March 2013, TNKR was born.
September 2013, I was ready to bury it.
Many organizations like to mark the date they started, their growth and achievements, their success stories. What many don't discuss is the times they almost died as an organization.
Six months after starting, the informal matching of volunteers with North Korean refugees almost died.
* The students weren't contacting us.
* The tutors were avoiding us.
* We were hearing rumors about possible socializing and dating.
* It seemed to be sliding into the worst form of "volunteerism," in which some volunteers were more concerned about their own experiences rather than the people they were supposedly helping. Without a change, the project's reputation would be ruined and it wouldn't be worth continuing.
* The two organizers were battling about everything and couldn't agree about the basic approach.
* My co-founder was working at a different job and could only focus on this on weekends and evenings.
* Was it really possible to start this as an organization that was refugee-focused when it seemed that the North Korean refugee learners, volunteer tutors and even Korean co-founder didn't believe in it?
* I was getting distracted by other opportunities--A) I was about to be hired by a new think tank in Seoul. B) I had already received a nice job offer to return to the USA C) A business opportunity seemed to be developing, but I would have to put a lot of time into it.
That's right, in September 2013, it looked like this little volunteer project might remain a hobby.
Then when some of the refugees who had been in our first session learned my birthday was on September 5, they wanted to treat me to lunch.
We met three weeks later.
I asked why they hadn't contacted us and what was wrong with what we were establishing.
They said they didn't contact us because they didn't want to bother us, they knew we were doing this as volunteers. And they insisted that they loved studying with the teachers. Some admitted that in some cases things had gotten too social, and they realized it was a mistake and they thought we should place restrictions on interactions.
After that, instead of killing the matching sessions, we set up four in two months.
The first group of students in TNKR had been teachers when they lived in North Korea. They were struggling because they couldn't become teachers in South Korea. My shock then was that one of the refugees had been an English teacher in North Korea. She was embarrassed to admit it because her listening comprehension is so low.
BELOW are some of the challenges I reflected on in mid-2013 when we were taking a break.
1) Busy schedules
So I will suggest that tutors and refugees meet just twice a month. Based on feedback from tutors, they feel burdened with being required to meet once a week. We had started by having matching refugees with tutors, but I quickly saw too many problems with that, mainly it put refugees in passive mode from the start. Instead, it was better when we let the refugees choose.
2) Lose interest
The idea of studying English is different from actually doing so. I suspect some of the refugees got discouraged when they didn't improve immediately after being matched with tutors.
And it seems that some of the tutors who may have been curious didn't remain engaged after getting over their curiosity. And it also seemed to be disappointing when they actually had to teach, rather than chit-chat, with refugees because the refugees weren't ready for higher-level conversations.
3) Language difficulties
We need to be able to learn more about the student's needs, but right now, it is only two people running this little project. People keep calling it a program, but it would be like considering an outhouse to be a mansion.
4) Cultural differences
Although I suggested it many times, the NK refugees seem to feel guilty about having more than one teacher. When we allowed them to choose they seemed to enjoy it, but somehow they still seemed to feel guilty. We need to find a way to make these matching sessions more open so the students won't feel embarrassed to have more than one tutor.
It is bizarre that people keep asking us about our funding. I want to shout: "WHAT FUNDING?" Eunkoo and I were spending out of pocket. It seems that some organizations that are already established see us as competitors. But how can an afterschool program compete with an actual school or organization? The students can come to us for help based on their needs, not on what we think they should study.
* * *
After hearing from the refugees in September, we decided to resume matching sessions.
2013 March, when we got feedback from North Korean refugees about starting a new English language study project.