Fashionista’s Sudan work bears fruit

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Fashionista’s Sudan work bears fruit


Lee Kwang-hee, a fashion designer, teaches sewing skills to a woman in Tonj, South Sudan, and cares for a patient as a part of her charity work in the region. [HIMANGO]

Some residents in the South Sudanese town of Tonj refer to fashion designer Lee Kwang-hee as “mother,” after she spent seven years doing charity work there through her nongovernment organization, Himango.

As a fashion designer, Lee used to tailor high-end clothes for premium customers including first ladies and wives of business tycoons.

But the 64-year-old designer began developing ties with the troubled region after she joined a volunteer work in Tonj with actress Kim Hye-ja, an actress and one of her customers, in 2009.

When the JoongAng Ilbo visited Lee’s boutique on March 31, she was busy contacting NGO staff in the village.

“I was told strong winds damage fences,” she said, “and they needed to be fixed.”

Even though she was in her shop in Seoul, Lee was preoccupied with concern for the African town.

“When I visited there for the first time in 2009, the town was so ravaged by war that I felt as if I was working in the Stone Age or something.”

Lee decided she wanted to provide local residents long-lasting means of survival rather than simply giving away daily necessities.

She hit upon the idea of planting mango trees, since they can double as a food and, if the fruits are sold, a source of income. Furthermore, if cared for properly, the trees can live up to 100 years.

Lee therefore paid to bring 100 mango seedlings to Tonj in 2009, thinking that, having her done her part, her relationship with the town would come to an end.

But she couldn’t stop thinking about the region, and decided to set up an NGO devoted to supporting the people of Tonj.

With the establishment of Himango, Lee went beyond planting mango trees to building schools, an education center and an art space.

Impressed by her work, authorities provided some 330,578 square meters (82 acres) of land for free, to be used in line with charity purposes over the next 100 years.

Lee said her parents’ life-long devotion for people in need prompted her to become engaged in charity work. Her father was pastor while her mother worked as a nurse, caring for people with Hansen’s disease.

“One thing I’ve learned,” she said, “is that many people intend to do volunteer work after they earn enough money. But they can start small now, helping where it’s needed. The most important thing is taking action.

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