Greenlight to Freedom
Casey Lartigue, Ed.M.’91, helps North Korean refugees tell their stories
From an early age, human rights activist Casey Lartigue Jr., Ed.M.’91, understood that actions speak louder than words.
As a 12-year-old boy, Lartigue discovered — and devoured — the works of Frederick Douglass. He read all three autobiographies by the legendary freedom fighter and even convinced his parents to take a family road trip from Texas, where Lartigue was raised, to visit Frederick Douglass’ National Historic site in Washington, DC.
“One thing that was very clear to me,” Lartigue says of Douglass’ inspiring message, “is the power of actions, not words. Douglass often said, ‘it’s not enough to talk. At some point you come to blows.’ From a young age I had that idea of the importance of not just talking, but actually doing something.”
That conviction of taking action — of working to make a positive change — is what led Lartigue to create Freedom Speakers International (FSI), a nonprofit organization in Seoul, South Korea, to help North Korean refugees find their voices and share their stories. Last year Lartigue received honorary citizenship from the city of Seoul, where he lives.
For the past 10 years, FSI, relying primarily on donations, has assisted nearly 500 people who managed to flee the deprivation and iron-fist rule of the totalitarian north. Many of these who chose to risk their lives for potential freedom soon discovered that choice is the very definition of freedom. The organization offers free English and public speaking classes while fostering choice for its students. For example, they choose their tutors, and they choose the paths they will follow.
“I was determined to build a program where the participants have the power,” says Lartigue, who earlier this month presented FSI at Harvard’s Alumni of Color Conference. His cofounder, South Korean native Eunkoo Lee, was at first skeptical that refugees of such a controlling place as North Korea would be equipped to make choices.
“I thought it would be a disaster,” Lee wrote by email. But after receiving positive feedback from their first tutoring sessions, she understood the power of choice for the refugees’ success. “They loved being able to choose their own tutors. I could see that when North Korean refugees took responsibility for studying that they studied harder.”
FSI hosts two English speech contests each year in which contestants present original 10-minute speeches about anything related to their being from North Korea.
Lee considers Lartigue to be the “pioneer who has helped raise awareness about North Korea and North Korean refugees and also brought new ideas and approaches that were unimaginable to South Koreans.”
“By the time they find us, they are desperate,” Lartigue says of participants in his program. “They are ready to take leadership” in improving their own lives.
One such motivated refugee, Songmi Han, detailed her difficult childhood in which she endured starvation and beatings, and her harrowing escape, in a new book she co-wrote with Lartigue, Greenlight to Freedom: A North Korean Daughter’s Search for Her Mother and Herself.
When Han was 11, her mother fled North Korea without even telling her that she was leaving, for fear of being thwarted. According to Lartigue, if a mother and daughter are captured while trying to escape, they can be sold separately, with little hope of ever finding each other again. Seven years after her mother left, they were reunited when her mother hired a broker to free Han from North Korea in 2011.
“My mom gave me two lives, one when she gave birth to me and the second one when she rescued me from North Korea,” Han wrote in her email. “She showed me the green light out of North Korea.”
After many years of depression and suicidal thoughts, Han says she now sees a future for herself and dreams of opening a restaurant one day.
“Mr. Casey showed me a green light to the future,” says Han. “He is the only person I trusted to tell my story and I will forever be grateful to him for changing my life.”
Lartigue is currently collaborating on another refugee’s book and has three more on deck after that. His goal is to publish two books every year.
Before establishing FSI, Lartigue worked on education policy at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. and co-edited the book, Educational Freedom in Urban America: Half a Century after Brown v. Board of Education.
“You might notice that I do a lot of 'co-',” Lartigue says with a laugh. “I love to learn from people. I love to engage with people. I love working with people. With North Korean refugees, we meet them at their level. We encourage them but don’t push too hard. We cooperate.”
— Aiden FitzGerald is a writer based in Rhode Island