The Crossing Borders team at our 2018 retreat for refugee women was overwhelmed as they registered our attendees. Each North Korean woman and child who arrived had to be given a name tag, a pen, a notebook and assigned to a room. But rooms at the small motel in the countryside were filling rapidly, and the name tags, pens and notebooks were running low.
Amidst the talking, singing, laughing voices, the team members hurried to and fro in the bustling motel lobby and its rooms. Every once in a while, one of them would look around at the sheer number of the women and children pouring in through the entrance, astounded.
In 2016, Crossing Borders began an annual retreat for North Korean refugee women and their children in China. Its goal to build a community that the North Korean women in hiding could call their own.
The project began very small but our hopes were high. The retreat was to be held every year in a quiet, isolated motel in rural China. The staff was minimal. Twelve women and 10 children attended the retreat in 2016. In 2017, 16 women and 13 children came to join the team in sharing, praying, and counseling.
All of the women in attendance, at one time in their lives, had fled into this foreign country. Almost every one of them were sold on the black market. Several had been physically and psychologically tortured in North Korea’s infamous prison camps. They shared about their traumatic memories, their ongoing hurts, sorrows that seemed to have no end in a world that persecuted them, hated them.
But in this small community, many of the women found a small but significant solace. They could share the unseen scars of the experiences they had shared. They could offer encouragement and strength for one another. They could pray desperately together.
Each year, as the annual retreat ended, the Crossing Borders team was thankful that they had the opportunity to provide a small, safe place to share and to pray. But what we did not realize was that we had begun the roots of something much greater than a yearly gathering. We had planted a community.
It is true that the group of 22 refugee women and children following our retreats in 2016 and 2017 was small. But it was also one that remained faithful - even after the retreat had ended.
Women in this community began to share with each other and with their neighbors, not out of necessity but with open and willing hearts. Women like Lois, who we wrote about in our 2017 Annual Report, began to understand that a place of safety did not only provide her comfort, but the strength and motivation to share the compassion she received. The little graces they had received were paid forward and multiplied. Even the North Korean children taught their friends how to sing and dance to the songs they had learned at our retreats.
The community grew.
When our team arrived in China this year for our annual retreat, they were greeted by 36 North Korean refugee women and 40 of their children. Their audience had grown threefold. Friends of friends, neighbors, every North Korean refugee within reach had been shared to. Together, our team and the women and children did not only endure the hardship and persecution they faced. Instead, they thrived.