Volunteer group helps the homeless

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Volunteer group helps the homeless

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Members of Uni Seed, a volunteer group made up of undergraduate North Korean defectors, pose for a photograph on Dec. 26, after hosting a volunteer event that provides free lunch to the homeless near Seoul Station. [LEE YOUNG-JONG]

Every third Saturday of the month, volunteer group Uni Seed provides free lunch to the homeless in Seoul Plaza, in front of Seoul Station in the capital’s downtown area.

For both the homeless and the volunteers, it is a warm, safe space. Those involved in Uni Seed know what it’s like to be in need: The group is made up of undergraduate students, who are all North Korean defectors, and its name is a shortened form of the “seed of unification.”

The volunteers upload their activities on the official Uni Seed Facebook page and have expressed hope in their posts that their actions, however modest, may help one day reunite the two Koreas.

“We want to give back for the warmth we received from South Korea,” one of the group members said. “That’s why we come out to the streets to help others.”

On Dec. 26, volunteers gathered at Seoul Plaza to provide lunch to the homeless.

On a placard was written their promise: “We will grow to be a beautiful tree.”

Starting early in the morning, the group members used the kitchen in a nearby charity office to make 200 lunch sets. When they arrived at the plaza, the homeless quickly formed a long line.

“I starved during Christmas, but I’m so happy that I can eat warm rice today,” one of them said with gratitude.

Esther Um, 32, the president of Uni Seed, a defector who is now a senior at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, established the volunteer project in July 2014. At the time, she and four of her friends gathered to volunteer at 2 p.m. every third Saturday to help provide meals to the homeless at Seoul Station’s exit 2.

“We came to South Korea because we were starving, so we understand how difficult it is for the homeless to suffer from hunger,” she said.

Since then, 33 undergraduate defectors have given their time to the group. A few South Korean students also lend a hand.

But in the beginning, the club’s operation was mainly trial and error: Uni Seed aimed to provide traditional North Korean food to the homeless to represent the idea that food could help unite both sides. To start, they made 700 sets of traditional meal using tofu and rice; however, the dish was not well-received.

For the homeless, warm rice, doenjangguk (soy bean soup), kimchi and bulgogi (barbecued beef) has proven to be the most popular meal.

The cost to make 200 meals at a time averages around 600,000 won ($512), and to meet the budget, the volunteers rely on donations or sell hand-made stationery.

Their efforts paid off, and in September 2015, Uni Seed was recognized by the Korea Hana Foundation, a public institution under the Ministry of Unification, as one of 12 outstanding volunteer groups.

The award is given to organizations established by North Korean defectors who have settled in the South and worked to help the disabled or underprivileged.

“It’s meaningful that Uni Seed has broken the stereotype of defectors as being merely beneficiaries,” an officer from the Korea Hana Foundation said.

BY LEE YOUNG-JONG [kim.hyangmin@joongang.co.kr]

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