Studying or socializing with refugees?


Volunteers eager to help North Korean refugees run into a brick wall with my nonprofit: No socializing. That takes fun out of volunteering for those who dream of helping North Korean refugees with clubbing, hiking or dating. We started matching North Korean refugees with volunteers in March 2013, thinking everyone realized how important it was for refugees to learn English. Then we heard some things: One, a North Korean refugee in our program talked openly about dating a U.S. soldier tutoring her. Two, a few North Korean refugees said they wished they could focus on studying without being expected to socialize or talk about North Korea. Three, a few North Korean refugees let us know their tutors were asking them out to dinner, church or the movies. They hated saying no because their helpers were volunteers.


We want volunteers to have good experiences, but also realized the project would not be taken seriously by refugees. We did something rather dramatic: Banned all male tutors from a recruitment session. Some males criticized me for making them feel like predators, but we had to make the point that we were focused on studying, not socializing. We tried same-gender studying, but the session with males was a failure. The male tutors did the minimum, without enthusiasm, and not for long. We realized that male refugees would lose out with same-gender studying. Allowing socializing could create some fantastic memories for both volunteers and students, but we focus on studying rather than socializing for two main reasons. One, there are many other programs with socializing; we are creating a safe zone for refugees to focus on studying.
Two, to focus on academic rather than socializing skills, we must be unattractive for playboys and socializers. About 70 percent of our refugee students are females. I was warned more than once by volunteers that the program was being targeted by males who were not really interested in tutoring. We raised our standards, eliminated socializing, increased monitoring. Fewer socializers showed up. They didn’t give up, some of the playboys who were not in our program were even using my name as a reference, telling refugees they were friends with me and they could help them with their English.


Like pickup artists saying hello to every woman in a bar, they were scouring my Facebook page to find female refugees. One playboy made the mistake of contacting our Academic Advisor, a Korean-American lady who coldly responded that she is a fluent English speaker, a certified teacher, and didn’t need his help with English. Not just the playboys are to blame. One tutor talked over and over again about a refugee female who asked him to introduce her to men so she could get married. One male refugee flirted with female tutors so much that one female tutor asked me if she could stop tutoring him. A refugee began dating a volunteer who had quit tutoring but continued hovering around our project. I am always amazed that the refugees listen to us. After all, they even ignored the North Korean regime, escaping at the threat of arrest, torture, or execution. Why should they listen to us?


It isn’t just volunteers who have tried to get us into socializing. Some refugees have gotten government and foundation support to set up socializing activities.  One of them, a student in our program, received a grant larger than our entire budget to set up cultural activities for North Korean refugees. He met with us to talk about collaborating, but we declined. I told him: It sounded like we were creating a microwave/freezer. He wanted a freezer to store his ice cream, I wanted a microwave to heat up some food. It wasn’t possible to have those things in the same place. We can’t forget about those refugees seeking a safe-zone to study. Almost two years ago we had a refugee who joined our program, desperate to learn English. She had joined other programs but they pulled her into socializing activities. She later learned about our project, but was suspicious if we were different. Things were until about a month later, one of her tutors contacted her separately asking if they could have coffee together instead of studying. She ignored him the first time, but when he tried again, she sent us screen-shots of his overtures in Korean. After giving him a chance to explain, we banned the volunteer. The refugee was amazed we acted so quickly and decisively. Every time she sends in a report on her classes, she thanks me and my co-director personally and encourages others to join us, if they are serious. Studying or socializing? Not everyone must do things our way, those refugees or volunteers seeking socializing can go to Itaewon or join social clubs instead of running into our brick wall of no socializing.


By Casey Lartigue, Jr., co-founder of the Teach North Korean Refugees Global Education Center 

(Korea Times)

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