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Education of Lee Eun-koo

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By Casey Lartigue Jr.

When my South Korean co-director and I began having disagreements about a project centered on North Korean refugees, she pulled the "expert card" on me.

Based on her years of experience working with refugees, interviewing them directly in Korean, and her academic background (she has a master's degree in North Korean Studies), Lee Eun-koo said that as a newcomer I didn't know it was "known" that North Korean refugees are passive. Warning that expecting refugees to take charge of how they learn was doomed to fail, she threatened to quit. She frowned at me numerous times as we held our first "Matching" session at which refugees chose their own volunteer English tutors.

Over the next couple of months, she admitted that it seemed that her eyes were lying to her. She knew from her experience and background that refugees were passive. But at our "Matching" sessions, she saw eager refugees had closely studied the resumes of tutors, had a "hit list" of tutors they wanted, and sometimes showed up more than two hours early to choose.

Instead of being passive, we had to warn refugees not to abuse the tutors by asking too much of them. In debriefing sessions months later, refugees said they loved the program because they had the power to choose. Many of them had participated in government programs, but they were directed and had no autonomy. Based on feedback she received from refugees, my co-director became such an advocate of having refugees choose that she tried implementing the idea at the government agency she was working at then. Like the man who said he believed in baptism because he had seen it done, my co-director became a believer.

She failed, as I expected she would. At a recent party, I bumped into an influential South Korean colleague who insists she tried not to be prejudiced against refugees. She has heard from others working directly with refugees that they lie and cheat with impunity, don't show up for classes or events, are always late, show no sense of responsibility, and are passive until they are pushed. She then told me that I must be having the same problems.

She didn't believe me. She had heard a little about our project and even checked a few of my email updates, but she said that I am the first person to work long-term with refugees who says they can be disciplined, thankful,........

© The Korea Times