A U.S. group has launched a scholarship program for North Korean refugees living in the United States to help them pursue educational opportunities and overcome economic difficulties.
Prayer, Service, Action, Love & Truth (PSALT), a Christian nonprofit organization, plans to implement the program, Five Talents, during the 2011 fall semester of school.
Executive Director Michelle Kim said North Koreans in the United States encounter a range of obstacles upon resettlement, including learning a new language and professional skills, largely due to the high cost of education.
"In the course of helping North Korean refugees resettle in their new environment, we noticed one of the key barriers to their ability to move forward is an inability to cover expensive tuition for education,” Kim said.
“We feel that the support our scholarship program plans to provide for their education instills good values and encourages them in a positive way to become productive members of this society.”
In April 2010, PSALT conducted the first scholarship fundraiser at an animation exhibition featuring two Korean-American artists, and Kim said her organization is planning a variety of fundraising activities to make over U.S. $25,000 available for the program next year.
According to PSALT volunteer Kim Kyung Ah, the U.S. government offers far fewer opportunities for educational financial assistance to North Korean refugees than the South Korean government.
“Due to the language barrier, North Korean refugees resettled in the United States encounter difficulties finding work, and many of them end up being employed by Korean-American businesses, which often involves 12-hour workdays,” Kim Kyung Ah said.
“I know a North Korean gentleman who’s had to work more than 12 hours a day, six days a week to make a living here, and that is why he’s had no time to pursue the studies that he wanted. He told me that he had very high expectations for the [PSALT] scholarship program.”
According to Kim Kyung Ah, if the refugee receives a scholarship, he hopes to study international politics.
Kim Kyung Ah said she also knows a North Korean woman in the United States who has had no time to study English or pursue her studies, as she has had to support her family.
She said the woman is also eagerly anticipating the PSALT scholarship program.
PSALT Director Michelle Kim said that the Five Talents program also aims at integrating North Korean refugees into the Korean-American community and at helping them become "significant contributors" to American society.
“The confidence and support they receive through this award and mentorship experience will hopefully open their perspective to a new way of thinking, and encourage them to also one day give back and bless others,” she said.
The Five Talents program was inspired by the biblical story of a man who made a significant profit by doubling the five talents (an ancient unit of currency comprised of 3,000 shekels) he was given by using his resources justly and wisely.
A dangerous journey
North Korean refugees make their way to the United States via a variety of third countries, often at great peril to their own safety and the safety of family members they have left behind.
Once resettled, refugees generally request anonymity and prefer not to disclose the routes they have taken to escape from their homeland.
The North Korean Human Rights Act, which allows the U.S. government to receive North Korean refugees, was signed into law by former President George W. Bush on Oct. 18, 2004.
It also allows the U.S. government to provide humanitarian assistance to North Koreans inside North Korea and provide grants to nonprofit organizations that seek to promote human rights, democracy, rule of law, and the development of a market economy in the country.
The act also allows efforts to increase information flow inside North Korea and to provide humanitarian or legal assistance to North Koreans who have fled their nuclear-armed country.
On May 5, 2006, the United States accepted the first group of six North Korean refugees since the law came into effect.
The 100th North Korean refugee was allowed to resettle in the United States in early September this year after seeking sanctuary at the South Korean consulate in Russia.
Reported by Hee Jung Yang for RFA’s Korean service. Translated by Grigore Scarlatoiu. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.