Students provide resources to North Korean refugees

Aurora NK members in a Zoom panel.
Zoom and other online tools were used by members of Aurora NK to help North Korean refugees in the United States and South Korea access clinics and mental health resources. (Photo courtesy of Aurora NK)

With the pandemic affecting resources for international communities, Aurora NK was formed to help North Korean refugees gain access to educational opportunities. Originally starting off with five members from USC and UCLA in the summer of 2020, Aurora NK has now become a California-based corporate entity with cooperation from all over the world that provides resources and help to North Koreans in the sectors of education, legal aid and healthcare.

The idea to create the organization came during a session of Liberty in North Korea at USC when Woori Lee talked to club president Jay Lee about the possibility of making an outside organization to help North Korean refugees. The talks led to research and an effort to begin networking with other people.

Woori, a senior majoring in human biology, said the effects of the coronavirus pandemic disrupted services designed to help international refugees, which inspired the formation of Aurora NK. 

“I’ve always been really interested in North Korea refugee issues because my grandfather was actually from North Korea, so I have seen how legal aspects can actually impact a person’s life,” Woori said. “Since several years ago, I have been helping North Korean refugees in different organizations, and during [the coronavirus pandemic], there were major changes in different organizations, in terms of helping North Korean refugees, and I was actually tutoring a few students.”

As a result, the tutoring program initiative of Aurora NK began. Under the education sector of the organization, the tutoring program connected college students from all across the world in places such as the United Kingdom and Australia and paired them up with refugee students for twice-a-week sessions over Zoom. With the tutoring program still operating, student tutors who wish to volunteer for Aurora NK must fill out an online application to indicate their interest. 

“I think one of the big things that people are surprised of is that Aurora is only composed of college students [meaning that] all the tutors and all the board members are college students,” Woori said. “I think it creates some sort of vibe to North Korean refugees where they can approach us more easily because we’re like friends.”

Giboom Park, a senior triple majoring in political science, international studies and history at Northwestern University, operates as one of the two directors in the education department of Aurora NK.

“We work to lead the education committee into first creating an agenda for what these tutors need to teach their students,” she said. “We also create the curriculum, and we also do recruitment in terms of students finding tutors worldwide, and finally, we both work in matching new students to tutors based on compatibility, based on what they’re each looking for and the different timezones that are available.”

Aurora NK registered as a corporate entity with the state of California earlier this year. While first starting off with the education program, Aurora NK later came to provide the services of legal aid and healthcare to North Korean refugees. According to Woori, the legal aid and healthcare resources took around eight to nine months to come to fruition. 

Sarah Kim, a junior majoring in law, history and culture and East Asian languages and cultures, serves as a legal aid committee member that helps the legal aid directors and conducts casework for specific needs of North Korean refugees. She helps refugees obtain visas because of her familiarity with the immigration process. 

“I would say that the purpose of legal aid specifically is [that] a lot of the time. North Korean refugees are more in the dark,” Kim said. “They’re kind of scared to come out because of what could happen to them potentially, so we try to keep our work very discreet. At the same time, they often lack resources and access to legal aid, so we want to serve as the point where they can reach out and feel more comfortable going for help.”

The legal aid department of Aurora NK provides citizenship and immigration resources for North Koreans living in the United States and South Korea. Refugees involved in the process would find themselves working alongside legal aid committee members and different pro bono law organizations and law firms. 

Kim also said that her work entails searching for pro bono law firms or pro bono lawyers that would be able to collaborate alongside the organization. As of now, the Parts Equality Center, a community-based social and legal services organization, and AHRI, a nonprofit organization that will provide free immigration consultation, have been the only two collaborators associated with Aurora NK. 

Kim even reached out to law schools, such as UCLA School of Law and New York University School of Law, in order to see if more help could be provided in areas where refugees would like to relocate to. Despite some unresponsiveness from the schools stemming from the fact that potential law students and not legal professionals would be available, Kim reached out to them in the case that they had human rights clinics or immigration clinics. 

“We were also reaching out to law schools,” she said. “We’ve emailed a bunch, but we’ve discovered along the way that there might be some unresponsiveness because of the lack of actual professionals. We might have overestimated what law school students could do, especially if they’re not in the L.A. area because we were contacting schools all over the country.”

Clients from the legal aid sector will sometimes come directly from the tutoring program. As of now, the sector is attempting to expand its network to more partners in order to provide more aid and translation services.

“We had about 40 refugees who we were dealing with [in] case work,” Kim said. “They specifically came up to us or we reached out to them, and they told us the issue that they needed help with.”

The healthcare sector of Aurora NK currently operates to help refugees by providing them with information on U.S. healthcare and the health insurance system and connecting them with free clinic opportunities. The organization is also in its initial stages to connect their clients with free dental clinic check-in services this year, Jay said. In addition to dental services, Woori said that Aurora NK intends to offer mental health resources such as a counseling and health education program.

“We’re actually preparing [a] mental health program with an organization called FREEMED, which is a nonprofit organization in South Korea providing free medical services and education to low income families and [underserved] populations, as well as projects that [are] initiated by the Ministry of Unification in South Korea,” Woori said. 

Aurora NK intends to continue serving the North Korean refugee population and wants to expand, including the possibility of serving other countries in need as well. Jay said that one long-term goal of the program is to even seek recognition from the United Nations and become a full-fledged, non-governmental organization.

“People that have suffered their whole lives in another country [are] facing different challenges that we can’t even imagine, and when they’re still struggling in the U.S., or wherever they decide to move to, it’s heartbreaking,” Jay said. “The fact that we can at least ease some of that for them is definitely the most rewarding part, and the fact that we can do it as an official organization, it really helps put into perspective what we can do for other people.”