A home for the countryless
School is where the trouble started.
He may have been born in Korea, but to his classmates Seong-hun is “Ali,” a foreigner, an object of ridicule. He endures taunts and jibes every day, until school ends and he arrives here, at Kosian House.
The house is a place of refuge for mixed-nationality children or for the sons and daughters of foreign workers in Korea. The center, which was established in 2000, gets its name from the term for children who have one Korean and another Asian parent: “Kosian.” It now serves more than 25 kids, a dozen of which are younger than three.
In the center, Seong-hun plays with children like Bilge, 14, and Hisige, 13, whose parents are from Mongolia, and watches over Sehel, a toddler who is half Pakistani and half Korean, or Batika, a two-year-old who is half Thai.
“Most of the time, their parents come to Korea first and then bring over their children when they get a little older,” said Kim Yang-ae, 38, a nurse at Kosian House. “I try to feed them as well as they are fed at home. I want them to feel secure and give them the love that their mothers might not be there to give.”
Many of those mothers work long hours in factories, creating leather or metal goods, textiles or shoes. They drop their children off at the center as early as 7:30 a.m.; they pick them up as late as 9 p.m.
The immigrant children have their work cut out for them: Most of their time at the center is used studying Korean so they can go to school. The schools decide where to place the children according to how they score in Korean proficiency tests ― most of them will enroll two or three grades behind Korean children their age.
“To adapt to living in Korea, they need to learn how to speak Korean quickly,” Ms. Kim said. Older children must receive particularly intensive training, she added.
The good news is that Korean children of mixed ethnicity are more welcomed than ever in schools, Ms. Kim said. “Before they weren’t enthusiastic. [Then] Hines Ward became famous, and that seems to have had an effect on the schools.”
Ward is a half-African American, half-Korean football player for the Pittsburg Steelers who was named the Superbowl’s Most Valuable Player in February. His success made him an instant hero in Korea, where people had previously had as much interest in biracial children as they had in American football: little to none.
Korea’s sudden acceptance of all things biracial has been reflected in school officials, who Ms. Kim said had previously refused to include foreign or biracial students in their regular rosters and who did not grant the children diplomas. School officials in Gyeonggi province deny that they have refused foreign children or hid them from the rosters.
“The schools were afraid that they would have to take responsibility for the children if anything happened,” Ms. Kim said. She cited one example in which an Indonesian girl was caught fighting with his classmates, then stopped going to school.
The girl was interviewed by a television reporter; in the edited clip of the interview, the girl appeared to be saying that she stopped going to school because he was beaten by classmates. School officials allegedly thought the program was biased, but Ms. Kim said they grew wary of accepting more immigrant children.
Ms. Kim said the program did have a bias and that the reporters manipulated the girl, but that the discrimination against bi-ethnic and foreign children in the schools is real.
“It wasn’t because she was being taunted,” said Lee Hong-ryang, the vice principal of Wongok Elementary School, “It was because she had problems adjusting to Korean culture.”
Adding to the problem is the fact that most migrant workers have little to no time to help their children study, and even if they did, few would speak Korean well enough to be able to help. Teachers find it difficult to communicate with the parents ― and with the children ― and cultural differences can make it difficult for the children to adjust to the school environment.
Mr. Lee said the school has always welcomed foreign children. “The Gyeonggi provincial office of education two years ago sent memoranda to schools recommending that they accept foreign children who can prove they live in the district,” he said.
Though schools are increasingly tolerant, the law is far less flexible. Many of the migrant workers and even some bi-ethnic native Koreans are here illegally; the possibility that they might suddenly be deported deprives them of any sense of permanence.
Being Mongolian, Bilge and Hisige appear similar to Koreans. Currently in fifth grade, they came to Korea about two years ago and speak broken Korean. They say their classmates often make fun of their names.
“It’s hard for me because I can’t get along with other kids,” Hisige said. Despite those difficulties, she said, “I still want to go to school. I’ve always wanted to go.”
Hisige said that she is now catching up in most of her school subjects, with the important exception of Korean writing. She added that the teachers treat her fairly.
Jeong Jin-seong, Seong-hun’s mother, said her son had a hard time at school when they lived in Seoul. Kids teased him about his complexion. “Seong-hun used to asked me why he was called a foreigner or even African even though he was born in Korea,” Ms. Jeong said. “He said he couldn’t understand.”
Ms. Jeong said Seong-hun was often isolated and lonely, and became more introverted. “The things the children would spit out hurt his feelings,” she said. She tried to comfort him by telling him that other children were simply jealous of his good looks.
Things got much better, however, when Seong-hun enrolled in Wongok Elementary, in Ansan. His mother said he brings friends home from time to time or goes over to his friends’ houses to play.
But even those who learn to speak Korean fluently and fully adjust to Korean life have serious problems. The more a child adapts to Korea, the more they lose touch with their home country or the culture of their non-Korean parent. They become strangers in the other country.
One example is Ha Young-gang, 6, whose Sri Lankan name is Minomin. Though he was born in Korea, Young-gang is a citizen of neither country. His parents immigrated to Korea illegally; his birth here was not registered. They sent him to a nursery when he was five months old, and Young-gang has grown up speaking Korean. He cannot communicate in his parents’ language (he did not say whether his parents spoke Sinhalese or Tamil).
“When I try to speak in Sri Lankan with his father or try to speak Sri Lankan to him,” said Hasinth, Young-gang’s mother, “he runs away. He thinks it’s noisy. He said he was born in Korea and doesn’t want to go back to Sri Lanka. He doesn’t even know where it is.”
Young-gang is not the only child who is staying illegally in Korea because he was born to parents who illegally immigrated. Due to their illegal status, they are always in danger of deportation.
Since Aug. 17, 2004, the government has clamped down on illegal immigrants by issuing work permits to legal aliens while hunting down and deporting illegal immigrants.
Although most people are unaware of the crackdown on illegal migrant workers, its effects are felt stongly in Ansan, which is home to a large number of migrant workers. A few weeks ago, Bilge and her mother were caught by the police and locked up. Kosian House workers and church officials persuaded the immigration office to release them before their deportation.
“The economic difficulties are always there, though it’s not like they need much money to be happy,” Ms. Kim said. “But it’s heartbreaking to see the children off so suddenly.”
Bilge said she had no chance to say goodbye to her friends. “I have friends here. I like it here better [even though some classmates make fun of me],” Bilge said.
Bilge said her fondest memory of Korea was the time she went to Lotte World, a theme park, with her classmates. Bilge and her mother boarded a plane back to Mongolia last Friday.
by Limb Jae-un