living conditions

Why We Let North Korean Refugees Use Newspaper as Toiletry

The following post was written by a Crossing Borders staff member: It was perhaps one the most meaningful exchanges I’ve had with one of the North Korean refugees in our care. And it was the day that I realized it was okay to let our refugees live in sub-American standards.

I was escorted by our missionaries into Ae-young’s apartment on a dark night. It was in the outskirts of a small city in Northeast China. The roads had no streetlights, the buildings had no power in their stairwells. We used a cell phone to see if we had the right address. Ae-young and her 10-year-old son welcomed us in.

Ae-young is a North Korean refugee. When she crossed the border from North Korea into China, she was sold to a Chinese man and later, with their son, escaped. On her way out she had a chance to grab only one thing: a guitar.With Crossing Borders' support and security, the guitar now hung on the wall of her dim apartment we had relocated her and her son into.

“Do you play?” she asked.

“A little,” I said in broken Korean.

The guitar was dusty. Four of its six strings were intact. The tuning keys creaked as if they had never been turned. I played and the five of us, me, our two missionaries, Ae-young and her son, sang old hymns quietly so we wouldn’t disturb her neighbors. I broke one more string as I played but no one seemed to notice.

After we sang the missionaries and Ae-young spoke while I played with her son. Then I excused myself to the bathroom. I noticed a healthy stack of newspaper within arms reach of the toilet and realized they used this stack of coarse paper to wipe in the bathroom.

When we left I told our missionaries that I wanted to go to the store and get Ae-young and her son some toilet paper. It was a nice gesture, I thought. But our two missionaries, surprisingly, advised against it.

Ae-young was happy with her current situation. She had been provided with this apartment recently. Her new home was an immense upgrade from the conditions she was living in before she had been taken in by Crossing Borders.

Crossing Borders’ goal is not merely to address the living standards of the North Korean refugees we help. Our goal is also not to simply supply refugees with materials we think they need. We try to help them by giving them a safe, clean environment to live in, to meet their needs of food and shelter so that they can figure out what they want to do next. We want to help them to build towards their future independently, responsibly and self-sufficiently. We will guide them to the means to do this whether it is in building a life in China or in taking the steps to flee to South Korea.

I knew this before I had encountered Ae-young and her son but it’s hard to realize that things like nice toilet paper are luxuries. We are used to living with so much that we can forget that our work is not to provide only material happiness.

A lot has been said recently of compassion and the damage organizations like ours can cause in the life of a person with material needs. The perception is that groups like ours come in and take “compassion” on North Korean refugees' standards of living, making them dependent on our aid. In cases this can become a real, detrimental issue. I have seen the damage that money without wisdom and oversight can do in a country that is just beginning to get a taste for Western materialism.

But the injustice in the North Korean refugee crisis isn’t that they can’t afford iPhones, or even toiletries available to modern countries. It is that they have been lied to and spiritually decimated by their government. It is that they have been frozen in fear and made fugitives to victim mentalities.

The goal of Crossing Borders isn’t to bridge the material divide between North Korean refugees and American citizens. We exist because there is a huge injustice in the world and we believe that it is our calling as Christians to go help, to empower them with Christ's compassion.