Refugees struggling to settle in Korea

By: Kim Se-jeong

In 2006, Nani Ronel Chakma, a refugee from Bangladesh, couldn’t figure out the school admission procedure for his seven-year-old son. As a refugee, his Korean was not yet fluent. His family had neighbors, also from Bangladesh, but none knew about it. And he knew only very few people in the neighborhood whom he could ask about the school admission. Chakma had Korean bosses and Korean colleagues at work, a furniture factory, but he felt like they didn’t care about him.

“I expected some sort of help from the government in this, but there was none,” Chakma said during a recent interview with The Korea Times. “We realized, although our residence is legal, no one would really take care of us.”

Chakma learned that his son did not get an admission notice, which is automatically sent to the parents of a child of school age, because he did not have a Korean citizenship. That was why Chakma decided to apply for admission.

“I wanted my son to have a better life than mine.” It took him two years to obtain it after application.

After the recent Syrian migrant crisis in Europe, it has been shown that Korea’s system for asylum seekers is poor and makes their life hard because of the long and exhausting process to decide on whether to grant them refugee status. However, Chakma’s story shows that life even after getting the legal status marks the beginning of new struggles and frustration.

Gaining refugee status

He arrived in Korea in 2000 to escape government in Bangladesh which was cracking down on his ethnic Jumma tribe. He applied for a political asylum in 2002; and was recognized in 2004.

His family lives in Gimpo, Gyeonggi Province, where there are almost 100 Jumma refugees, the largest Jumma community in Korea.

The Jumma are a tribe originating from Chittagong Hill Tracts. For a long time, they have been subject to persecution by the ruling group of Bengalis from Bangaldesh. Globally, the population of Jumma people is estimated at 65,000, and the majority live in Thailand.

Chakma was an activist in the 1990s against the government and was under constant threat by government forces.

He is one of 522 people who the Korean government has accepted as refugees. The Ministry of Justice refused to share the number of Jumma refugees, citing privacy and their safety. Chakma said together with dependants, the number is roughly 100.

Discrimination makes things tough

Chakma works as an interpreter for Bangladeshi workers at the Gimpo Foreign Citizens Support Center. He interprets for workers who have trouble getting paid, and the job requires him to visit factories.

“When I meet with the employers at factories (to interpret), some look at me disapprovingly. They say they want a Korean translator. When I reply them that I am Korean, they don’t believe and they say they want a real Korean,” he said.

Moments like that remind him of the time when he had to move from one workplace to another before taking the current interpreter job. He said his employers and colleagues did not consider his human dignity. “To them, I was not to be respected,” he said refusing to speak further about his previous experiences.

Kim Sung-in from Nansen, an NGO helping refugees in Korea, said discrimination is one of the common difficulties for refugees.

What happened in Gimpo earlier this year was another disappointment.

In July, the Gimpo City Council passed an ordinance to support refugee residents there, especially the Jumma people. But Gyeonggi Provincial Government, which has the authority to approve it, vetoed it, saying some clauses of the ordinance were against the general law of the country.

“This shows people’s perception toward refugees. Many view refugees are outsiders who take away opportunities from native Koreans,” Chung Wang-ryong, a city council member who proposed the bill, said.

Chakma said he was very disappointed.

“What’s wrong with sharing?” he said. “We are not here only to take. The Jumma community contributes to Gimpo and its residents. We add diversity to the local culture, which is a plus.”

Although Korea has become more diverse, the country still needs openness and tolerance, he said.

“Koreans tend to view refugees with sympathy,” Chakma said. “But when the time comes to help them, they run away.”

Knowing this sentiment, many refugees feel alienated from local society and tend to keep things to themselves.

“One day, a fellow Jumma fell sick and had to get an operation. But he did not have enough money,” he said. Other Jummas raised money among themselves to help the sick person. He wishes he had other neighbors in Gimpo with whom he could have shared the news and who would have helped his family.

So it is natural for Chakma to find great comfort in the Jumma community in Gimpo, of which he is a founding member. They meet weekly, if not daily, to eat and hang out together, and celebrate traditional holidays.

He and other Jumma refugees also work to spread information about their tribe, culture and customs to the local Korean community. They invite local people to their festivals and other events.

Son is top priority

His son, Juni, now 16, is now the most important for him and his wife. He attends middle school.

Chakma wants Juni to keep his Jumma heritage. “I know he is a Korean, but I want him to know who he is and where he comes from,” he said. He has his son speak Bengalese at home and brings him to the Jumma community gatherings.

Chakma hasn’t visited Bangladesh since he left. Legally, he is free and no one can apprehend him anymore. But what he went through in his 20s remains as a trauma, and keeps him from traveling home. “I am not sure whether I will ever visit Bangladesh again.” He has family, including two older brothers, in Bangladesh. He talks to them from time to time, but that’s about it.

He said watching Syrian migrants in Europe reminds him of his fearful time. He urged the Korean government to accept the Syrians without any conditions.

“Can you image living under the threat like that? Life is not easy here, but I am thankful that I do not have to worry about getting caught by soldiers.”