A Trip to Seoul: Teaching Refugees

November 22, 2009

It’s been quite a while since my last post, and let me confess that the events described herein are certainly not new. It was two weeks ago that I went to Seoul to to volunteer to teach a class of North Korean refugees. This was something that I had very much wanted to do, and I had planned on going every other week. The journey from Busan to Seoul is simple. Just hop on the KTX ( the high-speed train that  careers between Busan in the southeast and Seoul in the Northwest at around 300 kph (about 186 mph)) and in three very comfortable hours,voilà, you’re in the capitol. Three hours is admittedly a hefty slice of time, and because the classes  are on Saturday mornings, I would have to leave after school on Friday and spend the night in Seoul. I really did not mind the time commitment; but unfortunately, all of this KTXing and overnighting is quite expensive, and it’s the financial commitment that now keeps me from continuing regularly at the refugee center. It was a difficult decision, but in the end, it just didn’t make sense to be spending such large sums of money traveling cross-country every other weekend.





Finances aside, the class was more than worthwhile. Interacting with individuals who have successfully fled from one of the poorest countries in the world with some of the most egregious human rights abuses and one of the world’s most horrific dictators puts one’s life into a broader and more meaningful perspective, and it is moments or experiences like these that are incredibly formative of and beneficial to one’s holistic psyche, world-view, global gestalt concept, personal dasein, or whathaveyou. Aiding other individuals can help to establish or reinforce one’s own sense of purpose in life, because such action actively puts the self into a point of intersection in the vast, inordinately sprawling web of humanity. Indeed, this might sound selfish: do we help others out of the pure and honest desire to aid? Or does the aid become a means to our own existential gratification? This is a question that, when volunteering, it’s best to just avoid, as it can easily turn feelings of warm-hearted satisfaction into an unsettling guilt.  So, I like to think that I want to volunteer my time with North Korean refugees because it seems like the “right” thing to do, because such an action is in line with certain basic moral principles–principles that, if all mankind were to follow, would transform our beautiful but greatly troubled world into a bona-fide utopia, an incarnate nirvana–such as the good ole’ “Golden Rule”: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Ah, but then could such an act really be considered “good” if carried out solely to acquiesce to some sort of socially accepted structure of “morality”? Or must there be a real desire to help that is so genuine and authentic that it defies explanation, detection, and even origin? I would like to think that such a desire lies in my being. Philosophers from Socrates to Derrida and just about everyone in between have discussed this problem. This is all very theoretical, and one might wonder if it even matters in praxis; I think it does. However, this is a discussion probably better left to a freshman undergraduate course on philosophical ethics. In short, I do what I can.

Moving on…

There are two classes at the Refugee Center: one for children, and one for their parents, each two hours long. A friend and I taught the parents’ class, while some other friends with elementary experience tackled (not literally) the children’s class. Having come from the DPRK, not exactly the loudest lauder of Occident culture or linguistic practice, the students’ English level is, as one could imagine, very low. However, their lack of previous educational opportunity is counterbalanced by their excitement and eagerness to learn. And teaching a class of ten such adults is a sea change from my usually chaotic 40 high school students. Here are some pictures, courtesy of Daniel Park, of the class and me:



After the class we all went out for lunch, which was followed by a North Korean human rights demonstration back at Seoul Station. Individuals read letters addressed to presidents Lee Myung Bak and Barack Obama pleading for increased attention and action regarding North Korean human rights. Refugees shared their stories and gave testimony to the living conditions in the DPRK, sometimes shedding tears for those still trapped above the 38th parallel (a not exactly accurate, though colloquially acceptable, phraseology). This guy wearing a black cloth sack over his head would translate into English the various testimonials given in Korean. He spoke, screamed, and shouted, at a volume decibels above his translatees, coloring each supplication with a desperate, pleading urgency:

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Here are some more pictures from the event:



Next weekend I will return to Seoul for Thanksgiving dinner with the U.S. Ambassador at the Embassy. I’m very much looking forward to stuffing my face at the smorgasbord of American fare until I go the way of Mr. Creosote.

And regarding the refugee classes, I’ll be filling in when needed, and perhaps (I hope) playing a larger role in some capacity next semester.


2 Responses to “A Trip to Seoul: Teaching Refugees”

  1. Ana said

    Dear SeoulPatchrick…

    I typed in a search for how to volunteer with North Korean refugees in Seoul and I came across your blog. I’ve been in Seoul for about 3 months and feel I can offer more to the community with my time. I worked for a refugee resettlement agency in the U.S. before coming here, and thought I could also put that experience to use. Basically, I’m asking you if you could tell me about the place you volunteered at and how I could get connected with them?

    Thank you,
    Ana Diaz Chow

  2. Mike said


    I’m after the same information as the above poster. I had the information for a refugee center. Unfortunately, I seem to have misplaced it. I hope you can help.

    Thank you,

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