Merinda Davis’ students have had a hard life.
Some of them are refugees from North Korea. Others are the children of North Korean women who fled and were voluntarily or involuntarily sold to be the wives of Chinese farmers. Korean is often the students’ third language, and even after they flee the human rights violations of North Korea, life isn’t easy for them. There’s a stigma attached to being the child of a single parent, and another with being North Korean.
“They don’t fit in, they don’t feel like they belong in the culture,” said Davis, an Orem teacher who recently returned from teaching in a school for North Korean refugees in South Korea.
Davis, who taught at the school for three weeks in September, didn’t learn every student’s story. But what she did learn echoes experiences some of her students at Lakeridge Junior High School in Orem have had.
One girl she taught in South Korea had lost her father at a young age. The girl lived in a shanty house with her mother, and the two couldn’t move because passes were required to travel between towns. They sold herbs and flowers to survive, and after the girl’s mother left to find resources for them, the girl survived by moving dead animals she found alongside the road.
Her mother was able to set up an underground route to get her daughter to South Korea and the girl was enrolled in a traditional school in South Korea.
“Once the kids found out she was from North Korea, she didn’t have friends anymore,” Davis said. “They bullied her. They picked on her.”
Her experience echoes what other students at the school had gone through. Once they’re accepted into the school for refugees, they feel welcome.
Davis is familiar with traveling internationally for professional development. The Utah Valley University graduate is with the Alpine School District on a teaching assignment at Brigham Young University, and has traveled through BYU’s Kennedy Center for International Studies to the European Union to teach Utah teachers how to set up a Model United Nations in their classroom. She has also been to Finland, Auschwitz concentration camp and was a part of a National Geographic Expedition to the Arctic, taking opportunities as she learns about them.
It started after her mentor encouraged her to visit schools in Japan to learn about education systems. She got the opportunity in 2012 through the Fulbright Program.
“That transformed my entire perspective, not only on education, but how I view life and opportunities, not only for myself, but for my students,” Davis said.
Since then, she’s done annual international professional development. She’s received grants to travel to nearly every continent and has plans to visit Australia and South Africa. Davis said she’ll go to Antarctica — when she has the time.
Davis, who taught geography and world history, has set her students up with pen pals in Japan, Pakistan, Finland, South Korea, Morocco and Tunisia.
Davis traveled to the South Korean school after receiving a Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Short-Term grant to South Korea from the U.S. State Department and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board. She’s one of about 20 U.S. citizens who will travel internationally with the program this school year.
She found similarities between the refugees in her classroom in South Korea and immigrants she taught in Orem. In both cases, families were escaping violence and seeking safety.
“In China, they consider them economic migrants, illegal immigrants,” Davis said.
The teenagers miss home and want to be able to visit their grandparents, but they can’t.
“They just want to be happy and they want to be accepted and they want to feel loved,” Davis said. “The fact they can work so hard to try to do well the best they can after the experiences I’m sure many of them had to go through was so inspiring to me,” Davis said.
She taught them in English and the students completed projects such as taking pictures of their favorite spots and inputting them through geographic information systems. They also created a book on why they like themselves, based on a United Nation campaign.
One boy taught her magic tricks, and the students wrote and doodled all over her backpack.
The students live on campus and attend school six days a week, sometimes until 8 p.m. There are 22 students at the school and the students’ schedules are based on the rotating schedule for volunteer teachers.
Teachers have to follow strict rules about taking pictures of the students and can’t share photos on social media.
Davis said the experience is a good case study in migration and how to teach to students about migration, immigration and refugee situations.