“We never had enough firewood in the winter,” Yae Rin, a North Korean refugee in Crossing Borders' care told us. “My dad and I would go very early in the morning to the mountain and cut down a pine tree to bring home. We would have been in such big trouble if we were caught. When there was enough snow on the ground, we could take a big tree and slide it down the mountain.”
Yae Rin is a young woman. She is less than five-feet-tall. She has a bright disposition and innocence about her. It’s hard to tell that she is a North Korean refugee in hiding in China. It is shocking to learn of the hardship she endured growing up in North Korea. Yae Rin crossed the border into China with nothing and subsequently had to live for years with the fear of repatriation by the Chinese government.
In North Korea, Yae Rin and her family shared a house with four other families and struggled to find enough work to eat on a regular basis. “I had to get out, so I planned to cross the border into China. I went to my friend’s house to prepare to leave but somehow my father found out and stopped me. We cried together and I went back home.” But a few days later, Yae Rin crossed the river into China. She hasn’t seen her family since she escaped.
Soon after crossing over into China, Yae Rin was found by a local Christian who took her to an underground church for safety. Countless other North Korean refugee women are trafficked into China from North Korea or found by wrongdoers and sold as wives or prostitutes. Experts estimate the number of North Korean refugees to be in the hundreds-of-thousands, those who have crossed illegally into China since the Great North Korean of the 1990s.
Yae Rin found work in China and Crossing Borders was able to help her with rent and obtain an ID so she could apply for jobs. She would find work at different restaurants, often working 7 days a week. The field staff at Crossing Borders would meet her regularly during this time for encouragement and prayer. Our missionary couple shared many hours during Yae Rin’s time off talking about her past as well as hopes for her future.
After a few years of struggle and weariness, Yae Rin felt ready to go to South Korea. The trip along the Modern Day Underground Railroad to freedom can take weeks. In addition, South Korea requires each North Korean refugee to take several months of reeducation courses before entering mainstream society. Yae Rin made the trip safely and took all the required coursework in South Korea.
This past year, our field staff who shared time caring for Yae Rin in China were able to meet her just outside a subway station soon after she got her own apartment in Seoul. They hugged and wept for a long time out on the street. They went to her new home and prayed to thank God and cried together again.
Yae Rin, now 26 and a North Korean refugee twice over, through the dangers of China and now in the modern day rush of South Korea, shared one of her first thoughts landing at Incheon airport in South Korea. “I’m finally in Korea. I don’t have to worry about hiding.”
Then while on the bus crossing the long bridge into the city in mid-winter she thought, “I wish my family could be with me now.”
Adjusting to a new life provides many challenges for North Korean refugees but Yae Rin shares that she is happy and now she finally has the freedom to fulfill some of her hopes and dreams. Today, Yae Rin is studying hard and has plans to become a nurse. She may never escape the memories of her past but maybe she feels it’s now her turn to do some healing.