No place like home for one displaced family
Gihan Maamou was walking home with her daughter on the evening of April 4 when she realized the mountains facing her house in Goseong County, Gangwon, were glowing in an unusual shade of orange.
Her neighbors, most of them elderly, shrugged and said everything was fine. Maamou took her daughter Hayan Salman inside, gave her supper and tucked her in. She returned to the kitchen to do the dishes.
Through the kitchen window, Maamou saw flames in a rice field just a couple of yards from her house.
“There was no time to think,” Maamou recalls. She awakened her daughter, grabbed jackets for both of them and ran out of the house - leaving everything else behind.
Maamou, 38, had no car. Her husband was out working. The blaze was approaching, whipped up by a strong wind. She screamed to her neighbors to flee. They ran to a high school where other evacuees were gathered.
“It was my first time seeing a wildfire,” says Maamou. “I will never ever forget that day for the rest of my life.”
Maamou and her husband escaped the Syrian civil war and traveled halfway across the globe to provide a better future for their only daughter.
Their home was among some 550 houses in Korea’s mountainous northeastern province of Gangwon destroyed by the wildfire last April. Two people were killed, one was injured and over 1,000 people were displaced as the blaze ripped through at least 11 square miles.
Roads were blocked, telecommunications systems malfunctioned, schools were closed, trains and legal trials delayed, and some conscripts were even allowed to postpone their compulsory two-year military service.
Authorities still aren’t sure what caused the blaze but believe that it started from three different locations - in Goseong, Gangneung and Inje - all on April 4 by accidental human causes. It took two days for firefighters to entirely extinguish the flames.
The Gangwon wildfire is just one more trauma the Salman family added to earlier ones from Syria. Hayan, 8, still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Nightmares of the fire haunt her. “She gets scared on windy days,” says Maamou.
Maamou and her family lost everything: 3 million won ($2,500) in cash, their furniture, clothes, jewelry, immigration documents - even irreplaceable memories.
“I don’t care about my fortune, the sofa or anything else,” says Maamou. “But my photos of my daughter were all saved in my camera, laptop, USB and memory card.”
“When Hayan grows up, she will ask where all her photos are,” Maamou continues.
“I’ll have to tell her, ‘Oh, they were all burned in the fire,’” says Maamou, her eyes welling up. “Her first tooth, her first walk, it was like I had a Hayan documentary. I remember everything.
“But she can’t.”
Maamou and her husband, Nazmi Salman, 39, are Kurds, the largest ethnic minority group in Syria. They were born and raised in Al-Thawrah. In 2007, they got married in Aleppo.
“Our fathers were friends,” says Maamou. “I knew his father more than him.”
From 2005, Salman had been exploring business opportunities in Korea, spending a few months here and a few months in Syria trading auto parts - there’s a good market in the Middle East for used car parts, which can be sourced cheaply in Korea.
Starting in early 2012, Salman stayed in Korea, leaving Maamou and Hayan, who was born on Nov. 9, 2010, behind. Maamou, who majored in English at university, taught the language at a school in Aleppo for a living.
Aleppo - once Syria’s largest city and the country’s center for trade, industry and cultural - became a battleground for pro-government forces supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and anti-government forces that opposed him. Each side fought for control of the city, leading to devastating bombings.
Maamou’s house was shelled.
It was time to leave.
“All of my neighbors were escaping to Turkey or Europe through illegal routes,” Maamou recalls. She chose Korea because her husband was here.
And her daughter could be spared a life of unending trauma and uncertainty.
In February 2013, Maamou took her daughter to Lebanon. Two months later, they boarded a flight to Dubai, which has direct flights to Korea. From Dubai, they finally arrived at Korea’s Incheon International Airport on April 28, 2013.
Her first impression of Korea? Maamou can’t remember a thing.
“I was so tired,” she says. “I waited long hours in the airports and my daughter wouldn’t sit in her seat, begging me to hold her. She was terrified of strangers.”
One of the first things Maamou did was to apply for asylum. She was rejected and asked why. Maamou was told that a civil war wasn’t enough to be granted asylum. Her husband Salman applied in mid 2012. He was one of the first Syrians to apply for refugee status after the Syrian civil war broke.
He was rejected.
Out of nearly 1,400 Syrians who applied for asylum in Korea, only five were approved by the government, while most of the rest were granted humanitarian stay, according to data from the Ministry of Justice.
Maamou’s family wants refugee status more than anything because it opens so many doors in Korea. They have applied only once, although by law they can apply many times. Humanitarian visas limit benefits given to refugees, such as government support for education, medical aid and housing.
The good thing is that humanitarian visas are renewable annually.
Maamou and her husband know they have a very small chance to ever get refugee status in Korea. They’re living year-to-year, knowing life here is much safer than in Syria. The basics are guaranteed for their daughter - food, safety, a roof over their heads.
Or so they thought.
Maamou, Salman and Hayan settled in Chuncheon, Gangwon, where they lived for about a year and a half. They moved to Yangju in northern Gyeonggi, for six months. Salman worked as an auto parts dealer, buying scrap from junkyards and selling it to Arab buyers.
At first, 2-year-old Hayan found Korea just as alienating as the other strange places she had been. She refused to play outside, couldn’t sleep and wouldn’t even go to the restroom alone without Maamou. She was afraid of her own father, who was a stranger to her.
The breakthrough came when she was enrolled in a kindergarten in Yangju. Hayan started learning Korean and making friends. At home, Maamou taught her English. There was no need to teach her Arabic, she thought. Korea was going to be her home.
In mid-2015, the family moved back to Gangwon, where Salman saw better business opportunities. Maamou preferred the countryside. They found a place in Sokcho and admitted Hayan in Yeongrang Elementary School. Their first neighborhood was crowded with restaurants and bars, so they moved to Goseong County in October 2015, just outside Sokcho, still near the school.
The Syrian family lived on the top floor of a two-story house in Goseong, surrounded by summer homes of retired couples who spent much of their time abroad. The landlord, who lived on the first floor, asked for a 5-million-won deposit, but reduced it to 2 million won after learning the family’s history. The monthly rent was about 700,000 won.
Maamou lived there with Salman, Hayan and her older brother and brother-in-law, who came to Korea a few years ago to find work and are now staying on humanitarian visas.
Life was getting good. The family found their “new normal.”
Maamou was making new friends with her female neighbors, whom she called “imo,” or “aunties” in Korean. They cooked Korean food for her. She cooked Syrian food for them.
In 2017, Maamou started learning Korean at a nearby community center set up for multiethnic families. Her classmates were from the Philippines and Vietnam. She passed Level 4 on the Test of Proficiency in Korean (Topik), the third highest level in the six-tier exam. A couple of months ago, she began teaching English every Monday to fifth and sixth-grade students in an after-school program in Goseong.
Hayan was growing fond of Korea - and slowly putting the devastating memories of war behind her.
“She’d point to the Taegukgi [the Korean national flag] and say, ‘Look mommy! The flag of our country,’” says Maamou.
Then came April 4, the day of the wildfire.
The next day, when she saw her house in ashes, she wailed and screamed for two whole hours, asking where her fish tank was. In their rush, Maamou and Hayan had left behind three goldfishes and three turtles. Hayan had nicknamed the turtles appa (father), eomma (mother) and Hayan, her name.
“She still doesn’t know her animals died,” Maamou cautiously whispers, looking around to make sure Hayan is out of earshot. “I told her they were in the hospital. I’m planning to buy her new ones and tell her they’re the ones she used to raise.
“They will have to look exactly the same.”
For the first two days after the wildfire, Maamou’s family stayed at a hotel in the neighboring county of Yangyang. Hayan’s teacher called her parents, asking where they were. Maamou told him the situation. One of the first things Maamou learned from that conversation was that she didn’t need to pay for her own evacuation. The Korean government was offering temporary shelters for free.
“I didn’t know,” says Maamou. “In Syria, the government wouldn’t have helped us.”
The family went to an evacuation center in Goseong, where they heard the Korea Electric Power Corporation (Kepco) was offering free accommodations for fire victims at its Sokcho training institute.
On April 8, four days after the blaze, Maamou, Salman and Hayan moved into a room at the Kepco facility, and Maamou’s brother and brother-in-law moved into a room next to theirs.
It wasn’t long until Maamou realized she could get free food and clothes from donations.
“Right after the fire, we spent 1 million won to buy clothes and underwear,” says Maamou. “Then one day, I saw our former landlord, who’s also living in Kepco, coming home with two full bags of clothes. I asked her if she went shopping. She said no, that she got everything for free and that I can get everything for free, too.”
Hayan’s school offered free school supplies to student victims, and the after-school care center she attends offered some financial support as well.
The family is now waiting to move into a container house that the government is temporarily offering victims free of charge. Maamou couldn’t apply for an apartment that the state-backed Korea Land & Housing Corporation was offering practically for free because she isn’t Korean.
Maamou was told that the container house will come with some home appliances like a washing machine, television and rice cooker.
It can also be located near their burned house.
But Maamou doesn’t want that.
With the help of Nam Dong-woo, a police officer from the Sokcho Police Precinct whom she has grown close to, Maamou is trying to have the container located elsewhere, without a view of the burned house.
“My daughter is still in shock so I don’t think it’s a good idea to go back,” says Maamou. “I need time to forget, too.”
But it’s not their daughter’s.
“She only looks like a foreigner,” says Maamou. “Inside, she’s totally Korean.” Maamou is now searching for a way to keep her daughter in Korea permanently.
“I know Koreans have Islamophobia,” says Maamou. “But we’re not strict Muslims and we eat pork. We’re not Arab, we’re a minority in Syria. We’re Kurdish.
“Koreans don’t have to be afraid of us.”
BY LEE SUNG-EUN [email@example.com]