A Week at a Refugee Center

By Jay McNair

The Ministry of Unification provides support to a North Korean refugee center in the green suburbs of Seoul. They also support refugee centers across the country, but this is the one I visited. Generally that support comes in as money, guidance, computers, and similar contributions, but this week it came in the form of two interns assigned to help the center’s youth director in whatever work he needed done.

If you’ve read any earlier posts, you might recall this youth director’s character as a double-cell-phone wielding dynamo driving a minivan. Ah, fond memories of that minivan. For about a week we two interns made the subway commute an hour and a half from the city’s center to this town on the edge, got picked up in his minivan, and would spend the rest of the day running errands with refugees. Although his title was something like “youth director,” I never saw him restricted to helping youth. He was a go-getter for old and young alike. In between errands, he would invite whatever official was helping us at the hospital or dentist’s office or police station or city hall to talk with us for a bit over small paper cups of coffee about the work they did.

At the police station, we talked about the difficulty of policing refugees. Not that they’re trouble-makers; actually, the opposite. North Korean refugees nearly always want to keep a very low profile. Therefore they rarely register with the local authorities, so the police can’t keep tabs on them, and moreover North Koreans are afraid of reporting problems to the police, so the police can’t help them. The big, capable police captain we spoke with was very frank about these types of difficulties inherent in the system.

The dentist was enlightening as well. The North Korean woman we were with needed several teeth removed and, ideally, replaced, so he told me all about the operation of replacing teeth and a little bit about comparative insurance in Korea and America.

I’m actually joking about it being enlightening. I think the dentist must have misunderstood his assignment, or else I significantly misunderstood what he was getting at. I stared at his manipulations of a plastic model of an adult human’s tooth and gum structure and wondered what this lecture about effective dental operations had to do with anything.

But for the most part we really did gain remarkable insight into the lives of North Koreans as they settle into their new homes. The apartments they move into aren’t nice to start off with (although at least the government supports their housing costs); they usually took quite a bit of tidying to get up to par before anyone could move in. But with a brigade of hard-working refugees cleaning, it took hardly any time to spruce up the tiny apartments. We set off smoke bombs for the cockroaches, then moved in once the dust had settled to scrub the floors spotless and throw out the accumulated trash and carry up luggage and bring over a computer from the refugee center and install it and find furniture.

We also visited a beauty school, where a class of North Korean women were studying and practicing how to paint lilac facemasks, which direction the brushstrokes should go, how much pressure, etc. Another woman had an appointment at a computer training center; she was a degree-holding architect in North Korea, and wanted to try website design. The practical manager informed her that to be competitive as a web designer she would have to study design for years at a university. They brainstormed for a while on the various areas of computer learning and settled on a course preparing her for secretarial skills: typing and spreadsheets.

These types of job training courses aren’t rocket science, but they do help North Koreans gain marketable job skills. It’s a start, for people who are forty or fifty years old and have no education, no training, no applicable job experience, and no network.

Along the way we stopped for smoke breaks with North Korean men. Painters, job-hunters, men standing listlessly outside apartment blocks. Suspicious, scarred men who treated me with cautious respect. Any outsider in their world is untrustworthy, especially a strange foreigner; they were afraid I was some sort of spy.

Life for a North Korean in South Korea is hard. Poor housing; poor jobs; an atmosphere of distrust from South Korean citizens upset that their hard-earned income is taxed to support North Koreans who game the system and drink too much. They have a poor social life. They aren’t used to social organizations in the North, and are afraid of being found out as North Koreans (usually they try to pass themselves off as Chinese immigrants, to foil spies). So their friends are few, and they rarely make much money.

It is a hard life. Still, the meager hourly wages they make here are fifty times what they could get in the North. The food is abundant. They live in a beautiful city, and their apartments are clean. They have a computer. They have TVs and used furniture and, somehow, smartphones. They might not have everything their South Korean counterparts have, but the gap is narrowing.


One thought on “A Week at a Refugee Center

  1. Pingback: Researching Refugees | MOU OneKorea

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