North Korean refugee visits Queen’s University

Ellie Cha tells her inspiring story at HanVoice event

Ellie Cha speaking in the BioSciences Complex on Saturday.
Credit: 
Photo by Selina Ma

After facing hunger, imprisonment, fear and separation from her family during a three-month journey from North Korea to South Korea, Ellie Cha is now one of the 175 North Korean refugees living in Canada. On Oct. 21, she came to Queen’s University to speak about her experience.

Cha spoke to a sold-out crowd in the Biosciences Complex as a part of the HanVoice Pioneer Program. HanVoice —the largest Canadian organization to advocate for improved human rights for North Koreans — currently has branches at four Canadian universities.

“Its aim is to raise awareness about North Korean refugees,” Queen’s HanVoice External Research Coordinator Raphael Lauret, ArtSci ‘19, told The Journal. “There’s a lot of stigma that makes it hard for them to integrate. HanVoice wants to make it easier for them.”

Cha’s escape from North Korea began when her father lost his elitist position as the vice-president of a mining company, bringing the family financial distress and a negative relationship with the North Korean government. With little hope that the government would bestow grace on his family, Cha’s father decided they would seek asylum in South Korea.

“In North Korea, our family had no future anymore,” Cha said. “It was the beginning of the longest and hardest journey of my life.”

Since refugees can’t directly travel to South Korea from North Korea, many try to gain asylum by going through China and other Asian countries. With the help of their Chinese relatives, Cha and her family’s first attempt at attaining asylum went through China. Once arriving here, they attempted to go through Vietnam, where they hoped to receive secure transport to South Korea.

Unfortunately, Vietnamese authorities arrested Cha and her family, imprisoning them for three weeks before bringing them back to the Chinese border. Due to language barriers, the authorities couldn’t understand that Cha’s family was trying to seek asylum in South Korea. 

Fortunately, they weren’t surrendered to the North Korean authorities. Cha and her family attempted to re-enter Vietnam from China five more times, but couldn’t evade the Vietnamese authorities.

“We knew that going back to China [again] meant death for our family,” Cha said.

In another attempt to enter South Korea, Cha and her family traveled to Thailand. Once arriving there, the family was arrested again. This time, however, they spoke with South Korean embassy officers who would help bring the family to South Korea.

Cha was transported to Bangkok, where she was separated from her family for several days. The next time she saw her family was in an airport, where they would finally be taken to South Korea.

“We became free, but at what cost?” Cha asked the audience. “She [Cha’s mother] had no fire left in her. When we left North Korea, he [Cha’s brother] was 12 years old and just a boy, but I saw him grow up in a jail cell.”

Cha’s struggle as a refugee didn’t end when her family arrived in South Korea. Her mother — weakened by fever and malaria — struggled with depression due to the trauma Cha’s family had experienced as refugees and the culture shock they experienced in South Korea. Cha’s brother and father were bullied and harassed for their North Korean accents.

“We were broken and tired,” Cha said. “We had to fight against new barriers again and again.”

Cha said it took five years after their escape for her family to finally heal. She explained that her family members weren’t “refugees trying to survive, but people trying to move forward.”

Now with an internship on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Cha wants to inspire change in North Korea.

“Even though I live in the South, my home is in the North,” Cha said. “I believe I will end my journey in a free North Korea.”

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