Fourteen years ago, after a 19 hour flight that included a transfer at Anchorage, Alaska, I landed at Boston Logan Airport, not knowing a single person there and barely able to utter a coherent sentence in English. I still remember the first few months the distinctive scent of abundant grass in the United States still stirred excitement that I could play soccer on a grass field like professionals. I also remember when my poor understanding of English put me and a few of my friends in trouble at school.
When I first spoke with Paige (alias) for the first time several years ago, I was surprised by her grasp of English. It had been only a couple of years since she entered the United States with refugee status. She could not have spent much time, if any, learning English (learning anything for that matter), for she had spent about a decade–her childhood and teenage years–hiding, being arrested, being sent to a political prison camp in North Korea, and re-escaping to China. She was living with her sister and mother, who came to the U.S. with her after losing four members of their family in North Korea due to starvation and suffering arbitrary punishment. Unlike her sister and mother, who did not seem comfortable with English, Paige understood and spoke English with relative ease. Maybe for this reason, despite being the youngest (not 20 yet), she had been working as the primary breadwinner of the family. Plus, because she had always dreamed of studying, she had been attending adult school in the evening after her daily job.
My meeting with Paige triggered a series of reflections on my past and my roots. They forced me to remember the “good ol’ days,” when I would gladly spend four hours doing a school assignment that my peers could spend just under an hour, for I knew it was only necessary to make up for my limited English. I had totally forgotten and lost the passion and determination that had driven me to pick up an English vocabulary book and plow through the words when all my friends were playing basketball or playing video games.
I have been Paige’s RealPal volunteer for the past year or so. During this time, I have learned that Paige barely has any time that is “free.” So oftentimes, just the fact that she showed up to our sessions and also did the assignments that I had asked her to complete seemed to be a miracle in itself. Through my experience working with Paige, I have come to realize how blessed I am and I have been. It is not just the usual, “I never had to suffer from a totalitarian regime. I never had to worry about not having enough food. I never had to worry about being sent to a political prison camp for no reason.” Yes, these are extremely important facts that make me a blessed person, but my personal friendship with Paige has made me realize that the extent of the blessings went deeper, farther, and wider than these extremities. Though I had many hiccups of my own growing up alone in the United States, after all, it was my own decision and my own wish to come to the United States all by myself. I had longed to grow up where I could both pursue academics and play sports as much as I wanted, and not only did my parents give me that opportunity, but they also sacrificed every minute and every penny so that I could receive the best education that I could receive.
By the time I graduated from the University of Chicago in Hyde Park, I had long taken these blessings for granted. I only wanted to excel. I only wanted to be better than “that guy.” I only wanted to have an embellished resume. Luckily for me, Paige’s unrelenting positivism that she shows through her smiles and sense of gratitude helped me finally begin to come to my senses slowly. At the same time, it made me wonder how I could provide the same kind of opportunities that my parents had given me. Paige seemed to deserve what I had received much more than I. Being a spiritual person that I have been, I started to develop a conviction that the reason I had been blessed with such opportunities was that somehow I was meant to share the experience and expertise gained from these opportunities to those who would make the most out of them and would not take them for granted the way I have for such a long time.
Empower House is a direct response to this calling, if I may. The staff of ENoK seek to pool the resources available in the University of Chicago and Hyde Park communities and in particular, exploit the strengths and knowledge of college and graduate students in providing an academic experience and opportunity that young aspiring North Korean refugees just like Paige could not have had otherwise.
It is my sincere hope that anybody who has been generous to read this post can join us in our effort to provide our friends like Paige with an opportunity like no other, in which we truly believe. You may choose to contribute to our cause financially, which will certainly be appreciated deeply, but also, you are encouraged to volunteer a few hours of your time a week by serving as our refugee friends’ academic tutors and/or mentor-buddies. Please click here to go to the page where you may choose to donate online, or feel free send a check payable to “ENOK” to ENOK 5100 South Cornell Avenue, #705, Chicago, IL 60615. To volunteer, please submit your resume and a statement of interest (fewer than 300 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org