Religious devotion carries risks for workersOn Oct. 25, immigration officials conducted raids near a temporary mosque in Seongsu-dong, where Bangladeshi and Pakistani Muslims gather to pray, and in other areas in Korea. They waited in an alley that led to the Seongsu-dong mosque until lunchtime prayers were over, blocking both ends of the alley so worshippers could not slip past them. Many Muslims in Korea are migrant workers in the country on tourist visas or with visas that have expired so have no legal status and run the risk of being caught and deported wherever they go.
Six illegal residents were caught in the Seongsu-dong raid and all were deported back to their countries of origin.
That Saturday, a group of Sri Lankan men began arriving at the second floor of a small building in Geoyeo-dong, Songpa district, in eastern Seoul. It was a special day for Muslims as it was the first Saturday after Ramadan ― Islam’s most holy month, during which worshippers fast from sunrise to sunset. On one side of a large hall on the second floor stood a podium, an air conditioner and a bookshelf, which was full of copies of the Koran, the holy book of Islam. The group had come together to pray in this shabby office building, which served them as a temporary mosque, or house of worship. Seoul Central Masjid, the mosque in Itaewon, Yongsan district, is far from where many Muslims in Korea, who are mostly migrant workers, work and live, so they have created their own places of prayer. Muslims are required to pray five times a day: before sunrise, at noon, before sunset, after sunset and before midnight.
“People of Islam believe in Allah. We have to pray. Praying is Allah’s order,” said Mohamed Rajoon.
There are about 40 temporary mosques in the country, according to the Korea Muslim Federation. The monthly rent on the rooms is usually paid by the worshippers who use them, although some receive financial support from the federation. They are located mostly in industrial areas in satellite cities where many small and medium factories are situated. Often each is frequented by Muslims of the same nationality, such as Pakistanis, Bangladeshis or Sri Lankans, because they find it easier to communicate with others from the same country.
Most worshipers at the temporary mosque in Geoyeo-dong are Sri Lankan, although at times Muslims of other nationalities will join them. On this particular Saturday more people were gathered than usual, about 50, because the Monday of the week had marked Id al-Fitr, literally the feast of the breaking of the fast.
Like other migrant workers, the worshipers in Geoyeo-dong do the work that Koreans describe as “3-D,” meaning dirty, dangerous or difficult, mostly low-paying jobs that Koreans are reluctant to do.
Some of them manage to stop by the temporary mosque during their lunch time with permission from their employer to take an hour or an even longer break. “It depends on the distance from the factory,” said Mohamed Yasin Hassim. Those who cannot make it to the prayer room find a quiet space in their workplace and pray in the direction of Mecca.
In the Geoyeo-dong mosque that Saturday, the service began at 10 p.m., the last of the day’s five prayers. The worshipers washed their hands and feet in a washroom in the corner before they joined their imam, the Arabic word for leader, chanting in Arabic. All the worshippers had previously donned caps, one of the symbols of Islam, from a plastic basket in the room. The clothes they were wearing were humble and the only things that indicated they were in a holy place were the caps, some of which were colorfully decorated, while others were made of plastic.
The worshippers began bowing, not toward the front of the room but toward the left corner, in which direction lay Mecca, the birthplace of Muhammad and Islam’s holiest city.
After the prayers were over, the imam talked about practical issues related to the community, such as people missing worship or being sick, or the inability to find work.
That night, the main topic of discussion was the raid that had taken place earlier that week.
“Some of my friends were taken away. It is heartbreaking,” said Iqbal Hossain, a Bangladeshi who works at a knitting factory. “An imam was taken also,” he said.
Mr. Hossain came to Korea eight years ago. He initially had difficulties because of the language barrier, he said, but he now speaks Korean reasonably well. He earns 1.5 million won ($1,595) a month, half of which he sends to his family in Bangladesh.
He met a Korean woman in the factory where he works and they married five years ago. His wife is studying Islam and he now has a residential identification card and no longer has to worry about being deported.
It was a sad time for the friends of those who had been deported, while others were angry. “What kind of country arrests people who come to a place of God for prayers?” said Mohammad Qasim, a Korean Muslim.
“The worshipers obey the rules of Allah. Their culture is totally different from Korean and Western culture, which is very corrupt,” he said. “They still follow the Ten Commandments.”
The worshipers in Geoyeo-dong were well aware of the raid but, despite the fear of being deported, many worshipers who had no legal status in Korea still came to the mosque to pray.
“It is especially painful because they were caught when they went to the mosque for prayers,” said Nawasharif Mohamed, a Sri Lankan. He has been in Korea four years and became an illegal immigrant after his three-year visa expired, Nawasharif said.
“I borrowed money [for my trip] using jewelry owned by my mother and sister as collateral,” he said. He said it cost him 6 million won to get his passport and initial visa.
“When I first came to Korea, I didn’t have any skills and I was only paid 600,000 or 700,000 won a month,” he said. “I still needed to pay rent and for food and utilities. It took three to four years to pay back my debt and my visa had already expired. The visa was only for three years. Everybody is illegal.”
“If we are deported back to our country, we have nothing. Nothing!” he added, heatedly.
“It is devastating. People from Sri Lanka are not rich. In Sri Lanka, only men work. I have no father and my mother takes care of her children. My younger sister and brother are going to school.”
“And I haven’t married yet,” he added. “If I have no money, I can’t get married. I still need to make money,” he said.
Mr. Nawasharif said a friend of his was injured while working, but he dared not visit him because of the risk of getting caught and deported.
There are hardships other than the risk of deportation Korea’s Muslim migrant workers have to endure.
“Korean culture is not suitable for Muslims. The working hours are too long and weather is too cold,” said Mohamed Riyas, another imam, who arrived in Korea three years ago.”
Another major problem is accessing meat that they are permitted to eat. Muslims may only eat meat that is halal, meaning slaughtered in the manner prescibed by Muslim law. “We don’t know how the livestock animals are slaughtered here,” Mohamed Yasin Hassim said.
A butcher shop in the neighborhood has only halal meat and in Itaewon, another butcher shop guarantees the animals were butchered properly.
“We don’t buy meat if the meat and pork are sold side by side,” said Mohamed Yasin Hassim. Pork is explicitly prohibited in the Koran and the ban applies to any pig-based products, including shortening made from pig fat.
“Shortening is used to make biscuits sold here,” he said.
In addition, of course, the migrant workers face a language barrier and said they find it very difficult to learn Korean. Though most Sri Lankans speak English reasonably well, they say many Koreans do not. “When I see a doctor and say I have a headache, the doctor gives me a prescription for stomach pain,” said Mohamed Rajoon.
The worshipers all said they are here to make money for themselves and their families and hope to save enough to return home. “I’d leave right away, even tomorrow, if I could,” Mohamed Riyas said.
Despite their difficulties, all seemed optimistic and cheerful. Mohamed Mazhar, the imam, said the police knew about the mosque, as did Koreans in the neighborhood. “The police don’t arrest us, only immigration does,” he said.
Once the worship was over at around 11:30 p.m., the men moved up to the third floor, to a kitchen where they prepared rice and curries of chicken, lamb and onion. They laid the food on large trays and moved to an adjoining small room, where three or four men gathered around each tray to eat, using no utensils but only their right hands. After the feast, they returned to the second floor and laid blankets on the floor to sleep. The next morning, they would have to get up before sunrise to perform their early morning prayers.
That next day, and the one after that, they would continue to pray to Allah five times a day no matter what.
“Whatever happens, it is only ‘In sha’allah,’ meaning if God wills it,” Mohammad Qasim said.
by Limb Jae-un