Brothers for Life

Our first pictures of Sungsik and Jongtae are outside of an old, dilapidated brick building. Both brothers are wearing their orphanage’s uniforms - a light blue and white polo with each silver, plastic button snapped in place. Their clothes, however, once new, are smudged and smeared with wear and tear. Black and brown stains are scattered across their bellies and sleeves.

The two boys stand differently. Sungsik, twelve-years-old in the photo and the elder of the two, stands hunched over, his shoulders shrugged as if he’s standing for the picture in the cold. He looks as if he is about to be struck, scolded, yelled at. His face is unsure, uncertain. Sungsik is uncomfortable.

Jongtae, though a year younger than his older brother, stands in stark contrast. His expression is sternly nonchalant, almost angry. His back is straight and his shoulders stiff. His arms are snapped to his sides like a soldier at roll call. Jongtae’s gaze is distant, beyond the camera. It seems that he could care no less about his picture being taken.

In these photos, Sungsik and Jongtae are about to be adopted into Crossing Borders’ group home.

 Sungsik and Jongtae at our first meeting.

Sungsik and Jongtae at our first meeting.

We don’t know Sungsik or Jongtae’s real birthdays. Their parents never bothered to register their information with us or the government. Our best estimates have been sometime in January of 2003 and 2004. The boys are not sure either. According to the boys, they were raised by an uncle when infants and left to a caring but poor orphanage by the time our missionaries came to find them. No relatives or family have ever come looking for either Sungsik or Jongtae.

Neither of the boys remember their father’s face. He was a Chinese man arrested for illegally selling opioids. He is currently still serving his sentence and has not been heard from. Sungsik and Jongtae’s mother, a North Korean refugee who was sold to their father, was also arrested. The consequence of her crime was more severe. She was sent back to North Korea, where it is impossible to learn of her whereabouts or condition. It is possible that neither Sungsik or Jongtae will ever even know if their mother was allowed to live when she returned to her country.

Through the years, our staff have learned a great deal about Sungsik and Jongtae.

Sungsik is quiet, shy, but intelligent and attentive. He is smaller than his younger brother but fiercely caring and loving. He is patient, but often lacks the boldness to reprimand or correct his sibling. He is pale and thin, loves to play volleyball and competes in his middle school’s intramural competitions.

We discovered that Jongtae had a urinary tract infection when he first arrived at our group home. It must have been an incredibly painful experience for him, as our staff only learned of this sickness when he urinated blood. Thanks to a volunteer doctor sent from the United States by Crossing Borders and several visits to local medical facilities, Jongtae was healed and is now very healthy.

Jongtae, much darker than his older brother, is the stronger and louder of the two. He can often be moody and is easily upset. When asked about his life or likes and dislikes, his answer is most often a scornful but playful “Wǒ bù zhīdào!” or “I don’t know!” Jongtae can be bright and silly, but abrasive. He, too, enjoys playing sports with his brother and listening to music.

Sungsik is now 16-years-old, his brother Jongtae is 15. The two of them are taller, healthy and still growing. In their group home, they are fed, attend school, and spend time with other boys their age. The boys bicker often, poke and prod at one another and argue. But together, they know that the only family they have is one another.

We want to continue to provide Sungsik and Jongtae a home. Our organization exists to serve children like them as they fight to become educated, mature young men. With compassion and care, we want to help Sungsik and Jongtae sustain their family.

Crossing Borders works to support many children like Sungsik and Jongtae. Many half-North Korean children are still lost and alone, without anyone to help them. Please help us to reach more.

 Sungsik and Jongtae at our retreat for North Korean children.

Sungsik and Jongtae at our retreat for North Korean children.

By the Numbers

 North Korean women gathering for a seminar at our annual retreat for refugees.

North Korean women gathering for a seminar at our annual retreat for refugees.

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 their experiences. 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.

Michelle's Time for Healing

 Michelle (left) after meeting with a Crossing Borders volunteer in China.

Michelle (left) after meeting with a Crossing Borders volunteer in China.

“Michelle’s” face lit up when we asked about her hometown, Musan, North Korea. She described the fresh air, the pink azalea flowers that grew along the mountainside. Everything else about her past that she described to us was misery. We are hoping that, as a new part of our network, things can turn around for her.

Michelle was one of the hundreds of thousands of North Korean refugees to flee her country because of the famine that killed an estimated 3 million people in the mid 1990s. She fled north into China with her mother in 1998 but awaiting her and so many others was a different form of misery.

North Korean women were trafficked en masse when they flooded into China in the wake of the famine. They were given no human rights and if caught, they were immediately sent back to a North Korean gulag. So they couldn’t call the police and tell them they were being trafficked. They were stuck.

Michelle and her mother were sold to different men in different cities.

The family who purchased Michelle was cruel. They treated her like a slave and made her work their farm all day and all night. As a result, she has severe back pain and an injured hip, which prevents her from working. We are supporting her with a $50 per month stipend.

Sick of her situation and weary from her injuries, Michelle fled her family but was caught again by a human trafficker and sold to another man, with whom she lives today. Her current husband is good to her, she told us. He allowed Michelle to reunite with her mother and they live together today.

In addition to Michelle’s monthly stipend, entering into our network means that she will be connected to a community of North Korean refugees. She will not be alone in her struggles and she will have people who she can relate to and share about her past trauma. She will have job training available to her as well so that she can pursue a different job that will not require pressure on her back. She will also have access to doctors and therapists that Crossing Borders sends into China to give her quality health care.