The United States has college preparatory schools of almost every imaginable type, but perhaps only one for North Korean refugees.
Andrew Hong started Empower House with the goal of helping North Korean refugees obtain a college education. The Chicago-based Empower House, which is not a formal school, provides refugees with a place to live as well as tutoring and college prep assistance, so they can focus on their studies without worrying about supporting themselves. They are assisted by volunteers from the South Korean community in Chicago and students from the University of Chicago.
Empower House grew out of Hong’s original nonprofit, Emancipate North Koreans (ENoK), which got off the ground five years ago. At first, the group worked with North Koreans individually, but after time, the need for more programmatic help became evident, Hong says.
The United States is home to a tiny population of approximately 180 North Korean refugees, according to a 2015 government report. They began arriving in the United States two years after the passage of the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004 and are now dispersed throughout the country.
One of the many reasons why there are so few North Koreans in the United States is the long and arduous journey from the hermit country to the United States. Those who leave North Korea typically first have to pass through China on their way south toward more welcoming countries where they can apply for refugee status. In China, North Korean defectors run the risk of being arrested and repatriated by Chinese authorities, who are more sympathetic to Kim Jong-un’s regime.
The majority of North Koreans choose to go to South Korea, where they are granted automatic citizenship and benefits to assist with the resettlement process.
For those who choose to travel to the United States, the resettlement process has its own financial and cultural challenges.
Finding work can be difficult for those who have not had the opportunity to learn English or obtain a GED or other job-related training, or they might only earn just enough to get by. Others hide their identities, fearing that North Korean authorities might exact retribution against their families.
Diverse spoke to Hong about the experience of starting Empower House and the challenges that North Koreans face on their journey here. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Q: What was the inspiration behind Empower House?
A: We had been working with the North Korean defectors one-on-one before we created Empower House. A lot of them defected when they were very young. In China, they have to spend time hiding because of the whole political situation. So they really missed their whole chance at an education, and they never received any formal training. When they come here, some of them have the passion to pursue higher learning. Some of them are working full time during the day and trying to go to adult high school at night.
They didn’t have time to do any assignments they had to help them learn.
We thought, ‘We can provide some area where they can study and won’t have to worry about their financial situation for a year or two, or even three years. That way, they can get a high school diploma and we can coach them through college counseling.’ We were able to raise the funds, and recruit a lot of volunteers, to create what is essentially a mini-boarding school for North Korean refugees.
Q: How many North Koreans are you working with currently and what sort of services do you provide for them?
A: At the moment there are five. One student actually got her GED and started college in January. Two people left after a year, now they’re working, and we received two new people. So there’s been outflow and inflow.
At Empower House, first they go through ESL, and then GED training and then college prep. With the GED, it’s mostly the English that’s problematic. Granted not many of them have training in math either, so we have to work a lot on math. Except for the math section, the other three sections in GED are writing and reading comprehension, so we really have to work on their English.
Q: The one who is in school, which college is she attending?
A: She’s going to a community [college], because she also wants to work and, after finishing two years, she’s going to transfer to a four-year college.
Q: What is the journey like from North Korea to the United States, as far as you’re aware?
A: Right now, unless it’s a really special case, all the defectors go through Southeast Asia. Obviously everyone has to go through China and then, because it’s dangerous there, they try to make it to Southeast Asia. They might go to Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia or Thailand, but they generally want to go to Thailand, because that’s where the [Immigration Detention Center (IDC)] is. When they get there, they turn themselves in to police, and then I believe they go to court and they need to get bailed out. They know that they’re refugees so they’re referred to the [IDC] camps. From there, they’re approached by the South Korean embassy workers who ask them where they would like to go.
The vast majority of them go to South Korea, because the language is the same, and there they get a lot of benefits from the government because it’s such a special population for them. The South Korean constitution says any Korean born on the Korean peninsula is a Korean citizen, so they automatically become citizens.
As a side note, some people do choose to go somewhere else, because they’ve heard of people who are discriminated against in South Korea, because it’s pretty easy to spot them from their accent. They choose mostly English-speaking countries. Canada is probably the next biggest, next to South Korea, and then the U.K., Australia.
Q: What is the wait like to get into the United States?
A: The U.S. receives a lot of refugees from all over the world, so it can take a long time, because there are so many people that are being backlogged. It can take a year or even longer sometimes. I know someone who waited in the Thai [IDC] for four years.
It’s a really grueling process. They have freedom, but then where they’re staying is not the most ideal place. I asked them and it’s almost like jail, with bars as doors for their cells. It’s really not the ideal situation. So a lot of them give up on going to the U.S. and go to South Korea instead. The people who come here are pretty persistent; they really want to come here.
Q: Do negative perceptions of America also prevent them from choosing the United States as their country of choice?
A: A lot of people ask them, ‘America is the archenemy of North Korea, so why did you choose to come here?’ They already know in North Korea, particularly the millennial generation, that America’s not that bad, because the information firewall is not as impervious as before. They get to see South Korean soap operas and outside information through other people they know who are outside. When they come to China, that’s the most shocking moment for them, because of how much more developed it is.
Catherine Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.