The Black Mushroom Project - What has happened, what we've learned

In 2013 Crossing Borders launched a new initiative called "The Black Mushroom Project." The project was aimed at helping refugees support themselves through income-generating projects that would combat poverty. Over the past 18 months, we have been able to make a significant difference in the lives of those who we help through The Black Mushroom Project, though the ways it has helped has been unexpected.

One of the first people we helped through this project is "Me Hae." By going through the loan process with her, we have been able to learn how to shape this project going forward.

Me Hae grew up in rural North Korea. Her father died when she was eight-years-old. While he was alive, he would beat her mom so hard that they had to close their business selling small wares at the market because of the injuries she sustained. So Me Hae had to work odd jobs from an early age.

When she was in her teens, she went to a border city to find work but instead she was taken to China without her knowledge and sold to a Chinese man. Unlike most of the other refugees we help, Me Hae had never heard of China. She was never told that, if she moved there, she could eat and find work.

After just a year in China, Me Hae was captured by the Chinese police and sent to a prison camp in North Korea. She went back to China after she was released. All she wanted was to stay for a short period of time to make money on her second trip. She was staying with an aunt. Next door to her lived a man who fell in love with her. They married shortly after they met.

For more than a decade, they lived happily in Northeast China and had two children together. This was despite the systematic police raids that would happen in their village since the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

When we launched The Black Mushroom Project in 2013, we thought she and her husband would be the ideal candidates for the project because of their strong relationship and the hard work both of them put into their farm.

But the raids persisted. The village where they lived is near China's border with North Korea and was home to a Chinese military installation. Earlier this year the Chinese authorities performed the most aggressive sweep of the area that Me Hae had ever seen. Many of her friends were either captured and sent back to North Korea or were so scared, they left on their own.

This left Me Hae with a difficult choice. After careful consideration, she chose to take the Underground Railroad with the funds she earned through The Black Mushroom Project. She has made it safely to Southeast Asia with one of her children and has promised to bring her husband and other child to South Korea as soon as possible.

In spite of her challenges, she was able to pay back her loan with interest.

The Black Mushroom Project worked for Me Hae because she was able to draw from the funds she earned from her loan to pay for her freedom. It didn't work as planned because the loan didn't give her sustainability, which is the primary goal of this project.

We have taken a hard look at this program and we have realized that it will only work if the refugee is in a place of safety. This is why it is so important for Crossing Borders to keep survey data on our refugees. Through our annual surveys, we can track how we are doing in our efforts to bring these people to safety.

Believe it or not, this is possible in China.

China's border with North Korea has a lot of military activity. Though China does not see North Korea as a military threat, they know that their ally North Korea is unstable. The closer one lives to the border, the more vigilant the Chinese authorities will be.

There are areas in China where the authorities are not trained to look for North Koreans. We have been engaging with villages in these outer regions to help the North Koreans who have found their way to these areas. The outlook and perspective of these refugees is completely different from the ones who live anywhere near the border.

We have found a promising location with a population of North Korean refugees, which number into the thousands. The refugees here have told us that they feel safe but that they need help generating revenue for themselves.

We will tell you more about this area in our next post. Stay tuned.