Monday, December 10, 2012

Volunteering with North Korean Defectors (Gwangju pt. 2)

On Saturday afternoon of my weekend in Gwangju, I accompanied Katelyn and Jason to the "HaNa Center" where free English tutoring sessions, among other events and services, are provided for North Korean defectors.

While leaving the communist nation is a severe crime for its oppressed citizens, many still risk their lives to cross the dangerous borders, and some (over 2,000 a year, now totaling over 20,000) eventually find their way to South Korea, where they begin the lifelong task of assimilation. Because so many of these people have left their families behind and are almost completely unable to maintain communication with them, it certainly isn't easy.

Along with seeking gainful employment or trying to fit in at school, defectors also take on learning English, still considered the key to a more prosperous life. This is where the HaNa centers come in. ("Hana" (하나) is the Korean word for "one", and it represents the desire for the eventual reunification of the two Koreas.) Some Fulbright ETAs volunteer weekly or bi-weekly at HaNa centers to teach and tutor defectors who range from children learning the alphabet to adults preparing for job interviews.

I am not allowed to say much more about these centers, where they are, or who is involved, etc. (and I didn't even take any photos at the center itself), but my short experience there was memorable.

The three of us were the first to arrive, and my first priority was to sit by the space heater and dry my socks and shoes. One student came, an older woman, and the other two ETAs went over her learning materials with her for a bit, until she started asking more complex questions in Korean, and I was summoned to translate (granted, my Korean is only marginally better than theirs, so I don't know how helpful I really was. Honestly, how do you explain what the meaning of "the" is, even in English, let alone in broken Korean?).

I proceeded to spend the next hour and a half going over verb tenses, some random everyday vocabulary, and some trickier aspects of English pronunciation with her. It was a bit repetitive, but she was a really energetic personality and the time flew by. As it did, four more students arrived, all of them school-aged, plus one toddler who spent an hour being chased around the classroom by another ETA who came later. So, all in all, there were four ETAs and six students, which amounted to what Jason and Katelyn called the largest turnout they'd had in a while. It's a good thing I was there to help out!

But... I guess what struck me most about volunteering at the HaNa center was that it was so ordinary. Really, it's no different from the volunteer-based Korean class I attend weekly, only there I'm the student and not the teacher. There wasn't anything particularly special or different that I noticed about the Koreans there. I didn't have any expectations going in, but I came out having enjoyed my afternoon, and if proximity weren't such a huge issue, it's something I would definitely do regularly. My student seemed disappointed when I told her I was only visiting for the weekend and wouldn't be back next week.

Here is a short news piece from the Gwangju News on the HaNa center in Gwangju, with quotes from Fulbright ETAs.

And here is an interesting short news segment from BBC on North Korean defectors who will be able to vote, for the first time, in South Korea's upcoming election. Looks like they tend to swing conservative!

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