When my South Korean co-director and I began having disagreements about a project centered on North Korean refugees, she pulled the "expert card" on me.
Based on her years of experience working with refugees, interviewing them directly in Korean, and her academic background (she has a master's degree in North Korean Studies), Lee Eun-koo said that as a newcomer I didn't know it was "known" that North Korean refugees are passive. Warning that expecting refugees to take charge of how they learn was doomed to fail, she threatened to quit. She frowned at me numerous times as we held our first "Matching" session at which refugees chose their own volunteer English tutors.
Over the next couple of months, she admitted that it seemed that her eyes were lying to her. She knew from her experience and background that refugees were passive. But at our "Matching" sessions, she saw eager refugees had closely studied the resumes of tutors, had a "hit list" of tutors they wanted, and sometimes showed up more than two hours early to choose.
Instead of being passive, we had to warn refugees not to abuse the tutors by asking too much of them. In debriefing sessions months later, refugees said they loved the program because they had the power to choose. Many of them had participated in government programs, but they were directed and had no autonomy. Based on feedback she received from refugees, my co-director became such an advocate of having refugees choose that she tried implementing the idea at the government agency she was working at then. Like the man who said he believed in baptism because he had seen it done, my co-director became a believer.
She failed, as I expected she would. At a recent party, I bumped into an influential South Korean colleague who insists she tried not to be prejudiced against refugees. She has heard from others working directly with refugees that they lie and cheat with impunity, don't show up for classes or events, are always late, show no sense of responsibility, and are passive until they are pushed. She then told me that I must be having the same problems.
She didn't believe me. She had heard a little about our project and even checked a few of my email updates, but she said that I am the first person to work long-term with refugees who says they can be disciplined, thankful, and aggressive in a positive way. She said that her colleagues working with refugees have horror stories and social welfare workers routinely get their hearts broken.
Her ears still couldn't accept what I was saying, but she said that she wanted to inform others. I'm sure they will have doubts about me, as I have doubts about them. I told her the very old joke about a man caught in bed with another woman. He asks his wife, "Who are you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?" Experts about North Korea who know about North Koreans expect me not to believe my own eyes and experience.
I told my expert friend that volunteer tutors in our project submitted 1,440 class reports last year, almost four tutoring sessions per day. Many of the tutors submitted reports late and some didn't submit any at all, so I can't be sure of the exact numbers. But based on reports sent in, one refugee had 62 study sessions, studying a total of 118 hours with 10 tutors. Another refugee had 59 one-to-one private tutoring sessions, studying 126 hours with five tutors.
My expert friend was shocked. Do we pay refugees to show up? No. Plus, we have a waiting list of more than 70. How do we get them to follow through? We create opportunities, have structure with flexibility, and enforce our rules (yes, we have booted refugees and volunteer tutors).
I admit we have had problems, that some refugees ignore the rules and that some tutors can be so forgiving that they put the project at risk. But the problems are so minor that even researchers fascinated with problems would be bored.
My co-director, a "shy Korean lady," has emerged as a leader. A few days ago, I received a message from her: she was at a meeting with others (non-South Koreans) who work on North Korean refugee issues.
They praised our program as being innovative and practical for refugees and for creating opportunities for volunteers to be involved. I reminded her about our battles as we set up the project, that I had warned we would make a mistake if we benchmarked what others had done. My co-director now laughs at how closed-minded she had been a few years ago. In case she forgets, I pull my expert card on her.
Casey Lartigue Jr. is the co-founder of theTeach North Korean Refugees Global Education Center (TNKR) in Seoul. He can be reached at CJL@post.harvard.edu.