Uri Whang '13 Johnson Opportunity Grant Winner Connects American Students and North Korean Refugees

Uri Whang is a classics and politics major from Collierville, Tenn. She applied for a Johnson Opportunity Grant to supplement the grant she received from the Davis Projects for Peace to found a nonprofit startup, Benefitting All Children in Korea: Bringing Educational Equality BACK.

During fall term of 2010, I worked with my co-chair Soobin Cho of W&L's PAACE, an organization committed to promoting Asian cultural awareness on campus, to bring a naturalized American citizen who had defected from North Korea. He shared with us a heart-wrenching story of the struggles he faced to escape the Kim Jung-Il regime and how he finally gained freedom as an American citizen. I vividly remember that he had the presence and power to make everyone present in the room silent and completely attentive. His story shattered all the stereotypes I had of North Koreans being "brainwashed" people. My grandparents, after leaving the North following the Korean War, still to this day remain bitter at North Korea for seizing the entirety of their private property and dividing their families. I grew up feeling that the situation was hopeless; even if North Korea fell, there would be no reunification of the Koreas. But the defector who spoke at W&L less than a year ago was able to slowly reverse my feelings of despair. His experiences with his own people living in constant fear of doing something offensive to the state as well as his own starvation were what drove him to defect, and he claimed that many people in North Korea feel the same way. This painted a different picture of refugees, and listening to him empowered me to do something to shatter stereotypes and bridge the gap between people.

I had wanted to pioneer a program to aid refugee students and connect them with American students in a way that has never been done before, and I was able to do this through Benefitting All Children in Korea: Bringing Educational Equality BACK (The BACK Project). For the past semester and summer, thanks to generous financial support from the Davis Projects for Peace and the Washington and Lee Johnson Opportunity Grant, I worked to establish long-term partnerships with two schools for North Korean refugees, the Yeomyung School and the PNAN Refugee School. The BACK Project focuses on education and intercultural interaction between American college students and the defectors, pairing American students studying abroad in Seoul with refugees in the schools. One school, Yeomyung, caters towards high school level students while the other school, PNAN, accommodates young adults with English. Project volunteers work relentlessly to improve the lives of the North Korean refugee students and help them integrate in to South Korean society, providing them with the skills, resources and guidance necessary for higher education and individual expression.

The refugee students who are interested in learning American culture, meeting American students and receiving English education and peer counselor support meet with our BACK Project volunteers on a weekly basis, connecting the two cultures and shattering the prejudices that both sides may have had. The majority of the funding I received was spent on resources for the project such as English reading books of various levels. In addition to learning to read books in English and working on English conversation, a group of about 20 students met during the project period (April - June) to do different activities that included watching American movies together, going to a cooking class on North Korean foods taught by North Korean refugees, and doing outdoor activities such as canoeing, kayaking and going to festivals in the Seoul area. The project also opened doors for additional one-on-one tutoring for those refugees who really wanted to practice English that many students took advantage of.

More importantly, the pairing of American college students with our North Korean refugee students created a greater understanding between the two very different cultures. In the beginning, there may have been hesitance, uncertainty and restraints between the two camps, but as time went by, students from both groups became comfortable and the cultural barriers washed away. I think that people really opened up and if anything, our American volunteers went away exposed to a different perspective on North Korea, while North Korean students went away with a different perspective on Americans and improved English language skills.

Launching the BACK Project this semester has proved to be a challenging effort, and the project would not have had the success that it attained without compassionate student volunteers from around the United States, the Center for International Educational Exchange and its Seoul director, Suzanne Han, and the open-mindedness of the two refugee schools that we partnered with. Because of them, the BACK Project will continue to try to bridge the gap between different cultures, helping North Korean refugees assimilate into society, and providing resources and English language skills to over 50 new students. Through this invaluable experience, I have learned to question stereotypes and celebrate diversity, feeling empowered by the strength of our refugees.