Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Take Refuge

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Take Refuge

Article excerpt

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 Chicagobased 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-uns 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.

What was the inspiration behind Empower House?

We had been working with the North Korean defectors one-onone 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.

How many North Koreans are you working with currently and what sort of services do you provide for them?

At the moment there are five. One student actually got her GED and started college in January. …

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