2018-03-24 TNKR Matching 72: Time & a dime

TNKR held its 72nd language Matching session yesterday March 24. We have now had more than 1000 people participate in this volunteer project–more than 350 refugees, almost 800 volunteer tutors and coaches. Matching session #71 was the week before.

It means that this month, we had two Matching sessions with 32 tutors and 19 refugees. That is quite a lot for one month. Now comes the real work, with studying by refugees, teaching by tutors, and monitoring by our staff. This is in addition to keeping up with the previous groups.

These two groups are helping to build TNKR in a different way: 28 of the tutors have either become monthly donors or set up their own fundraisers. We have never had such active participation from volunteers. Some even griped about us asking them to do more than tutoring.

Most of the tutors are living in Seoul, but we do have one tutor coming from Gwangju to tutor. The week before, it was a tutor coming from Busan.

Special thanks to Janice Kim, TNKR Academic Coordinator, and TNKR co-founder Eunkoo Lee, for working together so well in managing the process so that we could have so many volunteers and refugees join us in one month. We have been trying to clear the long waiting list of refugees while also improving our quality control.

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The first refugee arrived at the session at 10 am, four hours ahead of the start time. The previous weekend we had a refugee arrive at 1:15 a.m., so we had to change our policy, opening the office at 9 a.m.


TNKR Academic Coordinator Janice Kim kicked off the session. In just a few months, she has gone from tutor, to Academic Adviser, to Track 1 Manager, to Academic Coordinator.

TNKR co-founders Casey Lartigue and Eunkoo Lee.

I’m the one who gets the media attention, but it is TNKR co-founder Eunkoo Lee and Academic Coordinator Janice Kim who do the real work to get everything ready for Track 1 Matching sessions.



Here are the top fundraisers from this tutoring group. We thanked them by giving free copies of Sungju Lee’s book and hope they can get his autograph at a forum we are planning on May 12. As TNKR grows, we are able to do more for the tutors to thank them. Yesterday, we gave each volunteer a free TNKR bracelet and a TNKR bag to each one who became a monthly donor or set up a fundraiser.

2018-01-02 ‘Will my tutors quit?’

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 (https://youtu.be/ufhKWfPSQOw) 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 https://youtu.be/ufhKWfPSQOw 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


2017-11-22 Facebook Memories

Memories, courtesy of Facebook

https://www.facebook.com/CaseyLartigue/posts/727415864069078 and https://www.facebook.com/flywithme012/posts/1197703240244898

[뉴스 풍경] 미국인 설립 단체, 한국 내 탈북자 무료 영어교육 제공

2015-12-01 TNKR on Voice of America

2015-12-01 TNKR on Voice of America

Teach North Korean Refugees Featured on Voice of America Broadcast











2017-09-29 Distinguished Global Lecture Series, “The American Known in North Korea”

I had a fantastic time yesterday, I was the speaker at the Distinguished Global Lecture Series at the Graduate School of International Studies Ewha Woman’s University.

It was one of the most welcoming and active audiences that I have spoken to in quite some time. They listened patiently, interrupted me during my speech with questions, then had plenty of questions at the end. TNKR co-director Eunkoo Lee declined my invitation to join me as a speaker, but she joined during Q&A to add additional points.</span>

Thanks so much to Assistant Professor Hannah Jun for inviting me to speak. We met earlier this year, after she learned about me she said that she wanted to invite me to speak at Ewha. And it happened yesterday!

There are many South Koreans who are hesitant to invite speakers talking about North Korean related topics, so it is a special thing to have been invited to discuss TNKR! One very eager international student signed up as a volunteer a few hours after the event.

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Busy time, May 11-16

The last few days have been really busy!
* Interview with a German newspaper reporter plus photoshoot
* Interview with a national radio reporter visiting from the USA
* Interview with an author from Norway
* Koreana magazine feature on TNKR (Korean, English)
* KBS feature on “Bring My Father Home” campaign.
* Korea Times column, “That Black Activist for North Koreans.”
* Photoshoot for a profile photo
* Speech at KOTESOL. “Hello Konglish!”
* Introduction at “A Woman is a Flower” TNKR Global Leadership Forum








Mont Pelerin Society 2017 Seoul

The last few days I have been at the Mont Pelerin Society Seoul 2017 conference.

The most unscripted movement is when I was invited by one of the conference organizers to introduce TNKR and to recruit people to stay for the evening’s final gathering. People stayed, so apparently I was successful!