Wednesday, May 2, 2007

My best workday in Korea yet

Posted in Foreign Service Life, Korea, Travels at 7:29 pm by graceandpoise

Today I went and visited a school. It took all day, if you include the trips there and back (approx 1.5 to 2 hours each), and it was hands-down the most interesting and rewarding work I’ve done since I arrived in Seoul almost nine months ago. It wasn’t just any school, though. Not one of those high-priced schools full of privileged and overworked South Korean children whose parents are pushing them to “get ahead” at the ripe old age of eight. No, it was a school for North Korean students. And it reminded me why I started this job.

For those who might be worried that I’d crossed over to “the dark side,” let me assure you that I have not flipped out and run off to North Korea. The school is one that was set up by the South Korean government to try to help young North Korean “defectors” to adjust to the educational and social realities of being in South Korea. It’s only been open for about one year now, and already they’ve had their first few graduates who have gone on to pursue university studies. Students there are of middle-school and high-school age, and the goal of the school is to bring students from whatever level they start at to a level commensurate with their South Korean counterparts of the same age so that they can enter the South Korean educational system. Some of the 127 students live at the school (built for a maximum capacity of approximately 40), while the rest stay in municipal buildings or elsewhere in the town.

Why is such a school necessary, you might ask? According to the principal of the school, these children have spent between 3.5 and 10 years wandering Asia since their departure from North Korea. The vast majority of them are from the northern area of North Korea, near the Chinese border. The lucky ones’ families have paid several years worth of wages (how this is possible when a month’s wages are barely enough to feed a family for a week, I am mystified by) to smugglers who help them walk across the frozen river into China. Many of the girls have been sold into China by their families for about 800 dollars, which the remainder of the family will use to feed themselves. The principal notes that these girls often have stories of having been tied by wrists and ankles constantly for a 2-year stretch, and they either somehow manage to escape or are turned out onto the streets when they are no longer considered of use. All of the students have stories of spending various numbers of years wandering through other countries, principally China and Southeast Asia, with no legal status, doing odd jobs and staying in makeshift refugee camps. For the majority of their lives, they didn’t have adequate nutrition, and as a result, they are significantly smaller than their South Korean counterparts. I’m sure you can imagine what this sort of situation would do to a child’s prospects of formal education.

Clearly, this is a group of young people who have had to face real difficulties, but they have finally reached the “promised land” of South Korea and they are beginning to get their feet under them. And what is most amazing about them is that, with very very few exceptions, they seem to have a bright outlook on things. They are fun-loving, curious, treat one another like family (which for a lot of them is even more appropriate since they’ve got no biological family), and enjoy talking about all of the normal preoccupations of teenagers around the world. These kids are exceptional individuals. We spent a couple of hours with them, talked some, taught some, and learned a lot. It was a thoroughly uplifting experience for me, and one that I sincerely hope can happen again.

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(For more on this topic, see this article from the Washington Post.)

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