(JC, introduced in this blog series a couple of years ago as a summer intern, has served Empower House as its resident director this past year. In this blog post, JC describes his duties and some thoughts on his experience as the In-House Director.)
As a recent college graduate, I have been in many situations in which I had to explain to others — whether they be old friends I hadn’t seen in a while, professors, or strangers, even — what I had been up to since graduation. Every time I face that kind of situation, I fall into an internal dilemma: to what degree am I expected to describe my work? Our society has become used to compartmentalizing people, especially college graduates, into a number of well-known categories, such as academia, consulting, and finance. However, there is no umbrella term that simply and accurately captures what I do. It would be quite dissatisfactory to merely say, “Oh, I work at an NGO.”
On that note, my job is rather unconventional. As the In-House Director of Empower House, I have been living with a number of North Korean refugees, overseeing the daily operations of the program, and working with a wide range of volunteers in the Chicago area who share this core interest of helping North Korean refugees resettle in America. There are aspects of this job, however, that go much deeper than these seemingly superficial professional duties. It requires sensitivity — some degree of understanding and recognition that these Empower House students might have gone through atrocious experiences. The narrative of each refugee is, of course, different, but it is well conceivable that they may be internally suffering from the residual emotional and/or physical issues from the past. Whether they share their narratives should solely depend on their autonomy. It should be perfectly understandable that some of them would feel uncomfortable sharing their past. Thus, an element of my job involves fostering a sense of safe space in the house.
While being sensitive and respecting privacy are important, it is also crucial not to unnecessarily victimize them. It could be tempting to assume that, because of their background, they just do not know certain things about life or they need our help. However, mentally imposing that kind of assumption may unintentionally reduce them to mere victims of atrocities. The students at Empower House are studious, and they are working incredibly hard to escape from the label that shackles them as refugees. I value their independent thoughts, and I consider my role not so much as a leader but more as a supporter.