Welcome to the first ever “What’s Your Story? Wednesday” I’m honored to introduce you to an incredible family.
Meet the Wheelers!
I met Kira last Fall at Nurture, a morning devoted to women taking time to connect as moms and grow deeper in Jesus. She has the most gentle spirit and peaceful presence; as if Jesus is sitting right by her, providing her everything. The more I get to know her, the more I’m amazed at her faith layers. It doesn’t hurt that the girl loves vanilla ice cream with peanut butter and pretzels!
And Kira has a story.
Kira was born and raised in Orange County, CA, and attended Biola University where she earned her degree in Intercultural Studies. She loved going to a school where professors began class with prayer and encouraged in-depth study of God’s Word. During her first semester she met Justin. They shared many of the same classes and often found themselves studying over meals together. They also shared a heart for traveling- their freshman year Justin journeyed to Ukraine to live and work at an orphanage, while Kira took her first overseas trip to Japan with the women’s soccer team . Her experience was incredible, and she saw firsthand the ways God was working in a place where 1% of the population professed to be Christians.
When she and Justin returned from their separate trips, they sensed that God was pressing something big on their hearts, but weren’t sure what. And then they watched the 40-minute documentary called Invisible Children, detailing the conﬂict in Northern Uganda where children were being used as child soldiers. Shocked was an understatement! Kira couldn’t fathom that soldier life was a reality for these children. Justin was so impacted that he and a friend bought tickets to Uganda the next day to see the terrible conflict firsthand and offer their help. By the time they returned to the States, Justin and his buddy were not only working for the non-proﬁt, Invisible Children, but Justin was a key player in building the grassroots movement among youth in the U.S. during Invisible Children’s early years!
During their senior year at Biola, Kira raised funds to go to Uganda with Justin as an intern with Invisible Children. It was during their three weeks there that Justin proposed. During their first year of marriage, Kira and Justin both worked at Invisible Children. And then God pressed the country of North Korea on their hearts. To be honest, they didn’t know much about North Korea, let alone that many Koreans. As they dug deeper into the North Korea crisis, their eyes were opened and hearts broken.
Kira speaks passionately about what they learned:
“The North Korean regime has a stronghold on the people through a system of indoctrination and obsessive propaganda – basically brainwashing. They are taught that the late Kim il Sung is their eternal father, and his son, Kim Jong il, is literally deiﬁed as the son of God. And on top of that, millions of people are starving, and more than 1 million have already died because of this food crisis. The people have no rights. There is no freedom of speech, religion, or even movement! The North Korean people are isolated with no access to information about the outside world. No internet or technology. North Korea is the most repressive country in the world.”
But how had North Korea been able to control 24 million people for so long?
Horrified, Kira educated herself on a network of political prison camps North Korea uses to instill fear and punish forms of dissent. Up to three generations of one’s family could be punished for a crime as simple as complaining about the regime! The conditions in these camps? Horrific – regular torture, execution, and rape!
As they researched North Korea, the couple’s prayers became dangerous. They felt God moving them to act and in 2007, they traveled to the border region of North Korea and China to help with the refugee crisis.
“Up to 50,000 refugees are hiding in China today and live in fear of being hunted down by the Chinese police. The journey to freedom is long and very difficult. Many women are trafficked once they cross the border, and are often sold to Chinese men. China sees North Korean refugees as illegal migrants, so if they’re caught, they’ll be sent back to possibly end up in political prison camp or executed.”
Overnight, the statistics became a reality as Kira and Justin met North Korean refugees, one of the first being Mi Sun. Her story, told by Kira, is unimaginable….
“At the age of 11, Mi Sun’s mother escaped to China to ﬁnd food for her family but never returned. Mi Sun was the oldest child and assumed the responsibility as the adult and became the caregiver for her siblings. She had no money, and no one to turn to. Her only option was to make the dangerous escape out of North Korea and into China to ﬁnd a way to provide for her family. Like many North Korean females in China, she was trafﬁcked as soon as she crossed the border. At the age of 12, she was bought by a Chinese man who was more than 20 years older than she. He would loan Mi Sun out to karaoke bars and sex chatting services. The little money she did earn, was sent back to her younger siblings in North Korea. We met Mi Sun when she was 22, still belonging t0 the Chinese man! She asked us if there was a way to leave China and if we could help her. In that moment, there was nothing we could do – we felt so helpless. I knew that we had to do more to help people like Mi Sun. If people around the world knew what was happening, they would not stand for it.
When we got back to the states, we began working on starting a non proﬁt. This was the hardest part of our journey. We had no income, and so we took part time jobs working at a grocery store and Jamba Juice. We relied on the support and prayers of our family and friends. It was a trying time, but as our marriage grew, so did our faith.
We ﬁnally came across a nonproﬁt called LiNK-Liberty in North Korea. They were based in DC and had been working on the North Korea crisis since 2004. As we talked with them, we realized that our visions aligned. They were at a point in time where leadership was changing and they wanted to start a new program working on grassroots awareness. We had long talks about “merging” our two visions, and after months of praying and talking, Justin and I moved to Washington DC to work with LiNK and help transition the LiNK headquarters to Los Angeles, CA.”
For the last 4 1/2 years Kira and Justin have been working with LiNK and have helped rescue and resettle 129 refugees! They assisted the start of national tours to spread awareness and give tangible ways for people to help North Korean refugees in hiding. LiNK is now on its 11th national tour, and has been redefining North Korea to the public by focusing on the people, not the politics.
Kira goes on to share, “I can wholeheartedly tell you that this journey has not been what I had planned my life to look like but I am grateful for everything our little family has been through. We have sought after Jesus every step of the way. We also could not have lived without the wisdom and support of a solid community sharpening us one day at a time.”
Currently, Kira is a full-time mama to her son, Greyson. He is a a joy and makes her and Justin laugh every day. With his curly hair and piercing blue eyes, Greyson is all smiles and boy energy for days!
When Kira asked me to make their family a window, I was humbled. And when she told me the saying, I understood. This is a family that is constantly reminded that even in the darkest places, one can always find good!
Thank you for sharing your story, Kira! It’s people like you and Justin that are the hands and feet of our Savior.
For more information on Liberty in North Korea please go to: http://libertyinnorthkorea.org/