Various wars in the Middle East have killed and maimed tens of thousands of innocent civilians, while an even larger number find themselves homeless and often displaced. War is never a pretty thing, but when innocent women and children are drawn into the fray against their will, things often turn ugly.
When the conflict in the Middle East reached Yemen, 500 asylum seekers found themselves on a small island off the Korean Peninsula. What a loving nun did for them changed their destiny forever.
Jeju Island is the largest island off the southern coast of the Korean Peninsula. It’s also the main island of the entire Jeju Province of South Korea. As a known volcanic island famous for its Lava Tubes, this island is also home to refugees from Yemen.
In addition to its picturesque surroundings, Jeju has a moderate climate which some would consider ideal. The temperature rarely falls below freezing and many enjoy vacation there. In fact, the local economy relies almost solely on income from tourism.
Thousands of people have emigrated from the Middle East to Europe and further afield as they attempt to avoid the ravages of war which have ruined their lives back home. It’s through South Korea’s visa-waiver programme that they are there, and although the island is beautiful, the refugees suffer considerably.
Over the Years
At first, only a handful of refugees arrived on the island. In 2016 there were only seven Yemenites on Jeju; but by 2017, that number rose to 42, and by the middle of this year that number approached 500. When word of the influx got out, all hell broke loose; initially in the form of a petition on the Blue House website.
Editor’s note: South Korea’s Blue House is the political equivalent to America’s White House.
That petition called for the 500 refugees to be removed, by force if necessary, from the island and sent back to where they came from. These poor people took an extensive journey to get to Jeju in the first place, fleeing initially to Malaysia to take advantage of South Korea’s three-month, visa-free policy.
While one yearns to feel bad for these refugees, it’s striking that almost all of them are men between the ages of 20 and 30. This begs the question of why they left their wives and children behind in a war zone, although that’s a discussion for another time.
Despite the fact that the majority of these refugees are men, many of them are professionals or are highly educated. Many are college graduates, while others are hotel managers, journalists, taxi drivers, and teachers.
These 500 refugees have it rough on the island, are poor and have almost no access to medical facilities. In order to counter that reality, Sister Cristina Evelina Gal, from the Naomi Migrant Pastoral Center of Joongang Cathedral of the Jeju Diocese, arrived to save the day. She works day and night to help the Yemeni people, and does so with a smile.
On a Mission
Sister Cristina arrived in South Korea back in 2007, from her home country of Romania. She came to Jeju in December after hearing about the plight of the refugees there. Having been there for seven months now, Sister Cristina loves her mission, despite its trials and tribulations.
Sister Cristina never stops working on behalf of the Yemeni refugees in Jeju. On the day she drove to Seogwipo City to give an interview to The Korea Herald, she had already taken a Yemeni refugee to hospital and six others to a medical center.
‘All Human Beings’
While many South Koreans are displeased with the influx of immigrants to their peninsula, Sister Cristina is totally unperturbed by that reality, noting that the people she cares for are “all humans, before anything else.” Sister Cristina is determined to complete her mission, no matter what.
“There are people who oppose the Yemeni asylum seekers staying on the island here, and that is understandable. But these people [Yemenis] have painful memories, and if we open up our minds a little bit, I believe there will be less conflicts and problems,” she said.
Damunhwa is the term for multiculturism in Korean, although it’s a term which has been skewed over the years. It was first introduced officially when the Multicultural Families Support Act was promulgated in 2008, in a government attempt to provide a legal basis to support expats and migrants in the country. These days, it’s more associated with racism than anything else.
Sister Cristina explained, “In Romania, there are foreigners. But we do not really have specific words to describe those who came from different countries, like ‘damunhwa.’ Often people here seem to understand the term ‘different’ as being the same as ‘wrong.’”
Hiding Her Faith
Sister Cristina’s story is a touching one, too, having been born to a Catholic family in 1977, she was oppressed and had to hide her faith for fear of a brutal communist regime. As a child, Sister Cristina explained, she was taken to church in Bucharest for safety, but remained fearful.
When Cristina saw nuns in their full regalia for the first time she was captivated, “I was 9 years old. And as a young girl, I was captivated by the habits,” she said. “So I would pray every day, wishing I could become a nun. I was a mischievous girl and also forgot about it soon after.”
Devoted to God
As a teen, Sister Cristina considered getting married, but when she spoke with a family friend about it she changed the course of her life, “The person told me it would become more difficult to fully give faith to God if I married, because I would have to take care of the husband and the household. And the thought weighed on my mind.”
Sister Cristina admits that life isn’t always easy for her in Korea. “You know, life is not always easy here, and there have been times when I wanted to run away. I sometimes wonder, ‘Why did I come to Korea?’ But mostly, I really appreciate everything I have here,” she said. “Because the culture is so different, I think that is why I could actually learn who I am. I am grateful.”
Knowing the Feeling
Interestingly, Cristina noted, when she herself returns to visit in Romania, she feels like a foreigner there. “When I go to Romania for my holidays, the country appears a little unfamiliar to me now. I also do not have as many friends there as I have here,” she added.
For now, Cristina is very much rooted in her mission in South Korea and has no plans of leaving any time soon. “Koreans are generally warm people. I feel God is always here to look after the people, and I think I will stay here until God wants me to [leave],” she said.