talk at a private event at our office.

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Today TNKR will be having its 67th Language Matching session. It will be a Track 2 session, allowing refugees who want to learn and practice public speaking to choose coaches who will assist them.

The session starts at 2 pm. The earliest arrival: 10:40 a.m. Based on resumes, she has already identified 3 coaches, she will choose first, then hope at least one of the other coaches will still be available when she chooses at the start of the second round.

Not many people show up three hours early for a meeting, but in this case, she gets to choose first! So here she is! She is a TV personality, in Korean, often telling funny, serious and interesting stories about life in North Korea. Her English is at a low level, but she’s eager!

The TNKR co-founders were both here to at the TNKR office to welcome her.

So many people ask us: “How do you find the refugees?” Answer: We don’t! They find us!

Others who complain about refugees not being diligent in other programs ask why refugees show up early to our sessions. Answer: They have freedom of choice and get to choose based on when they arrive!

She arrived first so she will also be choosing the winner of the first autographed book that we will be giving away as part of the TNKR Book Club offer for monthly donors.

How does a TNKR refugee end up on stage giving a speech?

Step 1: Refugee applies for TNKR

Step 2: TNKR co-directors Eunkoo Lee and Casey Lartigue interview the refugee about goals and desire for joining the program. Some students choose Track 1 (English study), some choose Track 2 (Public Speaking), some others do both Tracks.

Step 3: Refugee participates in an orientation session with other refugees joining or rejoining.

Step 4: Refugee attends a Matching session choosing coaches.

Step 5: Refugee begins studying with coaches.

Step 6: TNKR is offered a speech opportunity, we offer opportunities to refugees who then apply for the opportunity.

Step 7: Refugee then works with coaches to get prepared for actual speech opportunity.

For some, there are additional steps, such as Youngmin Kwon or another TNKR volunteer translating the refugee’s speech from Korean to English in order to keep the speech as authentic as possible. We often have TNKR volunteer editors to then check the content.

By the time the speakers go on stage, they would have had opportunities to practice with coaches. I have seen some cases of refugees connected with other organizations asked to give speeches with absolutely no preparation, the result being rambling and unfocused speeches. Some of the refugees seemed to be kicking themselves. With TNKR, they would have been able to work with speech coach mentors who help them with grammar, pronunciation, delivery, and other basic speech techniques so they can give high quality speeches, and feel good about it.

We require coaches and refugees to share the various versions of the edited documents to prevent any unprincipled coaches from adding their own ideas or making it their own speeches.

This photo is from a session with Hyeongsoo, a refugee in TNKR who will be giving a few speeches in the UK. Jennifer helped him with pronunciation, going line by line, correcting every mispronounced word.

A few minutes ago, another coach, Giles, sent a recording of the speech, in a proper gentlemanly British accent, so that Hyeongsoo would be able to copy the pronunciation and flow.


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“North Korean refugees are passive.” “They must be paid to join NGO activities helping them.” “They are irresponsible and always late.”

Those are some of the comments I have heard over the years from people at other NGOs, from influential people who hear about refugees from colleagues; and others with grant money to recruit NK refugees into their activities. Many of them don’t believe it when I tell them that TNKR has a waiting list of more than 70 refugees eager to join us and that refugees chase us so they can join TNKR. Even refugees who can’t speak English will message me directly, asking how they can join TNKR.

Today at 2 pm we will be having a Language Matching session, our 65th. The first student to show up arrived at 9:40 a.m. this morning. Yes, more than 4 hours in advance.

Refugees are allowed to choose their tutors and coaches based on when they arrive to our Matching sessions. Ever since we saved enough money to get our own office, refugees have been able to arrive at our office (when we used other people’s offices, they understandably had restrictions on us). Some refugees have asked if they could stay overnight for the chance to choose first.

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On Sunday TNKR held an orientation to get prepared for its 64th Language Matching session to be held on Sunday October 1. We will be holding an emergency session tonight and probably another one on Wednesday.

We had nine volunteers join the session.


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Comedian Chris Rock once said, ‘If you see a homeless  person with a funny sign, that means the person hasn’t been homeless for long.’

I mention that because Eunkoo Lee quit her paid job on February 1. Not many people voluntarily go for six months without getting paid! And not many keep smiles on their faces for long. Well, it isn’t all smiles around the office, TNKR has some challenges coming up.

Yes, it is baseball season, and Eunko is a baseball fanatic. So as long as those handsome guys are playing baseball then she may remain happy!

Perhaps we need to record the games, put them on her computer year-around so she can remain happy until she gets evicted from her home. 🙂

Eunkoo at the Bat.”

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Thanks to TNKR volunteer tutor, coach, Music Manager, fundraiser and donor Peter Daley for organizing a speech yesterday at Sookmyung Women’s University. A North Korean refugee who recently joined TNKR’s Track 2 program gave his first speech with us yesterday. He learned a lot! And that’s the point of our speaking program.

Back when I was a sports reporter, I would hear  athletes say that they learned more in their first game than in months of practice. At last, it was real. So most of their improvements came in the second game. The refugee who spoke yesterday said that he had learned so much from the experience. What I have noticed in previous coaching sessions and based on feedback from coaches is that refugees are much more focused in sessions after they have given speeches. As the old saying goes: “The threat of execution sharpens the mind.”

Eunkoo Lee often says that it is important for refugees to give talks like this. They get inspired knowing that people want to hear them. The refugee who spoke yesterday said exactly that after the speech. It was incredible looking at everyone around the room eagerly listening to him.

I had helped him get ready for the talk. Even that was a learning experience for him. Because it was a last-minute coaching session, I mainly focused on pronunciation, grammar and speech structure. I suspect that when he next meets his coaches that he will be more assertive in checking ways he can give a better speech.

Join us on August 5 for “Stories from the North III,” a joint forum hosted by Teach North Korean Refugees and Seoul University of Foreign Studies.

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Today is the 67th anniversary of the Korean War starting. We marked the occasion at TNKR by holding two planning sessions to help TNKR become more effective at helping North Korean refugees.

  • At 2 pm, we held a Speech Coach orientation for coaches who will be helping refugees entering TNKR’s 6th English speech contest. Tomorrow I should be holding one or two more orientation sessions for applicants who couldn’t make it today. If they all get their applications completed then we can start matching them together.
  • At 3:30 pm, we held an Open House session to discuss ways for applicants to get more involved with TNKR. It was one of our most productive sessions. If just half of the participants follow through then you can expect some big changes within TNKR!

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Yesterday began with TNKR co-founder Casey Lartigue being interviewed for a new TV podcast.

In the afternoon, two TNKR refugees gave speeches to a group of high school students visiting from the USA.

And around all of that, tutoring sessions for refugees, Eunkoo Lee having feedback sessions with refugees to get an understanding about their experience in TNKR.

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