Caring for the forgottenThe Christian tale of the Good Samaritan is there to remind people to care for the less fortunate, no matter what race or creed. At Chungdong First Methodist Church, near Deoksu palace in central Seoul, parishioners rise to the Samaritan spirit by operating the Chungdong Agape Clinic, a twice-monthly medical service for foreign laborers in Korea.
“It is not merely important to help our own kin; we should also reach out to those in dire need,” says Dr. Myung No-chul, 60, a church member who founded and named the free clinic.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, about 80 foreign laborers from the Philippines, Mongolia, China, Bangladesh and elsewhere have congregated in the lobby of the Social Education Center, next to the church. Men and women of all ages, along with a few children, await a free checkup or treatment. A banner welcomes them in Korean, English and Mongolian.
After registering at the front desk, the patients take numbers and wait their turn for a routine examination involving a blood test, blood pressure screening and more. Following their initial review, the patients are directed to clinical wards on the third floor for more in-depth exams, if necessary.
The full range of specialties is available here, including internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, surgery, dental work and even oriental medicine. On this day, patients can even get X-rays thanks to a mobile radiology van parked in the courtyard of the church. And members of this church, at 118 years Korea’s oldest Protestant house of worship, harbor ambitious plans to expand the fledgling clinic into a fully operative hospital, with specialties such as otorhinolaryngology and opthalmology.
Fortunately, the majority of patients do not need invasive surgery or other complex procedures. “Most of the folks who come to our free clinic suffer from muscle pain, skin problems or toothaches,” says Jin Byeong-ryeol, a professor who helps keep the operation flowing.
Still new to their endeavor, the church began providing this free medical treatment to foreign migrant workers four months ago. Dr. Myung, a dentist, suggested it after learning about a similar program that his son-in-law was involved in at Kyungdong Church in Jangchung-dong. Once a committee was set up, church members publicized its services in neighborhoods with large concentrations of foreign workers or by visiting factories.
“Because they are illegal aliens, migrant workers are unable to receive medical benefits here, so they turn to these free clinics for help,” says Hwang Hyeon-mi, an official at the Medical Mutual-Aid Union for Migrant Workers in Korea, a nonprofit institution set up to help migrant laborers in Korea. In order to aid these laborers toiling in dismal conditions, the union provides free or discount medical benefits to those who register. Membership at the union is 5,000 won ($4) per month. Patients receiving initial diagnosis at free clinics such as Chungdong are able to get further examination at hospitals through the Union. About 15 religious institutions operate free medical clinics in Seoul, according to Dr. Myung, while another 25 institutions or so provide free or low-cost medical help on a part-time basis.
Once a patient reaches the third floor, an army of yellow-vested volunteers directs them to the clinic rooms. The equipment here, from dental surgery chairs to gynecological exam chairs, appears modern and new.
“Our facilities are top-notch, among the free clinics that operate for foreign workers,” says Dr. Myung. “Currently, we are unable to do surgery, but everything else is doable.”
In one room, a doctor observes a patient, a Mr. Erika, 45, who says he has suffered from liver problems since he was living in Mongolia. He works in Gurodong industrial complex in southern Seoul. As in a paid clinic, the physician tells him to return after getting an X-ray. Mr. Erika nods and thanks the doctor. “For serious cases, such as pneumonia,” says the doctor, “we refer the patients to a proper hospital through the Medical Mutual-Aid Union for Migrant workers in Korea.”
In the below-street level dentistry ward, Rahim Madber, 32, of Bangladesh, who works in a furniture factory in Gwangju, Gyeonggi province, awaits his turn at the chair. Excruciating tooth pain brought him to the church’s clinic.
“This is my second time here. My friends have been telling me how clean the services are here so I came all the way from Gwangju,” says Mr. Madber.
“Most of the factories don’t care much about hygiene,” says Mr. Jin, “which makes these workers more likely to suffer.”
Jeon Hee-gyeong, the oriental medicine doctor on duty this Sunday, is not a church member but has volunteered his services nevertheless. “Most of the patients I see are in their 40s and 50s, suffering from rheumatism or digestive problems.” Even though Mr. Jeon is a Buddhist, the clinic officials are keen to have him here since oriental medicine is popular among Chinese and Mongolian patients.
The workers here do not appear too sickly or haggard, but their eyes betray a look of weariness. Many of them speak conversational Korean, and can talk to medical staff with some clarity. Heo Yeong-chun, a Joseonjok or Chinese of Korean descent, who sells food at a market in Geumcheon, suffers from rheumatism but says the security of her livelihood worries her most.
“My husband has not received his salary in three months. Just thinking about the money makes my heart sink,” says Ms. Heo, 54, adding “I am glad there are people who care about their brethren, though.”
The workers sit and wait calmly, venturing only to take a sandwich, tangerine or beverage offered by volunteers. Ramen appears to be the local favorite among the foods laid out on the table. The foreign laborers carry a guilty look about them, avoiding the camera’s flashes whenever possible. They sheepishly avoid the looks of others and keep a low tone in their conversation.
Following treatment on the third floor, some patients move downstairs to the pharmacy for medication. In the waiting area is a virtual thrift shop, racks of used clothes, donated by church members. Regardless of size or type, all clothes sell for 1,000 won (80 cents), and the workers are keen on ferreting out the bargains. A video of “King of Kings,” a movie about Jesus Christ’s life, is being shown on a television in the waiting area.
About 20 nonmedical volunteers, from their teens to their late 60s, have also come to help out this particular afternoon. Not all are church members. Jang Do-yeol, a student at Shinheung College’s nursing department, explains her twin motivation for volunteering as “good clinical experience” and “a lot of fun.”
Perhaps the only downside to this free clinic is its location near the U.S. Embassy and within distance of the Russian Embassy, which causes some workers to fear treading in a place where police and guards maintain a heavy presence.
“The last session was virtually empty,” says Dr. Myeong. “Because of the war in Iraq, the security surveillance near the U.S. Embassy has been very tight. And these workers are afraid to come to our church when there are so many policemen around because they fear interrogation or even arrest.”
by Choi Jie-ho
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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