December 14, 2015 Print

A refugee student (left) with Teach North Korean Refugees volunteer Jenny Lee and organization co-founder Casey Lartigue.

Most people never have to think about what life would be like after escaping from a totalitarian regime, but Atlas Network partner Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR) is dedicated to teaching English and life skills to as many refugees as possible. A recent broadcast on Voice of America radio devoted a segment to the accomplishments of this ambitious organization and its many students.

“We have seen quite a few North Korean refugees telling the world, in fluent English, about the human rights situation in North Korea,” the Voice of America broadcast notes (translated from Korean). “Park Yeon-mi, a famous North Korean refugee, recently published her book ‘In Order to Live’ in English. ‘A Thousand Miles to Freedom’ is another piece of literature written in English by a North Korean defector. In 2013, North Korean refugee Lee Sung-min appeared on C-TV, the most popular Canadian broadcast, to let the world know about the human rights situation in the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] DPRK. He was recently accepted to Columbia University, one of the most prominent schools in the United States. These outstanding world citizens’ achievements can be attributed to the fine work of TNKR in South Korea.”

The broadcast explains the origins of TNKR in 2013, after co-founder Casey Lartigue heard a TED talk by North Korean refugee Hyeonseo Lee, who escaped the country at the age of 14, telling a harrowing story both of life in her brutally oppressive and poverty-stricken homeland and of her struggles adapting to a life of low social status and scant opportunity as a young refugee in China.

Lartigue decided that an organization was needed to help these refugees acquire the skills necessary to build a better life for themselves and their families, and to tell their own stories to the world.

“He said it’s hard to get a job in South Korea if one does not speak sufficient English, so learning English allows the refugees to empower themselves here,” the Voice of America broadcast explains. “There are currently 180 North Korean refugees learning English through TNKR. They are all taught by volunteer teachers in one-on-one sessions. There are 300 volunteer teachers in the organization, and each student meets with three teachers on average. However, they can learn from as many teachers as they choose.”

For many of these refugees, it’s the first time in their lives that they’ve had an opportunity to receive any kind of formal education, Lartigue points out in the broadcast.