The North Korean refugees supplying PPE to care homes

By Tom Brada
BBC News

image source, Jihyun
image captionJihyun Park has escaped North Korea on two occasions

Jihyun Park and Timothy Chow understand the meaning of hardship. Both suffered under the brutal North Korean regime, enduring famine, the deaths of family members and imprisonment in forced labour camps - before fleeing and eventually receiving asylum in the UK.

Wanting to give something back to the country that gave them safe haven, the pair have teamed up with other members of the North Korean community to donate a total of 7,000 sets of personal protective equipment to seven care homes in the north of England.

"I escaped North Korea two times," says Jihyun, who lives in Manchester. "The first time I only escaped as far as China where I was married off to a farmer and effectively became his slave. I was later sent back to North Korea and forced to work in a labour camp in the mountains."

Stockport-based Timothy Chow's experience was also harrowing. He grew up during a famine in the 1990s known as the Arduous March, a period of mass starvation which left anywhere between one and three million North Koreans dead.

image source, Timothy Chow
image captionDespite being in the UK, Timothy Chow still does not want his face to be shown

"I grew up during the famine and lived on the street for years," he says. "It wasn't just me; there were thousands of children living on the streets. There was no help from the government, only the threat of imprisonment, torture and oppression. It was a strange life, but that was my childhood."

After successfully escaping the North Korean regime, both Jihyun and Timothy received asylum in the UK.

"When I arrived in England in 2008, I couldn't speak any English," says Jihyun. "But people were so kind and welcoming. I cried and cried, because in North Korea, I didn't feel welcome, but in the UK people made me feel at home."

Timothy had a similar experience. "It was very difficult when I first came here with no friends or family. But I was quickly welcomed into the community.

"In North Korea, people are being spied on all the time and you cannot trust anybody. But here in the UK, the warmth of the community has been wonderful."

image source, other
image captionSome of the PPE donated by North Koreans in the UK

Jihyun and Timothy credit this generosity of spirit when they were at their most vulnerable, with fuelling their desire to help the Covid-stricken UK.

"I was following the news and seeing that so many people were dying and I thought how can I help?" says Jihyun.

"When I lived in North Korea, I was a teacher and my students would often complain that their stomachs ached from hunger. But at that time I couldn't do anything to help. Now I'm in a position where I can help.

"And there are nearly 700 North Koreans in the UK who also want to show their gratitude."

Jihyun and Timothy enlisted the help of another defector living in South Korea, and were able to import the 7,000 PPE sets they donated to English care homes.

One of the recipients is The Grange in Stockport, where John Yasin is services manager.

image source, Grange
image captionStaff at The Grange wearing the donated PPE

Due to early and comprehensive action, The Grange has avoided the worst effects of the virus, with no Covid-19 cases reported. Other care homes, of course, have been severely affected by the pandemic - nearly a third of all coronavirus deaths in the UK have happened in a care facility.

"My wife and I have been running this home for around 20 years and have never experienced anything like this," says John. "We first locked down in the first week of March. And at the moment, I can't see the light at the end of the tunnel. We don't know when it's going to end."

The stress has been made easier by the generosity of the North Korean community. "My wife answered the phone to somebody saying, 'we're a group of North Korean refugees doing a charitable donation, would you be willing to accept?'

We said 'yes, we'd be more than happy'. And not only did they make a donation, but the quantity was quite large. I mean 1,000 masks is not to be sniffed at! I don't need to worry about face masks for several weeks."

image source, Grange
image captionJohn Yasin with another member of staff

The donation has also affected the rest of the care home workers, who now more than ever sense that they are valued. "The staff know that they've been getting donations from the community and that's been nice for them," says John.

"I really applaud the refugees; coming to another country as an escapee and then supporting that country's people with donations like this… I think that's brilliant."

For Jihyun and Timothy, it's a privilege to be able to help. "The people of this country supported us when we were going through our own trauma," says Timothy.

"Now the UK is our home we're not just going to be the recipients of other people's kindness - we are also going to support others going through difficult situations."

"This lockdown has been terrible in many ways," adds Jihyun, "but one positive is that it's brought people together.

"I'm proud, and all the North Korean refugees living here are also proud, to be able to say thank you to the community."