[Viewpoint] Not just a women’s organization

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[Viewpoint] Not just a women’s organization

When I first arrived in Seoul, I used to dread business dinners with my husband. Not because of the boring business talk, but for the apprehension I felt when one of my husband’s associates would mockingly ask, “So, what do you do with all your free time?”

Despite the associate’s crudeness, there was a grain of truth in his query that I did not want to face. What could I have said without sounding like a stereotypical, bored housewife who does nothing but lunch and shop all day? What did I do with my time in Seoul?

As any new expat in town, I began looking into various women’s organizations, and being a person of multicultural background (Filipina, Dutch, American, French), I eventually found comfort and a feeling of familiarity in the Seoul International Women’s Association.

SIWA is the largest and longest running nonprofit women’s organization in Seoul. Three-hundred members of different age groups and backgrounds from all over the world currently participate in the tradition that started 50 years ago. Shortly after attending my first “coffee morning,” I joined interest groups like the book club and attended tours and classes, learning about Korea while making new friends.

Not only does SIWA provide these opportunities for education and socializing, it also contributes to the wellness of Korean communities through its welfare program. Over 30 charities depend on the support of SIWA: charities like orphanages, shelters for the elderly, migrant workers, abused women and those with medical needs to name a few.

The SIWA Bazaar is an annual fund-raising event that represents SIWA’s core as a collective, international organization in Seoul. This event bridges the gap between foreigners of many nationalities and Koreans alike for a common, benevolent cause. This year’s event will be held at the Grand Hilton Seoul on Tuesday, Nov. 15, from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.

There is no other international marketplace like it. You will find charities selling homemade gifts. You will find the diplomatic community presenting delicacies and souvenirs representative of its respective home countries. Corporate sponsors make monetary donations or give products to be sold for charity or as raffle prizes. The bazaar will leave your five senses awakened - from the sight of the colorful festivities to the sound of the foreign languages spoken and the fragrances and delectable tastes of exotic cuisines. But most importantly, your heart will be touched in knowing that what you spend will help the community.

From its charitable outlook to its cross-cultural reach, SIWA also serves a humanitarian purpose. It has become a refuge for foreign women like me who felt lost in this big city. SIWA, like a wise onni, or big sister, looked after us and made us part of a family. She showed us that there was much to learn and experience. She taught us that as we reaped the benefits provided by our host city, we must give something back in return. As Marian Wright Edelman, an American activist for children’s rights once said, “Service is the rent we pay to be living. It is the very purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time.”

It is true that those who give of themselves also receive. Not only has volunteering given me new skills, but it has provided me with a sense of accomplishment. Volunteering shows us that we are all interdependent and that one person’s simple actions can affect another in a profound way.

The board and committee members earn no compensation but volunteer their time and talents with the simple intent of helping other women. By their example, this dynamic group of women inspired me to volunteer. Their efforts keep SIWA alive.

In today’s world where individuality and separation are the norm, it is refreshing to see organizations like SIWA that continue to bring communities together. SIWA may just be another women’s organization for others, but to me, it has made my little corner of the world a better place to live.

Three years later when I attended another business dinner with my husband, an associate asked me, “What do you do with your free time?”

This time, I wondered where to begin.

*The writer is a SIWA member and freelance writer based in Seoul whose published works can be found in the Korea JoongAng Daily, Newsweek Korea, Seoul magazine and CNNGo.com.

by Valerie Pergay

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