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Bush Institute Scholarship Helps North Korean Refugees Thrive
The George W. Bush Institute's North Korea Freedom Scholarship helps North Korean escapees living in the United States build productive and prosperous lives as Americans through higher education.
For the past three years, I’ve had the privilege of guiding the George W. Bush Institute’s North Korea Freedom Scholarship committee. This special initiative helps North Korean escapees living in the United States build productive and prosperous lives as Americans through higher education.
In 2004, President Bush signed the North Korea Human Rights Act into law. Among other things, this legislation created a pathway for North Korean escapees to resettle as refugees in the United States. Escaping from North Korea is a perilous venture. If caught by the North Korean or Chinese authorities, the consequences can be lethal. Even for those who make it across the border into China, they risk becoming victims of sexual trafficking or being deported back to North Korea.
About 30,000 North Koreans have made it to safety in South Korea, where they face many challenges in integrating into a highly advanced economy, but at least have the advantage of sharing a common language and culture. About 250 escapees have chosen an even tougher route by applying for refugee status in the United States, where virtually everything is different than the lives they left behind. In my experience, the North Koreans who have come to America are incredibly courageous people.
Like any refugee admitted to the United States, North Koreans coming here receive six months of U.S. government-funded support from private organizations like Catholic Charities or the International Rescue Committee. They receive language lessons, help finding a place to live and a job, and assistance in learning about life in America. After those six months are up, they are expected to make it on their own.
It may surprise some to learn that these refugees are generally making it. Most are not on government assistance; they are working or going to school. Logically, most start off in entry-level jobs where language skills aren’t a priority, often in Korean-American owned businesses. But over time, like countless immigrants before them, they get their feet on the ground and start to climb the ladder.
Three years ago, after studying North Koreans living in the United States, the Bush Institute began raising funds to set up a scholarship for this community. We had learned that education was a huge priority for the refugees and their children. We partnered with the Dallas-based Communities Foundation of Texas, which has long-standing experience in managing scholarships, to establish the North Korea Freedom Scholarship.
In its first three years, this program has awarded 31 scholarships. Most of the grants are a few thousand dollars. But they have a big impact and send a message that America embraces them and their stories. For those at community colleges, a thousand dollars can cover most of a year of study. At more expensive colleges and universities, this scholarship can help as they assemble a package of grants and loans to fund their studies.
The recipients are scattered around the country and their courses of study are diverse. A young man in Los Angeles is working full-time at a hospital and studying political science. He hopes one day to serve as a diplomat for his country – the United States of America. A woman in Illinois is completing a master’s degree at a seminary; she hopes to provide counseling to refugees and immigrants that follow in her footsteps. Another woman in Illinois is attending cosmetology school and plans to one day open her own small business. A mother of two in Virginia is studying computer science to provide for her family.
Many of the initiatives of the Bush Institute receive a lot of attention in the media. This small program often flies under the radar. For me though, it is one of the most meaningful programs we do. With the support we have received from contributors around the country, especially from Korean-Americans, we are helping people who have escaped hell, often under unimaginable circumstances, pursue their American dreams. I have no doubt this investment in them will be repaid many times over.
Q&A with North Korean escapee Peter Oh
Peter Oh is a 2019 North Korea Freedom Scholarship recipient who is pursuing his master’s degree in international policy and practice at George Washington University. He and his younger brother escaped North Korea in 2000 in search for food. He lived in China for three years before seeking asylum in South Korea with the help of Christian missionaries. He became a reporter for Radio Free Asia in Seoul and in 2010 was transferred to the Washington, D.C. office to report on North Korean issues.
Q&A with North Korean escapee Debby Kim
Debby Kim, a two-time North Korea Freedom Scholarship recipient, is a sophomore biochemistry major at Wheaton College in Illinois and an aspiring doctor. She escaped North Korea when she was 13 years old.
Q&A with North Korean escapee LK*
LK, a three-time North Korea Freedom Scholarship recipient, is an electrical and computer engineering student at a university in Illinois. A former member of the North Korean Army, LK remains anonymous to protect family members still living in North Korea.