A volunteer group, Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR), will host an English speech contest for North Korean defectors at the law offices of Shin and Kim in Myeong-dong, Seoul, Saturday.Eight North Korean defectors will address the question, “What freedom means to me.”
The participants are members of TNKR’s Track 1 “Finding My Own Way” and Track 2 “Telling My Own Story,” parts of the project co-founded in early 2013 by South Korean Lee Eun-koo and American Casey Lartigue Jr.
TNKR has regular monthly sessions. It has so far held 24 sessions and boasts 156 defectors and 216 volunteers.
The Korea Times spoke with co-founder Lartigue about his involvement in TNKR and the aims of the organization.
Q: When did you get involved in TNKR?
A: I co-founded TNKR in March 2013 with Lee Eun-koo when we matched several former teachers from North Korea with volunteer tutors in Seoul. Two weeks later, we matched several refugees from NAUH (Now Action Unity and Human Rights in North Korea), an NGO that rescues North Korean refugees from China.
But my interest in such things began when I was a graduate student at Harvard interested in creating opportunities in which the beneficiaries were in control. The next step, I helped create the Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) for low-income children in Washington, D.C.
In Seoul, I was volunteering with Korea Volunteers, initially as the assistant organizer. But I had a spin-off with my own organization after I began volunteering with Mulmangcho, a small school in Yeoju for adolescent North Korean refugees. In many ways, all of those activities led to this day with me leading TNKR.
Q: What is the aim of TNKR?
A: To create opportunities for North Korean refugees to improve their education and job skills. South Korea is English-crazy, so naturally we focus on English because that is what the refugees tell us they need. That is Track 1, “Finding My Own Way,” of the program.
Track 2 is “Telling My Own Story,” in which refugees are matched up with speech coaches to help them with public speaking. In addition to that, we also have a study-abroad program being led by Tricia and Tyler Bolender.
Q: How many people are involved in the program?
A: We have had 180 refugees and 280 volunteer tutors come through the program. Our Language Matching session in August included nine refugees being matched with 12 volunteer tutors, plus nine volunteer staffers participate in the event.
Q: How successful is TNKR?
A: Wildly successful. We are a volunteer program with limited resources, but we have a waiting list of three months and volunteers lined up to join us. Refugees express their satisfaction by returning to the program, recommending their friends.
When we first began, we had to recruit refugees. Now, they find us. In one week, I had four refugees contact me directly on Facebook, with messages like, “Hi, teach me English?”
The tutors are also greatly satisfied with the project, it gives them an opportunity to get connected with North Korean refugees and teach extremely motivated adults.
Aromi Yook, our volunteer academic adviser, has now brought education expertise to us, so now we can get the tutors prepared for studying. We are constantly adapting, such as we are now creating a process to allow refugees to begin tutoring while they are on the waiting list.
One of the key things about our project is that we allow refugees to choose as many tutors as they want. They choose anywhere from one to eight tutors to study with at one time.
Refugees recognize the value we provide for them. Two of the North Korean refugees who are publishing books in English this year were part of our program. We have had some really high-level English speakers join our program.
Another thing that attracts refugees to us is that the tutors focus on them. One young lady identified this several months ago when she said that she has taken classes and taken part in language exchanges, but in our program, the tutors focused on her specific needs. We have since heard that from many other refugees.
There are other signs of success, such as refugees volunteering with us, and we have even had refugees donate money to us, including one who donated more than 500,000 won.
Q: How does one volunteer?
A: Email me at CJL@post.harvard.edu and apply online at www.teachnorthkoreanrefugees.org. This program relies on volunteers. Without them, the program would quickly die.
“To ensure privacy of the speakers, there will be no video, audio or photographs of speakers allowed, without permission in advance from the organizers (even then, it will depend upon the speakers),” the group stated on its Facebook page.
The law offices of Shin and Kim law office are located near Myeong-dong Station on line 4.
For more information, visit https://www.facebook.com/events/1659864337579032/.