Students Discover That Habitat Builds, Breaks Down Walls

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Students Discover That Habitat Builds, Breaks Down Walls

Hidden among a crowd of cyclists, Jang Seong-kwon is helping a group of 108 students at Imjingak, a city in Kyonggi province, prepare for a five-day trip to Asan. Laughter and chatter spread across the group. Excitement and some fear show as the cyclists ready for their long trip. After all, 332 kilometers is no bike ride to the corner market.

"Cycling for Habitat 2001" brought together 108 Korean and Japanese college students to raise funds and awareness for Habitat for Humanity in their two countries. With the vision of reaching out and helping those in need, this year's theme is "Cycling Brings Miracles."

The project did not simply end at Asan on Sunday. Once there, the two groups began building homes for residents of that city. "I'm not worried about the physical strain involved," said Yuko Hamada, 19, from Kwaseigakuin University in Japan. "I'm just excited to help, to experience what it is like to volunteer and to meet some Korean friends."

Some of the Korean students wondered about meeting their Japanese visitors. "With the cultural differences and our long, troubling history, I did worry a bit," said Jung Yeong-kyu, 25, from Soongsil University, "But after having met them, I feel that our objective is more important than the past."

The Japanese students began by cycling from Hiroshima to Shimonoseki, Japan, and three days later joined two teams of students in Korea: One departed from Imjingak, the other from Pusan. Each group rode to the opening ceremony of the Jimmy Carter Work Project 200l, where the former U.S. president and Millard Fuller, founder of Habitat, greeted them.

When asked if the long journey would be tedious, Mr. Jang said, "We're supposed to cycle in one line for safety purposes, but you often see students pairing off, usually a girl and a guy. They always find ways to make a trip fun."

Inspired by an article he read in 1997, Mr. Jang said, "I was really touched by their determination and thought we should also do a bikeathon here in Korea." What began with 24 cyclists now attracts more than 100.

Habitat for Humanity, began in the United States in 1976, seeks to break down class barriers while working to eradicate homelessness. "You learn to love through this experience, and I've seen incredible changes in vulnerable young students, going from self-centered to thinking about serving others. There's something about the experience that breaks down all possible walls between people," Mr. Jang said.

Habitat groups in Korea and Japan have taken the concept one step further - to tear down the walls between two peoples with a troubled past. "In my prior experiences, I felt the strength of Habitat while cycling with the Japanese. At the end of our project, even the well-known Samurai spirit of the male Japanese students seemed to crumble into tears," said Mr. Jung. "The power of Habitat really changes you."

by Bora Kim

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