중앙데일리

Volunteer work a way for foreigners to belong

“I make food for the elderly,” said Munir. “I feel comfortable. They remind me of my parents in Pakistan,”

Apr 30,2007
Ethnic Koreans from China in “Joseonjok Town” in Garibong 2-dong, western Seoul, volunteer to clean the local streets of garbage. Provided by Guro District Office

For Shin Mi-kyung, belonging in her new home country means sweeping the street.
A 58-year-old ethnic Korean, Shin moved here from Heilongjiang, China four years ago. She opened a grocery store selling Chinese food and spices in Garibong 2-dong, western Seoul, settling in an area known as Joseonjok Town, meaning town for ethnic Koreans from China. With its many Chinese signs and shops, visitors to the area might wonder if they are in China.
“It is good to see the streets become cleaner and I feel more like I belong to this town,” said Shin of her task, sweeping an alleyway in front of her store on Wednesdays. Now a naturalized Korean citizen, Shin was invited by the district office in February to join a group of volunteers who clean local streets.
It used to be that foreign volunteers were limited to diplomats, exchange students or English teachers. But increasingly migrants from other Asian countries are being encouraged to pitch in to assist their adopted home. It is a way to make them feel they are part of the country. District offices and local residents are eager to organize volunteer groups for foreigners as the number of non-Koreans in the country is approaching 1 million.
According to the Justice Ministry, there were 938,000 foreigners living here as of April 23.
In March, the Administration Ministry announced that foreigners living in Korea are now considered “residents” of their districts. While the announcement has little practical significance, symbolically it is a sign that foreigners have the same rights and duties as Koreans while they are here.
For some, it is a matter of adapting to new ways of doing things in a more regulated environment. “There were many garbage bags abandoned on the street in Joseonjok Town and the Koreans were complaining,” explained Shin as she tidied the street.
“In China, we don’t use a specific garbage bag. We just pay a tax for sanitation,” added Lim Bong-seon, another ethnic Korean from China who runs a Chinese restaurant in the area.
There were no garbage bags or empty bottles in the alley this week after Shin and her neighbors finished their weekly chores.
“In the past, I was embarrassed when a visitor came to the town because the streets were so messy,” said Kim Kwon-soon, 46, one of 10 Korean members of the cleaning team. “But these days, many people here have adopted the practice of throwing garbage in a standardized garbage bag and it is hard to find trash on the street.”
“Now we feel proud of our town,” added Lee Ok-hee, another Korean team member.
The district was once home to textile factories during the country’s push to industrialize between 1960 and 1990. In those days many cramped residential buildings with 8-square-meter rooms were built to house factory workers. The factories moved out of the city in the 1990s and foreign migrant workers, especially from China, began to fill the empty rooms. They needed cheap housing and here they could get a room for as low as 150,000 won ($160) per month with a 1 million won deposit.
As of December last year, around 15,000 ethnic Koreans from China, or Joseonjok, were registered at the district office; there were 637 Chinese, 232 Taiwanese, 208 Malaysians, and 153 Filipinos, according to district office data. If illegal aliens are added to the count, the office said, there are about 20,000 foreigners in the area.
The volunteer cleaning group was launched with about 60 foreigners, including Russians and Taiwanese, but many of them were illegal aliens and left shortly after, officials at the district office said.
“We encouraged foreigners to join the group because they are regular residents like Koreans,” said Chung Kyung-pyo, director of the cleaning administration division for the district office.
Lee Soon-ki, a minister at a church for ethnic Koreans in the town, said he and Joseonjok members of the church have been doing similar volunteer work for the past 3 years.
“Many ethnic Koreans threw cigarette butts and garbage on the street, which made local residents uncomfortable. So our church organized the weekly activity as a campaign to raise awareness on the garbage issue,” said Lee. “The goal was to make the town a place where both Koreans and Joseonjok can live together in harmony.”
Dozens of ethnic Korean church members go out and clean the streets on Sundays after service, he said. “It has made a positive difference in the condition of the streets and in residents’ perception of the Joseonjok.”
In Ansan city in Gyeonggi province, where some of the factories from the Guro district moved, a larger and more diverse foreign community has grown up since the late 1980s.
As of December last year, about 24,000 foreigners from 39 countries were registered with the city government, roughly 6 percent of the total population.
Most of the foreigners live in the so-called “borderless” town of Wonkokbon-dong, where an estimated 20,000 legal and illegal aliens reside among an equal number of Koreans. The area made headlines in January when a 34-year-old Korean woman was killed and her body dismembered by an ethnic Korean man from China. The incident has made life uncomfortable for many foreign residents.
“There is a resident’s volunteer group to make rounds of the town, watching out for abandoned garbage bags or illegal trash,” said Ryu Jeong-hwan, the secretary-general of the Ansan Immigrant Center. The group is also on the lookout for suspicious activity.
“In the beginning, foreigners at our center thought about joining the group but they gave it up because they worried there might be some conflict with the Korean residents.”
According to the center, since the January murder foreigners have been wary of going out and mostly stayed at home to avoid trouble.
“The volunteer residents’ group asked the center to send some foreigners to join in their activities,” Ryu said. The center has been talking with the residents’ group but they have not decided whether to get involved yet.
“The volunteer guards are working on a day and a night shift. But because we all have our own jobs, it is not easy to maintain a group of five to six residents every time,” said Jeong Tae-kyung, an official of the volunteer group. “We want some representatives from the foreigners’ community to join us so that we can work together and better communicate with each other.”
While the plan has been under discussion, 20 elderly ethnic Koreans from China have already organized a volunteer group to clean the town’s streets twice a month. Beginning in May, the group plans to collect trash in the town and encourage residents to pay attention to garbage issues, according to the center.
In July last year, about 30 migrant workers from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nigeria, Indonesia, and Uganda went from Ansan to Gangwon province to help residents there recover from damage caused by torrential rains. The city government offered a bus for their transportation and local restaurants provided food for the volunteers.
“It is difficult for these workers to engage in long-term volunteer work because many of them work even on Saturdays. We hope the local governments will offer some incentives for foreign volunteers, such as honorary citizenship and the like,” Ryu said.
For Muhammad Munir, a 33-year-old importer from Pakistan, volunteering in Korea has a more personal meaning. In a volunteer program organized by Eunpyeong District Office in western Seoul, he has been visiting a charity center for the elderly and the poor twice a month.
Among eleven volunteers from Pakistan, China and Mongolia, he is the only man.
“I make and serve food for the elderly and clean the dishes,” said Munir, who has lived in Seoul for seven years.
“I feel comfortable. They remind me of my parents in Pakistan,” he said in simple but correct Korean.


By Kim Soe-jung Staff Writer [soejung@joongang.co.kr]



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