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'Children of my age died in front of me'

Refugee Support Network helps young refugees, asylum seekers and survivors of trafficking to get an education and find hope. Neil Baker hears the inspiring story of one girl from North Korea

A Monday evening rush-hour in Victoria train station. Costa Coffee is packed. In a corner, two women sit drinking cappuccinos. One is called Katie, the other asks to be called Hyeon.

It’s noisy and Hyeon, just 17, is nervous. It’s hard to hear her voice. But then, for so many years, to whisper was to survive; to speak out could mean prison or worse.

Hyeon is from North Korea, where the United Nations has documented human rights violations of a “gravity, scale and nature…that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”

She is one of the few to escape, and is working hard to build a new life for herself in London. Refugee Support Network, the charity where Katie works, is helping her to get the education that will make that new life possible. They’ve agreed to meet in this busy coffee shop to share Hyeon’s story.

“In North Korea, life is so hard,” Hyeon begins. “The government controls everything. We don’t have any freedom. We don’t even have food. People throw away their children, because they have no food.”

To help feed her family, Hyeon’s mother used to make illegal trips across the border. The police found out. “They came to my house and took my mum and she went to prison.” Hyeon was just eight at the time.

It was three years before she could visit. Asked to describe that meeting, Hyeon’s eyes fill with tears. “My mother was skin. All her hair was out. Her face was broken because they had beat her.

“The guards treated her like a slave, even though they were just boys. We could not hold hands, because they had blocked the glass. She said she wanted me to leave, to survive. I thought I do not want to live here, in this county. I might as well die trying to escape.”

Hyeon never saw her mother again; she died in prison, as did her father. “Children my age died in front of me. They were freezing and starving,” she says. “I thought, I do not want that, so I decided to run away.”

Looking for scraps to eat in a local market, Hyeon met someone who offered to help her escape to China.  A dark night one month later she was running across a frozen river, trying to reach the far bank before the guards – bribed to look away for a few minutes – turned around and shot her. “My heart was going boom, boom. I was so scared,” she says.

Hyeon was just 12, and her troubles were by no means over. “I lived with a lady, helped with the cleaning and cooking. But it was horrible. People treated me like a slave, because I was a child,” she says.

“It was more dangerous than being in North Korea. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t cry, and I couldn’t trust anybody. I had no family, no school. I had to stay inside all the time. And if I got caught by the police, I might die.”

Around us, people chat and laugh and pass the time while waiting for trains. The world Hyeon describes couldn’t feel further away. But stories of escape, of children making perilous journeys and somehow arriving in London, are familiar to Katie and her colleagues at Refugee Support Network.

With funding from The London Community Foundation, the charity helps young refugees, asylum seekers and survivors of trafficking from around the world to regain hope for the future through education.

Hyeon is full of thanks for the people who got her to London. When she met them, they told her to pack one bag and be ready to leave – she might get a day’s notice, or maybe just an hour’s. She waited for three years. “Then they came and told me I was going to England,” she says. “I didn’t know where that was, but I knew it was a safe place.”

She travelled with a man who pretended to be her uncle. “He said, ‘say nothing, and don’t look scared’. Every time I saw someone in uniform, I was scared! I was just thinking live, live.”

Alone on arrival at Heathrow, Hyeon claimed asylum, was placed in foster care and given a place at a local school. She was bullied, unhappy and struggling to learn. Eventually, she was referred to Refugee Support Network, where she was connected with a specialist education support worker called Hannah.

“I was missing my family and not sleeping,” says Hyeon. “I could talk to Hannah and explain my problems. She helped me to move to a new school and to meet other Koreans. She was a good person.”

Hannah also arranged a volunteer mentor to help Hyeon with her studies. When she arrived in England, all she could say was “hello” and “thank you”. Within a year she had five GCSEs, including science, maths and further maths. Hyeon is too modest to say what grades she got; Katie reveals they were A*, As and Bs.

With her academic talents recognised, a prestigious academy admitted Hyeon to study for A-levels. Next she wants to go to medical school. “Everything in my life has changed since I came to England,” she says. “It’s been amazing. I have met nice people and they are trying to help me. I can’t believe that I will be applying to university.”

“It’s been a horrible experience, but it has made me strong. Sometimes, when it’s hard, I want to give up. But I think of my family and the people who are still suffering. If I work hard, I can change things and help people.”

Hyeon thinks about North Korea often, the people she knew there. “My hope every day is to see them again. That’s why sometimes I feel so guilty. I just want them to be alive. Then I can say to them I’m sorry, because I left them behind.”

Katie gives Hyeon a hug and tells her she’s got nothing to feel guilty about. They agree to pose for a photo outside the coffee shop. Hyeon uses the giant hood of her parka to cover her face. They both try to look serious, but now they are just like two friends out for coffee, talking about their plans for the weekend. Katie can’t keep a straight face, and while you can’t see it, Hyeon too is laughing.

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