By Cosette Nuñez
In a country where North Korean Refugees are treated as second class citizens, the Duam School embraces and educates them.
North Koreans suffer harsh prejudices when they enter the south because of their different dialect, physical appearances and lack of education. In addition, popular media often portrayed them in sensational ways.
Duam School Founder John Chon knows that his North Korean students often experience remarks such as, “How dare you live next door to me.”
Such is the irony of the two Koreans. The South wants to reunite with the North, but
many of its residents do not want the people who come with the land.
The Duam School has 47 students and is preparing for the day when North and South Korea re-unite. The school’s mission is providing the students with a evangelical christian-based education.
Chon was a successful business man in Los Angeles California who owned a company that did restoration projects. As he entered his forties, Chon came to realize that his money and faith alone were no longer enough to satisfy him.
“I was a Christian but I was not acting like one,” said Chon.
Chon believed that he had a vision in which God asked him to serve as a Christian missionary to aid North Korean refugees. He returned to South Korea, dedicating his life to providing Christian faith centered education to these refugees. Using his own funds and private donations, Chon officially opened the Nehemiah Korea Generative Opportunity (NKgo) Duam School in Seoul in 2011.
Chon believes his greatest challenge is building self-esteem within the refugee students. “They don’t realize how precious they are,” said Chon. “They grew up in a world where they were always equally treated. They don’t know how much intelligence they have.”
Chanho Lee, a teacher at the Duam School, smiles as he recalls his own journey to the school. It began as a South Korean immigration officer. After studying in California and becoming an ordained pastor he returned to South Korea. During his time at a North Korean ministry Lee also believes he felt a higher calling to become a teacher for the refugee students.
Lee understands that assimilating North Korean refugees into South Korea takes time. There are differences in language such as grammar and accent. The students at the Duam School aren’t familiar with past Korean history, only the story of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Other students that have spent a significant time in North Korea experience an identity crisis.
Diana, age 21, lived in North Korea her entire life before arriving in South Korea a year ago. She identifies as a North Korean and still thinks of the family she left behind. She is very sensitive and is deeply touched when she sees how her country is portrayed in South Korean media. Such thoughts often require the Duam School to offer counseling and group healing. Teachers such as Lee adapt to the individual needs of their students and teach at different paces.
Competition among the students to surpass one another academically is non-existent at the Duam School.
The Duam School promotional literature states, “If we simply created an education facility for the sole reason to train young North Koreans to compete in South Korean universities, our purpose would bear no fruit and have no real meaning.”
Like alternative schools in New York, teacher Hyeryeong Kim explains how the Duam School encourages students to seek help from each other because each student has different strengths and weaknesses. Instruction is also tailored to individual students.
The Duam School emphasizes the importance of a community with Christianity at the center. They make time to worship on Wednesday nights as well as quiet time every morning for fifteen minutes. Students are allowed to pray in silence or sit quietly. The school also has a choir group called Blessing Korea.
“Education with the purpose of creating a relationship with Christ,” is the foundation that Principal Chon set for the school. However, the Duam School does accept students from other religions such as Buddhism. Teacher Kim says that ultimately the students decide what they want to believe in.
“The North Korean regimen is bad but the people are good,” says Chon.