Syria, Baltimore, Iran, Iraq, Nepal, famines, disasters, earthquakes, etc. Al Jazeera TV put aside two minutes to focus on the Teach North Korean Refugees Project.
“North Korean Defectors Learn English to Communicate”
Syria, Baltimore, Iran, Iraq, Nepal, famines, disasters, earthquakes, etc. Al Jazeera TV put aside two minutes to focus on the Teach North Korean Refugees Project.
“North Korean Defectors Learn English to Communicate”
Text and photo by Josh Schenkkan
Casey Lartigue has been working as an advocate for individual freedom all his life. As an advocate for educational choice in Washington, D.C. he was well known — notorious, even. With some pride, he remembers meeting Justice Clarence Thomas of the U.S. Supreme Court at an event in Washington; Justice Thomas already knew him by name as “that young man at the Cato Institute causing so much trouble.”
For his efforts and his notoriety, Lartigue considered himself an activist par excellence — until his first meeting with North Korean refugees made him reconsider everything. “I felt like I was somebody who got deeply involved, and then [I met] somebody who had to rescue themselves,” he says. “I suddenly felt like I was the freedom advocate from the cocktail party.”
Lartigue began a journey towards becoming one of the most known activists for North Koreans in Seoul. He’s been involved in the rise of two of the most publicized defectors of the past decade, Park Yeonmi, who has been featured in The New York Times and The Guardian, and Lee Hyeon-seo, whose 2013 TED talk has been viewed almost four million times. He serves as the volunteer international adviser for the Mulmangcho School, which provides education and therapy for young refugees from the North. Most notably, he cofounded and runs Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR), an organization that matches teachers across a broad range of disciplines with refugees looking for help.
TNKR is unique among other similar programs in both its model and its ambition, which bear Lartigue’s signature emphasis on choice. Whereas most tutoring programs assign only one or two English teachers to each refugee without giving the students any say, TNKR allows the students to select their own tutors, and take as many as they want.
(According to Lartigue, Park, who was involved in the program, had 18 tutors over 8 months, and was at one point studying English over 35 hours a week.)
The emphasis on choice is about empowering the refugees, but it’s also “about taking away the excuse,” Lartigue says. He noticed a high attrition rate in other programs, in part because of refugees’ dissatisfaction with their tutors, who turned out not to be able to provide them with what they were looking for. Some teachers didn’t speak enough Korean to properly explain concepts, for example, while others spoke too much. Lartigue guessed that if refugees were able choose they’d be more likely to stay involved.
As he suspected, retention in the program has been marked. But what he didn’t expect was the variety of things that the refugees were looking for other than English instruction; due to demand, the program now offers language tutoring in Spanish and Latin, and is preparing to offer classes on financial planning, studying abroad and how to deal with the media.
Lartigue named this first track of the program “Finding my Own Way,” because the program had become more than just a way for refugees to learn English; it’d evolved into a means for them to gain the skills they needed to take charge of their lives.
With the success of activists like Park, though, Lartigue saw an opportunity for TNKR to go beyond its original goal of helping refugees help themselves. Though the vast majority of participants only wanted to learn English or other life skills, some were vocal about their desire to fight back against the regime from which they’d escaped. As Park and others had done, they wanted to publicize their experiences, either in North Korea or in their escape into and from China. Lartigue envisioned a matching program modeled off of the first track, where speech coaches would be paired with refugees looking to hone their narratives. With that, the second track emerged: “Telling My Own Story.” So far, roughly 10 of the 156 refugees the program has helped have volunteered.
Lartigue is modest in acknowledging the work he’s been able to accomplish, but as he finishes telling his story, he says there are two things in the last few years he’s particularly proud of. The first involves one of the refugees, who Lartigue had taken to India to speak at a conference, writing an article about TNKR, the help that it provides and Lartigue himself — and then broadcasting it via radio into North Korea. “That, to me, is like a great honor,” Lartigue explains. “ … I’m happy because she’s spreading the message.”
And the second?
“One of the refugees told her sister [still in North Korea]: ‘Come to South Korea. Don’t believe what they say about Americans. There’s a nice American here who can help you study English. You can get as many teachers as you want,’” Lartigue says, with some disbelief.
“I’m like, now this program is a selling point about why you should escape from North Korea.”
profile of Casey Lartigue by Josh Schenkkan
No matter how long your to-do list may be, there is someone with an even longer one: “Somebody.” With the amount of work waiting for him or her, I don’t blame “Somebody” for hiding.
Whenever there is a problem, many people want Somebody to do something about it. Somebody needs to heal the sick, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, help the farmers, educate even the uninterested, pay $15 an hour to all, etc. Somebody never quite does assigned tasks. Unlike Big Foot getting spotted walking around lakes and forests, there aren’t any grainy photos of Somebody slacking off.
While Somebody is the would-be-fix-it-all-savior, there is a different figure causing trouble: “Society.” Whereas Somebody usually needs to do something, society gets blamed for causing trouble.
Society allows bad things to happen and doesn’t care; Somebody gets called to fix Society’s problems. I am starting to suspect this is a tag-team, like an arsonist partnering with a fire-fighter.
As part of Society, you are also to blame. You can’t say you were taking a nap or working overtime when Society caused climate change, homelessness or got teenage girls pregnant. You are guilty ― and Somebody needs to do something about that, too.
A collection of Somebodies called on to fix problems are politicians, although the government’s track record at solving problems is spotty, at best. Entrepreneurs who solve problems never quite live up to the dreamy Somebody who will one day cheerfully fix things for free.
I even occasionally get identified as somebody who can fix problems, but it is usually by people who, after praising what I do, will suggest I am still not doing enough.
For example, when South Koreans learn about my project connecting North Korean refugees with volunteer English tutors, I am often asked why I don’t provide similar opportunities for South Koreans. I am getting kinder and gentler as I age, so I’ve stopped telling such questioners that I’m not stopping them from doing what they’ve asked. Instead, I give them suggestions based on my own experience.
First, I recommend that they join the volunteer group Korea International Volunteers. It was founded by James Kim, I was the founding assistant organizer. He’s one of those good guys who always puts aside time to help others in need, such as organizing volunteers to serve hot meals to homeless people and to tutor low-income children at orphanages and community centers in South Korea. That’s a great starting point for getting involved.
Second, I tell them about HOPE (Helping Others Prosper Through English). Edward M. Robinson is the V.P. of Operations/Project Director, I’m the International Adviser. HOPE offers free tutoring for low-income children and also arranges special events. If you are looking for someone to host a Christmas, birthday or Halloween party, then contact Eddie, he was a professional party planner in the USA and has hosted some great events for children here in South Korea. HOPE is always seeking volunteers and donors, so it is possible to help build up a local organization providing free tutoring for South Korean youngsters.
Then, the big finale: I surprise questioners by informing them that my volunteer Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR) project already includes South Koreans. The focus of TNKR is on the more than 150 North Korean refugees who have come through the project so far, but we have also connected almost 20 South Koreans (who work at North Korean related NGOs or volunteer in some other way) with free English tutors.
I suppose that I should take it as a compliment that people gently complain at me, for a few reasons. One, they flatter me, as 19th century American abolitionist Frederick Douglass said of Monday-morning quarterbacks in his day: “They compliment me in assuming that I should perform greater deeds than themselves.” Two, they apparently believe my volunteer project is so valuable that more people should benefit from it. Three, instead of pushing the government to do what my project does, they point to me, an American, with a small-scale volunteer project, as somebody who can get things done.
I have been saying it for years at staff and planning meetings: I hate Somebody. I learned long ago to eliminate Somebody from my activities, because Somebody turns out to be “Nobody” when it is time to move from idea to action.
After informing questioners about those activities as ways of helping South Koreans, I invite them to start their own projects. I promise to help my questioners if they get started.
I have yet to have any takers. Stealing a line from Rev. Jesse Jackson, I tell them, “You are Somebody!” You can get things done, you don’t need to wait for the President or me. But I am starting to suspect that “Somebody” in their minds means “Somebody Else.”
The writer is the Director for International Relations at Freedom Factory Co.in Seoul and the Asia Outreach Fellow with the Atlas Network in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at: CJL@post.harvard.edu.
When Kim Chol-soo and his wife, Kim Young-ok (not their real names), first arrived in South Korea they had doubts about their new life. It was not what they had expected. Worries over finances arose soon after their arrival, and the government-provided apartment failed to offer them the same comforts as their home back in North Korea. Their first few months living in the South were difficult — a far cry from the life they had just left behind.
After another busy week of sucking the marrow out of life, this morning I slowed down to attend one of the Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR) study sessions. These are always delightful, but this one was extra special because Kyla Hoggard has been tutoring one of the refugees weekly for five months.
Some of the matches fall apart shortly the first week because someone realizes they have forgotten something in his or her schedule. Others have big changes in their lives Some teachers just don’t have enough interesting material to teach one person for months or they get bored with one another. So 5 months of weekly tutoring is quite an accomplishment.
Kyla makes the trip from Suwon to downtown Seoul by 11 a.m. every Sunday, so clearly she is committed to tutoring in TNKR.
It is also a learning experience for me to see how the classes are conducting, advice that I can give to other tutors and refugees in order to make TNKR stronger.
* * *
Oh, and I have been directly connected by another refugee who wants to join TNKR.
Back when Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR) first started in 2013, we weren’t very organized. But we have had some positive signs:
* After a few months, we heard that refugees who had been in the project were referring friends to us.
* Refugees began to return to us.
The latest development that we just heard about:
* Another South Korean has recommended TNKR to a North Korean refugee!
We take this to be a very good sign about the level of respect and increased name recognition for TNKR.
This week, my co-director and I had a few meetings with North Korean refugees who want to enter the project (including a male who declined to be photographed and asked us not to explain details about him). We heard many great things about our project.
And we got to hear some great stories from North Korean refugees who are determined to improve their English. In one case, a newcomer was so enthusiastic that I couldn’t help but to have an impromptu English lesson with her. I am not a real teacher, I did my best to teach her, but I made it clear that her real tutors and coaches would be 1000 times better than I am. She is so ready to study English, she is clearing her schedule in anticipating of focusing on English like never before.
And another one who just started with us is throwing herself into studying English. I tried to give her some advice, but made it clear that I am not an expert.
We also had a great meeting with a North Korea expert who is advising us about an organizational change that we will be announcing soon.
One of the refugees is not the least bit interested in being a public speaker, but she needs to be able to present herself in English for business reasons. It is good when they come to us with specific goals, it will make it easier for her to match up with proper English helpers.
I am especially proud because refugees have been reaching out directly to me. One said she wasn’t sure that I would answer her plea for help, then was so shocked when I quickly connected her with my co-director, and we moved quickly to get her into the project.
And the praise for me, wow. One called me an “angel.” Then she said the same thing about Eunkoo.
Another refugee said we are changing her life, making her feel that she can reach her goals (she has wanted to study English since she arrived, but hasn’t found the right situation). And a male refugee said he can’t believe an American is leading this kind of helpful project for North Korean refugees.
We also have some respected South Koreans in the NKHR field who have reached out to us recently to let us know how much they support what we are doing and offered their expertise to us.
It has been another great week for TNKR, and apparently next week will be even better…
Recently I have had several volunteers and students in the Teach North Korean Refugees project tell me how inspiring it has been for them. Some say it has changed their lives, reminded them to take charge of their lives. There are some days that that I think, “Wow, that meeting/event/
Meeting 1: The day started with co-directors Lee Eunkoo and Casey Lartigue having an 8 am texting session with a North Korean refugee who is extremely excited to be joining up with TNKR. She wants Track 1, Track 2, and if we had Track 3, she would join it without even asking us what it is…
Meeting 2: TNKR Operations Manager Suzanne Atwill Stewart followed through on her plan to visit me at my office to improve our coordination. By that, I mean that she reminds me about my ideas, and puts legs and arms to them. We had a great talk about many things and came to many agreements/I relented. We are developing a fantastic working relationship, mutual respect and admiration, and always pushing ahead to develop TNKR.
Meeting 3: Lunch with the Freedom Factory team. Lot of laughs. The tone is set by CEO Kim Chung Ho 김 정호. It helps that he pays for lunch every day, motivating me to come to the office every day…
Meeting 4: We were joined by a talented young lady who wants to join up with the TNKR team. Suzanne Atwill Stewart and I introduced TNKR to her, then we outlined some possible options for her. I noticed Suzanne taking a lot of notes while I was talking, so she will really know my thinking cuz I just say it, but she tracks and organizes it…
The great thing about the meeting is that when I told the possible volunteer that I would post the photo of us on Facebook, her response was, “GREAT!” Yes, she has passed the first test of being on the TNKR team…
Meeting 5: Suzanne Atwill Stewart is now one of the coaches of Cherie Yang, Special Ambassador of TNKR. Cherie now has 6 coaches and tutors, studies relentlessly. Neither sleet, nor rain, nor snow, not even a head cold can keep her from studying. They studied together today at the office. Watching Suzanne teach English reminded me why I could never be a real English teacher. She is focused, corrects on the spot until it is done right. Rob Paige, former secretary of education and former football coach, once told me in a discussion that he had learned as a coach, “Do it right, or do it twice.” Coach Suzanne Atwill Stewart seems to have the same approach–do it right, or do it twice…
Meeting 6: We wrapped up the day by having dinner on the US army base with some of TNKR’s newest fans. One of the hosts enjoyed a presentation we recently made, and when his wife heard about us, she contacted me and invited me for lunch. Of course, I ended up inviting the entire TNKR team, our hosts kept saying, “Of course!” So we all had a wonderful time. It was another wonderful day. How could tomorrow beat this?^^
A beautiful speech contest
By Casey Lartigue, Jr.
Tell your stories. That was the advice I gave in 2003 when I was in the midst of an intense campaign to create a school voucher program for low-income children in Washington, D.C.
I had been influenced from a young age by abolitionist Wendell Phillips recounting the Aesop fable “The Man and the Lion” (in a letter in the 1845 book by fugitive American slave Frederick Douglass.) In the fable, the lion complained that lions would be accurately represented “when the lions write history.” The lion says that instead of the statue of Hercules tearing apart a lion, “If a lion had made it, the man would be under a lion’s paw.”
As I spoke to D.C. Parents for School Choice on September 19, 2003 (I was the replacement speaker for Democratic D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams) and the following day gave the keynote address to the annual public meeting of the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association, I made the point: “Tell your story.” As I said then: “Just think about the questions that people ask: ‘Will the school system lose money?’ ‘Will the schools be drained?’ ‘Are we giving up on public education?'” The focus too often is on the system, the teachers’ union, the staff, not the children.
My focus is now on North Korean human rights, but the point remains the same. Those seeking change need to tell their stories. The North Korean regime has its books, music, poetry, propaganda, and brainwashing enforced by prison camps and shoot-to-kill border guards.
Up to the late 1990s, the testimonies of North Korean refugees were dismissed as being told by the “selfish” elite that had left families behind. Hwang Jang-yop the architect of Juche who escaped from North Korea in 1997 shortly before his 74th birthday was accused of seeking publicity for himself and had his motives questioned. As more North Koreans began to flee after the 1990s famines, it was more difficult to dismiss the number of similar narratives being told by non-celebrity refugees.
These stories need to be told. On Feb, 28, I was the host of an English speech contest featuring seven North Korean refugees participating in the Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR) project that I co-founded two years ago with South Korean researcher Lee Eun-koo. The contestants prepared with native and fluent English speakers they met through TNKR, answering the question: “How can you help North Koreans?”
There were three striking things about their inspiring speeches. One, the refugees did not propose the kind of large-scale “save the world” proposals that fascinate experts and reporters. They highlighted practical things that can be done ― and expressed deep appreciation for our project allowing them to improve their English and to speak out.Andrew Lee, the winner of the contest, mentioned that people can help simply by being friends with refugees, that “understanding hearts are what we need.” That, he said, can be “taking the first step toward unification here in South Korea.”
Two, there were not any overly dramatic stories. Some were speaking publicly for the first time, so inexperience, the time limit (10 minutes each), speaking before an audience of strangers and fellow refugees ― in their second or third languages ― may be reasons. I hope they will not be pushed to exaggerate their stories or to reveal too much about themselves because of reporters seeking “man bites dog” headlines. To the typical reporter, there is no such thing as a bad question ― the burden is on the interviewee to give clear answers and draw boundaries on questions that violate their privacy or family security.
In contrast to reporters and experts who dismiss refugee stories as “nothing new,” the audience at our speech contest seemed to appreciate the refugees for what they are: real-life examples of brave people who successfully escaped from totalitarianism to freedom.
Three, we had the usual absence of North Korean males. Almost 80 percent of refugees arriving in South Korea are females, and our project reflects that. Two of the 10 refugees who applied for the contest are male, including the winner.
As I listened to the speeches, I thought back to Wendell Phillips, the abolitionist, writing that he was “glad the time has come when the lions write history.” This year, at least five North Korean refugees will publish books in English (including two former participants in TNKR and another who helped inspire the project).
In her speech, third-place finisher Cherie Yang, a newcomer to TNKR, mentioned that she was delighted to be speaking along with other refugees. Instead of viewing each other with suspicion as they would have in speaking publicly in North Korea, freedom allowed them to speak their minds and learn from each other. The lions are writing history, telling their stories, listening to, and learning from each other.
The writer is Director for International Relations at Freedom Factory Co. in Seoul and Asia Outreach Fellow with the Atlas Network in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at CJL@post.harvard.edu.