Yes, yes, yes, I have heard it many times, South Koreans don’t care about North Korean refugees. In particular, South Korean youngsters don’t care, they are too busy banging their heads against the wall trying to memorize everything in the universe for the national college entrance exam.

And yet…

There’s that handful. There are many South Koreans working at NGOs making very little money trying to do things that help North Korean refugees with adjusting to life outside of North Korea. There are many others engaging in activities that are also adding value to the lives of North Korean refugees.

And yet, it is easy to focus on the 99% who don’t care and/or aren’t doing anything.

I try not to worry about the people who don’t show up. I still remember the moment education activist Howard Fuller said: “If you are planning a meeting for 100 people, but only three people show up, then you’ve got three people to work with.” It is tempting to focus on all of the people who don’t care or don’t show up. But why not work with the ones who have shown up?

After about two decades of engaging in volunteering and activism, I have lowered my expectations: If one new person steps forward from a meeting, whether if there were 5 or 50 people, then I’m willing to declare victory and get to work.

Yesterday TNKR was featured at a forum organized by South Korean high school students.

At the end of yesterday’s event, TNKR co-founder Eunkoo Lee reminded everyone about how great the two students are who organized the forum.

  • They came to us last year, saying they wanted to volunteer with TNKR. As with most youngsters who come to us, I tried to discourage them from engaging in tutoring or trying to set up a tutoring program. I have seen enough programs set up by high schoolers to know a) they don’t last long b) there is more socializing and chitchat than there is actual studying c) the refugees drop out rather quickly when they realize they aren’t learning much. Unlike most of the high schoolers who continue insisting that they want to tutor North Korean refugees, these kids LISTEN to how they could get involved. Of course, that reminded me of the time I went through in 2012 when I finally began listening.
  • They did a few things, such as making a promotional video and then organizing a fundraiser at their school, apparently they were shaking down other students for the money.
  • They organized an event at their school, with the TNKR co-founders as the featured speakers.
  • And yesterday, they hosted a forum with the TNKR co-founders speaking again, this time with two refugees in TNKR.
  • Best of all, they raised money from the moms of the students who joined yesterday.

Very often I have volunteers who I have rarely seen who will ask me for a letter of recommendation. As usual, I ask people to draft their own letters, and that I can add things to it. In some cases, I have nothing to add. In contrast, I may need a second page to talk about these two young men.

As I often like to say, it takes at least one person to make something happen. There are many great ideas in this world, but until someone initiates action, and follows through, then things won’t get done. In this case, we had two young men to lead the effort.

It wasn’t just the two organizers. There were many South Korean high school students there on a Saturday afternoon listening to speeches by North Korean refugees and about TNKR instead of banging their heads against the wall memorizing things for the national entrance exam. They are now working together to create a student organization with TNKR as the focus.

Then of course there were the moms! There would not have been an event without them agreeing to let their youngsters come out for the event, and for them also taking time to prepare healthy snacks.

We presented the organizers and main support team with certificates to thank them, check the slideshow below.

Our two speakers yesterday were fantastic. They delivered powerful speeches telling their stories. They both came to TNKR at a high level, but clearly they have improved, sharpening their speeches since they first began with us.

I must do a standard disclaimer for small-minded thinkers:

  • We are not trying to take credit for all of the improvement of refugees who join us. I was surprised a few years ago when one our staffers said it, I realized that people with small minds believe such things without any evidence. Our philosophy is that we meet refugees at their level, and hope they will continue to improve in reaching or developing their goals. We take it as a compliment when a North Korean refugee who is at a high level thinks we are worth joining. At that point, they don’t need us, they have numerous opportunities from larger and more well-funded organizations, plus they have the confidence and ability to go into the street or Facebook to meet people. Still, they join us, and keep coming back.

Both speakers yesterday came to TNKR at a high level, we are pleased they chose and continue to choose us. Best of all, they praise us for our sincere approach to put refugees at the center. They have come to us more than once to collect volunteer tutors and mentors eager to teach them.

When the event was over, we posed for photos. you can check the slideshow.

When the event was over, I asked each of the speakers to take a photo with me. They both said, of course, with one adding, “I was disappointed you didn’t ask earlier, I was waiting for this moment!”

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