Philanthropy, Deep-Fried

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North Korean immigrant Hyejeong had been in China for a while. She needed a way to feed her baby, but found it difficult to get work. Because her daughter, Sue, was born in China, she could be separated from Hyejeong if they were ever discovered. They didn’t speak the language, had to hide indoors most of the time, and were in constant fear of being sent back to a much worse place: back to North Korea.

China treats North Koreans who escape to China as illegal economic migrants and routinely deports them back to the North. Once sent back, many are sentenced to labor camps, where they live in inhumane conditions of systematic abuse. A Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) report issued in 2014 highlights deadly conditions in these camps, including starvation, torture, and sexual abuse.

North Korean refugees in China are in a very precarious situation. Some find shelter in villages and farms, where they are supported by China’s Korean and Chinese population. Some work in the service industry but are vulnerable to exploitation and discrimination given their lack of legal status to reside in China. Others are forced into begging.

Hyejeong and Sue were able to find a better living situation in South Korea thanks to the efforts of UT students—and some fried Oreos. 

Every week, a student group convenes on Gregory Plaza to deep-fry and sell Oreos to benefit escaped North Koreans. The Oreos sell for $1 each, or three for $2, and they can sell about 200 in a typical week. Part of a larger rescue effort called Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), the group harnesses the Texas tradition of fried food to gather donations.  

Founded in 2004 at Yale University by Adrian Hong and comedian Paul Kim, LiNK is a nonprofit organization that rescues North Korean refugees in China and resettles them so they can avoid being repatriated back to North Korea. The refugees travel through a modern-day “Underground Railroad” from China to Southeast Asia, where they can get to South Korea or the U.S. From there, LiNK helps the refugees through its resettlement programs. Each rescue costs approximately $3,000, including $500 for resettlement. As of October 2015, LiNK has resettled 400 refugees in U.S and South Korea. LiNK Texas is the largest fundraising group in the program, and has contributed to 14 of those rescues.

LiNK delegates its fundraising efforts to universities, colleges, and churches across the country, effectively franchising the nonprofit. Each rescue team chooses its own way of fundraising, and every penny goes towards rescue missions and promoting the message.

LiNK Texas president and UT sophomore marketing major Mary Barbaree notes that being the biggest rescue team of about 30 people, LiNK Texas sets nationwide trends in fundraising.

“We started Fried Oreo Fridays, and we do that every week,” Barbaree says, “and now 10 or 15 other rescue teams across the country will do that too.” 

In 2014, LiNK Texas raised around $7,500, and last semester they raised about $3,000, which is enough to rescue one refugee.

“That’s our goal each semester,” Barbaree says, “to rescue at least one refugee.”

Their most memorable rescue so far was Hyejeong and Sue, the mother-daughter duo. One of their members traveled to South Korea later on and met them.

“We got to see Soo, the daughter, growing up in Korea, and see how different her life was from the baby they rescued from China, who had nothing. And now she’s in elementary school and thriving,” Barbaree says.

LiNK also focuses on raising awareness for the plight of the North Korean people. They work on shifting the media message from politics to people, through campaigns, tours, and media. LiNK Texas often hosts former North Korean refugees as speakers, and the group also sells buttons and T-shirts to spread visibility. 

A lack of awareness for the North Korean humanitarian situation is why math and linguistics junior Kirstin Helgeson decided to join LiNK Texas. After LiNK visited her high school and showed a documentary called Danny in North Korea, Helgeson felt like her eyes were open to a crisis she previously had known nothing about.

“I’d never heard of it in the news. Everything was talking about Kim Jong Un and Kim Jong Il, but it was never about the people of North Korea,” she says.

Helgeson joined the group to educate the public about the issue, and her participation has helped her realize her own privilege.

“I feel more grateful for things that a lot of people take for granted every day,” she says.

For her part, Barbaree says she enjoys playing a role in the betterment of others’ lives.

“When I came to UT, I just wanted to do something to help people. I get a real sense that I’m actually contributing something to the world whenever I get the name of somebody’s life who I’ve helped make better,” Barbaree says. “It just makes me feel like I’m doing my small part to make the world a better place.”

 

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