Civic action rescues Seoul’s slum kids
The cycle of poverty is difficult to break.
Seven years ago next month, the JoongAng Ilbo ran a series of special reports highlighting the plight of kids growing up in one of Seoul’s most impoverished slums, Nangok, a small hilly area in Sillim-dong, Gwanak District.
The media reports had a dramatic impact on the lives of kids like Cha Seung-woo (not his real name). Seven years ago, Cha had few reasons to meet relatives during the Lunar New Year. But this year was different: Cha had a place at a private college in Seoul to celebrate.
Before the JoongAng Ilbo ran its stories, a story like Cha’s would have been a pipe dream. “I never thought I could become a college student,” says Cha, who hopes to become a schoolteacher. “I have received a lot of help to get here and I will try my best to help others in need.”
What makes Cha’s achievement more impressive is that his family did not shell out enormous amounts of money for private tutoring to get him into college.
Instead, hard work and the help of civic groups assisted Cha in getting a start in life.
Nangok, where Cha’s family was living, was formed in 1967 when the government herded together citizens who had been living in downtown Seoul prior to major urban redevelopment.
A total of 2,500 unlicensed houses huddled together on a steep slope where cars could not pass. The alleys separating the houses were so small people could hardly walk through.
After the JoongAng Ilbo launched a special report on the fate of the children there in 2001, aid from civic groups poured in, helping kids like Cha.
The Chodae Community Church based in New Jersey in the United States raised $1 million after hearing about Nangok. Members of the church’s congregation visited the slum four times to see for themselves the abject conditions that the community had to endure.
“There was a sense of failure and desperation there, which is why we wanted to get involved,” says Cho.
With the help of other citizens, “Vision Project” was set up for further education of children in the area.
Selected middle school students whose families were among the poorest in Nangok were offered scholarships, and college students from Seoul volunteered to help students with their studies.
Medical treatment and counseling services were provided to families of students on scholarships, who in turn helped others by taking part in community-based social work.
Since 2002, Vision Project has groomed 23 students, who are known as “Hopers.” Lee Ju-seung (not his real name), 19, benefitted from the project, but he says participation wasn’t smooth sailing. “I was annoyed at first when I was selected,” says Lee, who used to get into fights at school and whose father was an abusive alcoholic.
The committee running Vision Project started out by counseling Lee’s father once a week. Eventually he cut down on his drinking and became less violent. “Later my father really supported my studies. He was behind me all the way, which was why I could succeed,” says Lee.
Last year, Lee became a college student majoring in business. He wants to apply business theories to social work after he graduates.
Park Kang-il, 18, also benefitted from the project and is currently waiting to hear if his application to a two-year community college has been successful.
For Park, the beauty of the project was learning to interact with people doing volunteer work. “In the past, I was angry at the world for no specific reason, but I have a much more positive attitude now,” he says.
Kim Min-young, 20, who won a place at a prestigious private university in Seoul last year, says hope allowed her to escape the mental cage that she felt stopped her from getting close to others.
“Before becoming a hoper, I thought I was the only person living such a miserable life,” says Kim. “But I started to respect myself more as I gained more experience through the activities that the committee set up.”
Han Choong-hee, an official of the Foreign Ministry and a member of the committee, says it takes very little to change the life of another person.
“When you look at these kids, it makes you wonder why society didn’t start to show interest earlier,” says Han.
In 2002, redevelopment started following publicity in the media, and the work was completed last year. There are now apartments in Nangok for 3,800 families. In 2004, the JoongAng Ilbo launched the “W.E. Start” campaign, which stands for welfare and education.
Fifty civic groups have helped underprivileged children get a start in education and help break the generational cycle of poverty.
By Kim Ki-chan JoongAng Ilbo [firstname.lastname@example.org]