Tag Archives: refugees

Tibetans in Exile

I’m now a week or so into documenting the lives of the Tibetan refugees living in Darjeeling, India, and thought I would start to share some of the stories I’ve heard. The plight of the Tibetan’s has long since been a favourite sympathy for Western activists, but it wasn’t until I got here and started talking to the elderly refugees that I felt a personal connection.

What I’ve found in Darjeeling is a community of some of the most harmless and lovely people I’ve ever encountered in the world. It’s hard to imagine them raising their voices at one another let alone bearing arms against the People’s Liberation Army of China.

The people in the center are happy and well cared for, if not rich. They have built a business for themselves producing traditional handicrafts made from organic materials that funds their daily needs. It would not be a particularly sad place if it wasn’t for the tragic events that brought the people there in the first place. But it is sad. Behind their welcoming smiles are stories of hardship and a hope for a future political landscape that doesn’t seem likely.

Once quite a thriving and lively place, the center is turning into a ghost town. The young people have left, pursuing education and employment elsewhere in India or abroad. Apart from a few youths home on school vacation, only the infants and the elderly remain. What will happen to their culture and traditions when the old generation dies off? If China decided to return Tibet to the Tibetans, would there be enough culture remaining to rebuild what was lost? Would the young generation, well-educated and ambitious, even want to go back?

I’ll be shooting for another two weeks in an effort to understand these questions, if not answer them definitively, and will post a complete photoessay when it is finished. For now, though, I though I’d start sharing the personal stories in more detail than is possible in a two sentence photo caption.

Hope you find them as interesting as I have.


Nawang Chonzom, 83.

Nawang Chonzom, 83, sits inside her house in the Tibetan refugee center in Darjeeling.

Nawang Chonzom, 83, sits inside her house in the Tibetan refugee center in Darjeeling.

Sitting in her small room in the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Center in Darjeeling, Nawang Chonzom seems much younger than her 83 years. She lucidly recalls being a young mother in 1959 when rumours of the invading Chinese army reached her. She had heard that the soldiers were capturing and torturing Tibetans, but it wasn’t until they tried to kill her husband that she decided to leave. He had been stockpiling a secret cache of wheat for his family, knowing that hard times were coming to Tibet, and when the soldiers discovered it they tried to shoot him. Somehow escaping, he returned to the family home and announced that it was time to go.

Because of the urgency of the situation, there was no time to liquidate any of the family’s assists or to collect their valuables. With no money to her name, Nawang tied her baby daughter to her back and set out on foot to Nepal. With one child on her back and two more following at her side, she survived the trek by begging along the way.

Crossing into Nepal and living on the streets in the small town of Walung on the Nepal-India border, Nawang heard that a refugee centre for Tibetans was being established in the Indian city of Darjeeling. She immediately led her family out of Nepal and into India, arriving in Darjeeling a few days later. Initially she had to continue begging on the streets, but she was quickly invited into the newly-established refugee centre and given a job rolling woollen threads into balls.

When I asked her how long she did this work for, she pauses and looks absently at her hands. “I don’t know. 40 or 50 years maybe. But now I have problems with my knees and it’s getting harder to leave the house.”

Now an old woman, she makes it to work when she can. He son died many years ago of a disease she cannot remember the name of, and her two daughters (including the one she carried on her back) live in New York City. They send money home to their mother when they can, but Nawang says she doesn’t need much money, that the refugee centre provides her with the things she needs to live.

“I don’t know about the future. I am old and don’t know anything about politics, but I want to live to see Tibetan independence,” Nawang says when asked about the future of her country. She prays to the Dalai Lama every day, along with nearly every other Tibetan in the centre, but says she can’t be sure her wish will come true.


Anyone interested in supporting these people, particularly the very elderly in the center who may not have a family to help them, can email me at lfphotographs “at” gmail.com, or use the contact form.  Without pointing fingers at any individuals, it has been made clear to me by certain people at the center that there are some avenues of donation that are much more effective than others. If you want your money to go directly to those who need it, contact me directly and I will point you in the right direction.


Posted in Blog, India, Tibetan Refugees Also tagged , , , , , |

North Korean Defector – Kim Choong Sung

As a counterpart to my Understanding North Korea articles, I did a few interviews with North Korean defectors. These people are  taking huge risks in talking to me, but they feel it is important to raise awareness of the difficulties faced by North Koreans.

Special thanks to M.Y. Sung, without whose translation these interviews would have been impossible.

Kim “Loyalty” Choong Sung. Defected in 2001, arrived in South Korea in 2004.

Who Are You?

I am from Ham-heung in Ham-gyeong-nam-do, a northern province in North Korea.

[For a while] life in North Korea was okay because I was a pop singer. NK-pop is like opera. I mean, North Korean pop singers learn a classical music style of singing. This is because in NK, singers should be able to sing without the help of a mic and speaker, like in the case of wartime, when no electricity would be available.

There are governmental auditions, so if one has a talent in singing, the government gives him or her the chance to receive university education.

‘Loyalty’ is not my original name. It was given to me by a missionary I met in China. ‘Loyalty’ is a word that appears frequently in the Bible. The missionary told me, “you’ve been loyal to Kim Il Sung, but now be loyal to God.”

Why did you Leave?

In other countries like Canada and South Korea, individuals can own gold, but in North Korea, they can’t. All gold belonged to Kim Jeong Il. So, if someone buys or sells gold, they are supposed to be executed. I had tried selling various things like salt, fish, and clothes, but at some point I couldn’t do it anymore because it was too hard [to make enough money]. Around that time, someone told me that I would be able to make a profit if I sell gold, though it’s dangerous. So I started selling gold, but got caught.

I got caught around the border between NK and China. And just one day before I got caught, Kim Jeong Il ordered to crack down on gold sellers and execute them. So I was about to be made an example of. I was told that I was going to be executed the next day. That night, I broke out of the jail, breaking the window that had steel bars. I broke the window, at night. The room had nothing but a window, no table, nothing. But I found an iron key ring on the window frame. With it, I broke the window. It took me 13 hours to do that.

How did You Escape?

I crossed the border with other eight people. Among them, there were three women, a mother and a daughter, and another named Young-hee (영희). Our nerves were on edge, worrying that we might get caught. We climbed mountains, walked through fields and paddies, and swamps. In that way, we walked across the border.

After I crossed the border, I lived in China for two years. During that time, I visited North Korea once, secretly. After that, I got caught again. So I have been caught twice overall. This time, I was very likely to be executed, so a missionary introduced me to a broker to help me.

While I was in China, I was living with two other North Korean defectors. A missionary was financially supporting us, but at some point he couldn’t do it anymore. We got kicked out of the house because we were not able to pay the rent. So, I parted with the two, living separately. Soon I heard that they had been arrested by the Chinese police when they had a fight with a Chinese taxi driver. I went to them and offered to [take their place in prison], so they were released. I did this believing that God would help me.

The police asked the taxi driver if he recognized me, if I was the person who had beat him. And, of course, he said he didn’t even know me. God helped me and I was released.

But after that encounter, the police asked my name and other personal information, as I didn’t have an ID card. I lied to them that I was the son of a deaconess I knew. I was attending her church, and I knew that her husband was a close friend of the head of the police station where I was arrested. A very close friend, like hanging-out-at-a-bar-together-every-night close. The police believed me and let me go.

There is a route from North Korea, to China, and then through Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, and to Thailand, which is used by many North Korean defectors. Mnay finally come to South Korea via Thailand. But when I reached Vietnam, I couldn’t go any further. When I arrived in Saigon, I was so exhausted that I couldn’t walk more. Overall I had walked for six months.

There were five shelters for North Korean defectors in Vietnam, where around 460 defectors had been protected. As they became too many, the South Korean government discussed with UN and decided to charter two planes and carry the defectors directly from Vietnam to South Korea. The planes took off on July 26th, about 6 months after I arrived in Vietnam.

After I arrived in South Korea, I was interrogated by the South Korean government for 3 months, and then, I got South Korean citizenship.

What Are the Main Differences Between North and South Korea?

First, the economy. And also that there is freedom here. In South Korea, even if someone criticizes the president, are not arrested. In North Korea, if someone calls Kim Jeong Eun just Kim Jeong Eun, I mean, without a proper title, they can get arrested.

Another thing I like about South Korea is that here I can get rewarded for my hard work. Now I work in as a DJ for the Far East Broadcasting Company and do I some musical performances as well. Working as a singer [in North Korea] did not guarantee enough food. In South Korea, I can get what my hard work deserves. If I sing here as much as I did in North Korea, I would become rich. In North Korea, I sang 24/7, but I didn’t get what my hard work deserved. Here, if I sing one song, I can get a certain amount of money, like 400,000-500,000 KRW.

Somehow, I was able to get the jobs, but [for many North Koreans] it is very difficult. A case like mine is rare, I think because I worked as a singer. You know, music is universal. If you can read musical scores and have some basic skills related to music, you can work anywhere. As for most other North Koreans, what they learned in North Korea is useless here. So they usually do physical labor.

What is the Future of North Korea?

Ultimately, I hope the NK government will collapse. And as I’m a missionary, after North Korea is opened, I might go somewhere else, like Africa. I will go wherever God wants me to go.

My family has been arrested, and my brother got arrested recently – in March of this year. He got caught while he was talking with me on the phone. I don’t know if he is going to be sent to a political prisoner camp or if he will be executed. He got arrested while I was protesting this March. So I can’t stop protesting. [If anything] I should speak up more. After the arrest, I haven’t talked to him. All I’ve heard so far is that he was arrested. I sent to my family about $20 000 USD, telling them to try to get him out of jail with that money. But it seems impossible.

Now, I’m [protesting] in order to get people to know about me. I’m not trying to hide. It could be more dangerous, but it could be less dangerous, too. I’m gambling now. If I become famous here, my family might be less likely to be harmed.

Whether in Canada, the US, the UK, or South Korea, individuals have freedom. But North Koreans do not have freedom. If they say something problematic, they get arrested, as there is no freedom of speech there. If they protest like I am doing now, they would get arrested and executed. There is no freedom of religion, either. So there is no freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, or freedom of religion there.

What I want to say is this: Everyone’s life is equally valuable whether he or she is the President, you, me, a North Korean defector, or a dying child in Africa.

In North Korea, most people’s life means nothing. North Korea is a country only for 1% of the people. In any country, great media or journalists consider human, individual life to be the most important, not just big economic or political issues. I think a genuine journalist is one who focuses on and talks about human life. This article, your pen, could save the people in political prisoner’s camps in North Korea, including my brother. The subtle difference coming from your pen might kill or save a person.

NOTE: These interviews have been edited for readability, but in no way has context been altered. 


Posted in Blog, Interviews, North Korea Also tagged , , , , |

North Korean Night Protest

Since I’m waiting for my translator to finish the transcription of the most recent North Korean defector interview – which turned out to be an amazing story – here are some images from one of the night protests outside the Chinese embassy in Seoul. Despite the cold rain, activists were outside advocating North Korean rights, something they say they will do every day and night for 1000 days.


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North Korean Defections: Kang Won Cheol

While working on my project about the lives of North Korean defectors I was asked to document Justice for North Korea’s six-week conference on human rights. The event is divided into six two-hour lectures featuring documentary films, guest speakers and human rights activists, and aims to give a close up and personal look at the challenges facing North Koreans.

Kang Won Cheol, a North Korean defector who now lives in Seoul.

On the first night I was able to spend some time speaking to and photographing this man, Kang Won Cheol, a defector who successfully reached South Korea in 2005.

On his first attempt to flee North Korea he was only 14 years old (13 in the Western system of birthdays). Though he was able to escape to China, he found himself lost and confused until he was picked up by Chinese border police and forcefully repatriated. The flight back to Pyongyang was the first time he had ever been on an airplane, an experience that he says would have been “a dream come true for any North Korean” had the circumstances been different.

Once in custody of the North Korean secret police he was, along with a dozen or so others, interrogated for weeks while they tried to get him to admit to being a defector. While under the scrutiny of the interrogators he witnessed the torture – and in some cases the executions – of the others in the group, uncertain of his future. During this time he remembered thinking that if he was able to survive he would never again try to escape.

He managed to resist however, and the police were unable to conclusively prove that he was planning on defecting, instead believing his story that he had just been searching for food. Foraging attempts are becoming increasingly common as the food situation in North Korea becomes  desperate, says Kang.

Despite his promise to himself that he would not put himself in such a dangerous situation again, Won Cheol decided to attempt escape again soon after he was released. In 2005, still a teenager, he snuck into China for a second time. To be caught was almost certain death, or a lifetime in a labor camp at the very least.

With the help of a South Korean missionary he was eventually able to cross into Mongolia where he was flown to Seoul and given South Korean citizenship. I can’t possibly imagine any high school students I know being capable of such a feat.

I will be speaking to Won Cheol again in more detail as this project continues, but if the conference continues to put me in touch with more people like this, the next six weeks should be an amazing and enlightening experience.

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North Korean Repatriation Night Protests

I’ve been completely swamped recently trying to meet a writing deadline, so I apologize for the lack of posts recently.

Since taking part in the North Korean Repatriation protests outside the Chinese embassy a few weeks ago, I’ve started to build up a contact base among some North Korean defectors. With the help of my friend Moon Yeong acting as translator, I’ve been able to start interviewing some of these people and we’ve heard some amazing stories. The process has been slow as many defectors are nervous about having their photo taken (many have families remaining in North Korea and they will face harsh punishments if it is discovered they are related to a defector), but it promises to be a great project.

Here are a couple of nice images of the evening protests, held every night. The full stories will be coming as soon as I can get caught up with my assignments.

Choi Joo Wual, president of the North Korean Defectors Association, has helped over 10,000 defectors settle in new countries.

A teenager holds a candle as he prays for the Chinese government to change their repatriation policies

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