TNKR helps open doors for N.K. refugees

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Feb 17, 2016 - 20:13
  • Updated : Feb 17, 2016 - 20:14

A passion for freedom, innovation and a group of enthusiastic volunteers is all it takes to make a difference for North Korean refugees, according to Casey Lartigue and Lee Eun-koo, cofounders and codirectors of Teach North Korean Refugees.

The nongovernmental organization will hold the third TNKR English Speech Contest on Feb. 27, another milestone in the organization’s three-year journey.

“I’ve always been someone interested in freedom, and when you create opportunities, how do you do it so that the people who benefit are the ones in power?” he posed. “If you look at TNKR, the refugees are the ones that are in power.” 

Casey Lartigue and Lee Eun-koo, cofounders and codirectors of Teach North Korean Refugees, speak at TNKR’s English speech contest last year. (TNKR)

TNKR began in 2013, when Lartigue met North Koreans out socially. Meeting individuals who had fought for freedom sparked a light in Lartigue that has continued to drive his passion for the cause.

The American expat runs the organization with Lee and the support of foreign and local volunteers, who take time each month to teach English to North Korean refugees.

With the focus initially on offering opportunities for refugees to receive tutoring from volunteer teachers, Lartigue introduced the speech contest as a second track last year, which focuses on public speaking and writing, to “get the refugees active” in the program.

“We have now had 210 refugees come through the program, but only 15 have come to Track 2.”

“The speech contest is a good way for those who do want to speak out to be able to work with coaches, sharpen their arguments, sharpen their ability to make speeches.”

Hosted by Shin and Kim Law Firm, the third contest will see seven refugees speaking on the theme “Here’s my plan to help the North Koreans.”

Eom Yeong-nam, a North Korean defector and special ambassador for TNKR, will compete at this year’s event and is looking forward to speaking publicly about his story.

“I think if we tell the North Korean story, many people will be aware of the North Korean situation and it could affect North Korean government.”

Eom joined TNKR 10 months ago, and says the tutors and coaches he has had in this time have helped him develop the English skills he needs to reach his personal and professional goals.

Lartigue hopes to put the proposals from Eom and his fellow competitors together to help the refugees raise money to implement them.

Previous winners include Lee Sung-ju, who now studies at the U.K.’s University of Warwick, and Oh Se-hyek, the first refugee to be sponsored by the British Foreign Office. 

Eom Yeong-nam, a North Korean defector and special ambassador for Teach North Korean Refugees, speaks at TNKR’s English speech contest last year. (TNKR)

TKNR also offers in-house tutoring during office hours for those who do not have a one-on-one tutor. The program also welcomes volunteers who are not teachers, including graphic designers, editors and translators.

Eom says the thing he most enjoys about the program is its system.

“The TNKR system is not teachers choosing the students, it’s students choosing teachers,” he says. “This is a very exclusive system that I have never seen before.”

Once accepted to the program, the refugees attend a pairing day where they select their volunteer teachers. They can select as many volunteer teachers as they want, with the teachers required to teach at least three hours a month.

Ryan Gardener, a TNKR volunteer teacher for over five months and tutor to six refugees, feels the program helps him give back to the Korean community.

“You get lots of help from other people, it’s nice to be able to help other people like you are putting yourself out there. You just feel it’s a natural part of life here,” he says.

Gardener added one of the best aspects of the program for the refugees was the opportunity to choose from teachers from a wide variety of different countries.

“I think for the refugees themselves, it offers them a great opportunity to get as many different tutors as they want from different places, and I think the different places part is important to the way they learn,” he said.

“You get different nationalities, and for the students themselves it opens them up to what English can be used for, not just for their personal or professional goals.”

Lee said her work for the program was motivated by the happiness the programs bring to the refugees.

“It is the happiest time for me when I am doing work for TNKR, when I see the refugees who cannot speak English at all, and when they return the second or third time and they can speak English, and they can introduce themselves.”

Since its commencement, Lartigue says TNKR has helped over 200 refugees. Last week, Lartigue and Lee confirmed a partnership with the American Orientalism University; a move they hope will help them grow as an organization.

Christine Kim, president of law at AOU, said she was more than happy to help, seeing the need for a more stable structure for TNKR to continue with future work.

“I knew that as a university we could support them, of course the content and program they have already created can be led by them directly, but we can support,” she said.

The chairman said the university would offer TNKR supplies, lecture rooms and offices in Seoul, in return for the program running a seminar and a journal of their work.

For more information about the TNKR Speech Contest or the TNKR organization, visit

By Zoe Samios, Intern reporter (