One Volunteer’s Story

Ever wonder who does the behind-the-scenes work in an NGO like ours?

A while back Hiroshi Kato, who heads this organization, posted a call for volunteers – someone to help LFNKR with translation work. Since this NGO is made up almost exclusively of volunteers, and there’s always more to do than time available, we are always delighted to hear from those wanting to help.

One young lady in the US, a “Mrs M,” contacted us offering her assistance. Only thing was, she wasn’t sure her skills were good enough. We sent her a couple of short articles to try, and as it turns out, her skills were excellent. She’s been translating for us ever since.

And then the other day we wondered, would readers be interested in hearing how one volunteer started?

We thought that you, our readers, might indeed be interested, so here it is – Mrs M’s story:

On August 1, 2010, Hiroshi Kato, Executive Director of Life Funds for North Korean Refugees, sent an update of activities to English language email subscribers. At the end of his email was this call for volunteers:

“It has been much too long since I sent you an update. This is mainly because our efforts are limited by the human resources we have available. There is much more news than we have time or manpower to translate into English and mail out, so I really could use your help with this.

If you know of anyone who would like to help with the North Korean refugee issue by serving as an occasional volunteer translator of our Japanese articles into English, I urge you to point them our way. I’d very much appreciate your assistance with this.”

This email reached a Korean American classmate of my brother, who forwarded the email to my brother, who then forwarded it to me.

I clicked on the link to the LFNKR English language website and was so impressed with the work that was being done by this Japanese NGO that I had never heard of. But my initial response was “I don’t have time!” With two young children and a college teaching job, I felt too overwhelmed to take on additional volunteer commitments. But, for some reason, I did not delete the email, so it remained in my inbox.

Over the next year, I taught a course on East Asian Politics. My students reacted very strongly to what they learned about North Korea. Many of them had no idea that such an oppressive totalitarian dictatorship still existed in the world. As my students and I learned more about North Korea, I thought about that email in my inbox. It seemed to be calling to me to not just read about or talk about all the suffering in North Korea but to take some kind of action, however small.

When I was finally done with my class, I sifted through my inbox and found the email that I had received nearly a year before. I immediately sent an email to Mr. Hiroshi Kato volunteering my services as a translator. I wrote the email in both Japanese and English. I was very surprised to receive a reply the very same day from Mr. Kato himself. He wrote to me in both Japanese and English, which I thought was very kind. He forwarded my email to the person in charge of the LFNKR English language site. She contacted me the very next day and, right away, I was translating my first article.

The immediate response I received from LFNKR showed me how professional and committed the staff were, and also how much they were in need of volunteer translators, even with limited skills like mine!

I am, by no means, a professional translator. I grew up in the United States, but my Japanese mother made sure we studied Japanese. In college, I spent a year at Japan Women’s University where both my mother and grandmother went to college. In graduate school, I wrote my PhD dissertation on the women’s movement in Japan, and spent 18 months in Japan on a Fulbright Grant.

Because of my studies, I could read Japanese fairly well, but translation was a whole new challenge for me. Fortunately, the editors of the LFNKR English language website have always been so patient and kind. They let me choose the articles that I translate and I set my own deadlines. They even edit and clean up my translations, because my literal translations of Japanese often sound unnatural in English. They never put pressure on me, and always express their gratitude for my volunteer efforts, no matter how small my contribution.

The best part of my volunteer experience has been learning about the North Korean refugee experience in Japan. The articles I translate are often by North Korean refugees themselves, and I am just in awe of what they have endured in North Korea and what they have achieved in Japan. For example, I learned about a North Korean refugee who arrived in Japan speaking no Japanese, but within 3 years had passed the highest level Japanese language proficiency test. For another article, I learned about a woman who passed the very competitive entrance examination for nursing school only five years after arriving in Japan. The most recent article I translated was about a family that struggled for years to earn a living in Japan, but through hard work, perseverance, and an entrepreneurial spirit, they now manage a successful inn that caters to South Korean tourists .

In the Asian politics course I teach, students learn about Japan’s relationship with Korea, going back to Japan’s occupation of Korea, World War II, the comfort women, and how this tragic history continues to strain relations between Japan and Korea today. Given this history, I am so moved by the efforts of this small Japanese NGO to help North Korean refugees make a new life for themselves. While we cannot undo the past, we can make positive steps towards improving relations in the future. Life Funds for North Korean Refugees is taking a step in the right direction. In my own tiny capacity, I feel honored to be part of this movement.

Our thanks to Mrs M for her kind (and consistent) help.

Let us also say that we still have a need for volunteers wanting to make a difference in someone’s life. If you have translation or other skills, we’d love to hear from you.