[Interview] Refugees say ‘Thank You’ to TNKR

Monday 1st August, 2016

“TNKR” earns the biggest gratitude from North Korean refugees.

There is one organization most revered by the North Korean refugee community in South Korea. This organization is especially popular among North Korean refugee university students who are preparing themselves for a new future in the South. The name of the organization is TNKR (Teach North Korean Refugees).

TNKR provides free English classes for North Korean refugees by connecting them to native speaking volunteer tutors. Casey Lartigue Jr. from the U.S. and Ms. Lee Eun-koo from South Korea are the co-directors of TNKR. We interviewed them in their humble office at an alley in Shin-su Dong, MapoGu, Seoul. They moved there on July 9 after three years of operating out of other offices.

Q.: Tell us about your organization.

Lee Eun-koo (Lee): We are an NGO registered with the City of Seoul under the name of“TNKR Global Education Center.” TNKR stands for Teach North Korean Refugees.

Q.:Tell us a little bit about yourselves.

Lee: I received a masters degree in North Korean Studies at Ewha Women’s University and another master’s degree in International Politics in the U.K. I was a researcher with the North Korea Database Center for 4 years and a researcher with the Korea Educational Development Institute for five years and. Now, I am working at Volunteering Korea and volunteering with TNKR.

Casey Lartigue (Casey): I received a master’s degree in education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a bachelor’s degree from the Harvard University Extension School. As a young man, I taught English at  Yonsei University and Hanyang University. When I went back to the USA, I worked at the Cato Institute as an Education Policy Analyst, a research and communications manager at Fight For Children, and even hosted a political talk show on XM Satellite Radio. When I returned to South Korea in 2010, I worked at the Center for Free Enterprise. I had met some North Korean refugees socially, but I didn’t know how to help. Some asked me if I could teach English to them, but I said no, I’m not a teacher anymore. Later, I realized I could help connect them with volunteers I had met as part of Korea International Volunteers.  Lee Eun-koo and I met, we began to talk about how we could help refugees, we have been working together since March 2013

Q.: As co-directors, what are the things that you have most in common?

Casey: We don’t always agree about how to do things, but we have two related common goals. First, doing something practical to provide opportunities for refugees. Second, taking action to make it happen.

Q.: What are the differences that you have?

Lee: Casey has a large scope of ideas. He always thinks about them over and over again, until he shapes these ideas and comes up with many new programs. I have become the hands and legs of the program and get things done. So, we are different but also complement each other.

Q.: Co-director Lee is Korean, but Casey, you are an American. What made you come all the way to Korea and help out North Korean refugees?

Casey: When I was at Harvard, I was interested in helping people who lacked educational opportunity. My first professional job in the USA was at the Cato Institute. As a volunteer, I also helped Black-American students from low income families, to give them an opportunity to go to the school of their choice. In other words, my work was about creating educational opportunities. For six years I was a researcher working on educational freedom, with the main accomplishment being the Opportunity Scholarship Program for 1,800 low-income children in Washington, D.C. Then I returned to Korea after re-establishing contact with the Center for Free Enterprise (CFE).  It was at CFE that I became interested in North Korean issues and the refugees. There, my work was mostly about the South Korean market economy, but then on March 1, 2012, my life changed. About 30 North Korean refugees who escaped to China were being repatriated back to North Korea. I started recruiting volunteers to join protests in front of the Chinese embassy. There I met Ms. Park Sun-young, a lawmaker who was holding a hunger strike to oppose sending the refugees back to the North. I told her I wanted to get involved with helping North Korean refugees. She later started the Mulmangcho School (for North Korean refugee adolescents), I joined as the volunteer International Cooperation Advisor, mainly recruiting volunteer teachers. Around the same time, I met Eun-koo. Our question was: “How could we help North Korean refugees in a practical way?” That was the fundamental question we discussed. TNKR is the result of that discussion. When I met refugees, they would tell me that they needed to learn English. and asked me to teach them. I told them that I wasn’t a professional tutor even though I am from the U.S. After the experience with Mulmangcho, I realized that we could set up a program connecting refugee adults with volunteer tutors. TNKR was born in March 2013.

Q.: Recently, we have more several cover stories about North Korean refugee students in universities. Whenever we meet them, they ALL mention TNKR. How many refugees have joined TNKR so far?

Lee: Since 2013 to the present day in July 2016, we have had 248 students and 438 volunteer tutors. Seventy students are on the waiting list to join the program. We are always careful about maintaining the quality of our classes. Also, about 30% of refugee students participating in our program have returned.

Q.: There are more teachers than there are students. Could you tell us why?

Casey: We have more teachers because we want to give the students more opportunities to choose their own teachers. That’s how the TNKR program works. In the last matching session, we had 8 students and 13 volunteers present, so the students could have multiple tutors and classes.

Q.: We understand why students come – they want to learn English. But it’s hard to wrap our head around what drives so many tutors to come here.

Casey:  The tutors cite a number of reasons why they want to volunteer: For some, they want to meet North Korean refugees or they are interested in North Korea. Others say they love volunteering. Others are tired of teaching children who don’t want to study, instead, they want to teach adults who are very motivated. Some others like to have this kind of experience on their resume or as a nice anecdote. And some others are just looking for a different experience. There are many reasons they want to get involved. We are fine with their reasons as long as they add value to the lives of refugees.

Q.: Do you have any special technique to promote TNKR to foreigners?

Lee: Mostly we do promotion on Facebook. Plus, Casey recruits tutors wherever he goes, whenever he is giving a speech or lecture.

Q.: Could you elaborate on how TNKR’s program differentiate itself from others?

Casey: I’m not really sure what others are doing. Our program is not from the teacher’s point of view, but from the point of view of learners. That’s how we encourage our students’ independence in learning. We give students more choice – they choose the tutors, they choose as many as they want, and they choose what they want to study. At a typical session, students and tutors introduce themselves. The tutors are chosen by the students. Naturally, teachers have to think about that, but thankfully they are willing to go through the process of being selected. Learning is focused on students, not the teachers. Another thing is diversity. They get to meet many tutors of different nationalities, experience, and teaching styles. In TNKR, refugee students have power. So, even if tutors come here, they don’t get to be a tutor unless the students choose them. However, you don’t need to be a tutor to help. TNKR has many volunteers doing translation, graphic design, fundraising, and so on.

Q.: Any interesting episodes along the way?

Lee: One student chose 11 tutors. The goal of this student was to study abroad and he was very eager. At the matching session, he couldn’t hear everything the prospective tutors were saying as they introduced themselves, so he sat on the floor right in front of the stage and wrote down what they said to find out which tutors were appropriate for him. I was inspired by the student’s passion to learn English.

Q.: There are many English academies in Korea. Why do North Korean refugees choose TNKR to learn English?

Casey:  I have heard that it is the flexibility of the program and the variety of learning opportunities that is attractive to refugees. They get to have as many one-to-one tutors as they can handle.

Q.: What is the age group of the refugees who join TNKR?

Casey: We don’t ask them their ages, but based on what they say, it varies from twenties to forties. Fifty-five percent of our students are university or graduate students, thirty percent are employed, and the rest are housewives, unemployed, or preparing for college. Most are undergrads or graduate students because they need higher English test scores – that is what so many of them say. Another reason is that they have English classes at their universities. Other students join TNKR because they want to go abroad one day.

Lee: During the three years of running TNKR, I have been inspired by how hard some of the students study. They already have strong motivation, which translates into a great passion for learning. Some are nervous when they first join, they will speak in Korean when they first introduce themselves to the tutors, but after studying with tutors, they return with much more confidence, they will then introduce themselves in English. That is one key thing we have noticed, they increase their confidence.. We really feel the program is worth it when we see how much they develop.

Q.: We had the address of your office, but it was so hard to find. It doesn’t seem like you have enough to run an organization. How do you manage?

Lee: We have a tight budget, so it took us some time to find a place. It is a bit secluded on a steep hill, but that’s the best that we can afford now. TNKR runs on private donations and fundraising by volunteers. Casey and I have put our personal savings into supporting TNKR.

Casey: We rely on private donations. We do ask each volunteer to donate or raise at least 100,000 won. Some of the volunteers help with fundraising, although most don’t, so we do struggle at times. Some of the tutors also buy textbooks for the students and some will insist on paying expenses related to studying.  What is surprising to us has been when refugee students have made donations without us asking, they know that we are doing this as volunteers so they constantly thank us.

Q.: There are many organizations in South Korea supporting North Korean refugees, but not many have directors and volunteers donating their own money to keep it going. It seems impossible, yet you are making it work. Now we can see why TNKR is so loved by refugees for its practical and efficient assistance. Have you applied to the Korea Hana Foundation for subsidies?

Lee: Yes, we did, but we were denied. We don’t really have refined skills in making fundraising proposals or applications. Maybe our proposal didn’t suffice with the evaluation?

Casey> Yes, Eunkoo did want to try, but I think TNKR’s unique programs don’t match up with the current mindset of funders.  They want to see exact plans in advance– what to teach, where to teach, exactly how many students and teachers, fixed class-hours and so on. But TNKR doesn’t operate that way. The students have the power to choose, they have the autonomous decisions and the learning is student-centered at all times. The volunteers are helpers who try to figure out what the students need, then work together with the students and other tutors. Listening to the feedback from refugees in the program, this is what gives our students the most satisfaction in the learning process. The program works for them. We decided when we first started that we were going to build a quality program, not benchmark what others have done and not create a program just to chase funding. Our sole purpose is to help  North Korean refugees who find us.

Q.: Who is the most successful alumni of yours?

Casey: Yeon-mi Park! I met her in 2012 when she spoke very little English. She joined our program for the first time in mid-2013. She returned to us in January 2014 after she had learned a lot of English on her own. Yeon-mi worked hard on her English with 18 TNKR tutors in 8 months, studying as much as 35 to 40 hours a week one-to-one with tutors. But I don’t want people to get the wrong idea, it was her burning desire to improve her English that explains her success, we just created opportunities for her to study along with native speakers who were focused on her particular learning needs.

Q.: Anything you would like say to North Korean refugees?

Lee: Learn English, and you will see a wider world. To refugees who lived harsh lives in North Korea without freedom, TNKR will do its best to be your new eyes to see the world differently.

Casey: Welcome to TNKR! You can focus on English, public speaking, preparing for job interviews, internships or scholarship opportunities. In our program, you have the power to choose, this program has been set up to help you. There are people all over the world who want to help you. We hope to create quality opportunities for you to live your life as you wish to reach your dreams.

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