North Korean orphans

Getting Ready

"Sung" during break time at our retreat for North Korean children.

"Sung" during break time at our retreat for North Korean children.

At the end of our summer retreat for the children in our network, a young man 17 years of age sat weeping in the back of a van headed back to his orphanage.

"Sung" would always volunteer to help out with whatever the counselors needed help with. He always eagerly rallied the rest of the kids and gently scolded them when they fell out of line. He organized the younger kids in skits and other activities.

Sung is an excellent student and, unlike many of the other kids in our network, will be going to an academic college to further his studies. He stands about 6 feet tall, almost a head above the rest of the children. His posture is always impeccable.

But behind his kind and capable exterior is a world of pain. Unlike so many of the orphans in our network, Sung knew his mother well. She was a North Korean refugee who was sold to his father in 1999. She is often described by Sung and those who knew her as smart and loving. When he was in grade school, she was diagnosed with liver cancer and died shortly thereafter. He has a lot of good memories of his mother.

After his mother died, things went downhill for Sung and his father. Things got so bad that his father had to send him to an orphanage. That's how we met him.

Though his life and academics turned around, Sung never fully recovered emotionally from the trauma of losing his mother. We do not know exactly why he was crying as he was leaving the retreat for the last time. But we think it was because he felt loved by the counselors and staff who took the time to visit him every year.

Though we cannot quantify this statistically or measure it in some formula, we know that children like Sung deserve the best love we can give. We pride ourselves on our ability to prepare our orphans for adulthood but we know that this means nothing if they don’t feel loved. This is our job, to prepare them and love them. We will do this for as long as God allows.

Raising North Korean Orphans - Planning for the Future

"Byung Wook" was at home when his mother was dragged away by the police. He said he heard the police raid the home but was too afraid to come out of his room. When he came out the next morning, his mother was gone and his father was sitting on the floor in shock. This is how Byung Wook became a North Korean orphan. Byung Wook came to one of our group homes in 2009 and has struggled academically more than any other child in our network. His performance in school was so bad that his teachers refused to give him any tests to prevent him from bringing down the class average. They put little effort to bring Byung Wook up to speed in his studies and he spends most of his time in class sleeping.

Such is the challenge of raising an academically challenged child in China, where opportunities are harder to come by and it is harder to catch up if a child is behind.

Last year Crossing Borders received sobering results from the surveys we administered. One of the biggest things we learned was that our North Korean orphans are ill prepared for the future. Just 20 percent of our children have a realistic career plan with short, mid and long-term steps on how they will reach these goals.

This is something we can help with.

As our North Korean orphans grow into maturity, it is vital that we equip them with the tools they need to be self-sufficient. The average age of our children is now 12.5-years-old.

Thinking about career paths poses a challenge for our field staff, most of whom have been raised in a rural environment. It is difficult for them to see the importance of getting the right training to suit the type of career each child wants.

China is rapidly changing. Over the past 30 years the economy has shifted from a mostly agrarian economy to one that is highly industrialized. This means that the old way of obtaining and finding employment has been upended. Our workers need to be able to adjust so that our children can find meaningful employment and even be a benefit to the community at large.

It is also difficult for them to think about such things as they deal with the daily needs of the children. This is why we feel that it is vital for us to educate our caretakers and give them practical tools to help each child become productive members of society.

By the end of this year, we want to work with each child age 14 and older to have a clear and attainable career path. We will also work with their caretakers to make sure these plans are practical in the context in which each of these children live.

This is why we believe that it is necessary to deal with the challenges North Korean orphans face from an organizational standpoint. While our caretakers provide a stable, loving and nurturing environment for each child, Crossing Borders can come alongside these caretakers to provide additional help.

They say it takes a village to raise a child. It is a unique “village” that Crossing Borders has created. We connect donors from around the world with experts both in the U.S. and around the world to provide the love and care that each of these children need.

You can be a part of this community of help by sponsoring a child. Through our Child Sponsorship Program, you can donate $40 or $80 per month to provide for the needs of children in our network. Find out more here.

Raising North Korean Orphans - Technology

It was an abrupt ending to what was a wonderful time with our North Korean orphan, "Jae Hwa". One evening about two years ago, a child in one of our group homes said she was leaving for a boarding school nearby. The house fell under a muffled silence after she left, as if covered in a thick blanket. Jae Hwa had been planning this with her father for months but nobody in the home knew.

Like all the children in this home, Jae Hwa’s mother was North Korean refugee who was purchased by a Chinese man. Her mother was captured by the Chinese police and sent back to a North Korean prison camp when Jae Hwa was eight-years-old. She came into Crossing Borders’ care in 2011, when she was 13-years-old.

Jae Hwa’s father went to South Korea to find work and kept in touch with his daughter by text message via the smart phone he purchased her.

The children in this home were allowed to have smart phones for this very purpose. As time went on, these phones became a nuisance. The kids were using them to play games and to text with their friends. It became harder to hold their attention and this led to conflict as the caretakers of this home would sometimes take these phones away.

Parents around the world are grappling with how to control their children’s smartphone use and so too are the caretakers of our North Kroean orphans. Not only do they have to deal with them as distractions but they must also be wary of the way our children portray their living conditions in these homes to their parents.

Jae Hwa would tell her father that she felt trapped in her home, that her caretakers were too strict and that she was unhappy. These accounts, one must note, were filtered through the lens of a teenage girl. She didn’t report any abuse or specific incidents of wrongdoing. What drove her away was the rigid structure of the home, something teens around the world struggle with.

Teenagers are impulsive. They make poor choices. They are reckless.

In 2012, National Geographic Magazine published a fascinating study on the teenage brain. It was once thought that brains are fully developed by the age of 10, recent studies found that teenagers have brains that are about 90 percent developed. This development could be one of the reasons why teenagers are so impulsive, the study said.

“These studies help explain why teens behave with such vexing inconsistency: beguiling at breakfast, disgusting at dinner; masterful on Monday, sleepwalking on Saturday,” the writer says. “Along with lacking experience generally, they're still learning to use their brain's new networks.”’

This might explain one of the factors to what we consider a poor decision on the part of Jae Hwa.

She thought that living in a dorm would allow her to do what she wanted. She thought that she would be able to go to play games at a local PC gaming business through the night. She thought she would be able to go to parties.

She realized that this wasn’t true at all.

Her dormitory has strict rules and in some ways is even stricter than her Crossing Borders group home.

Our caretakers are adjusting now. They are now loosening the grip they once held on our North Korean orphans. They are now allowed to go to birthday parties and their schedules are less rigid but for now, smartphones are banned in this home.

Jae Hwa visits the home every weekend for church and even brings her classmates along. She looks thin. She doesn’t like the food at the dorm and it does not offer meals on the weekends.

Every weekend our caretakers take Jae Hwa grocery shopping and they cook her any meal that she wants. They tell her repeatedly that she could come back to the home but she does not. Her father will not allow it based on the testimony she once gave him.

For now, all we can offer her are some meals, prayers and an open door.