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(Yonhap Feature) Refugees seek settlement in S. Korea through stable jobs

2017/03/30 09:00

By Koh Byung-joon

SEOUL, March 30 (Yonhap) -- Located near Seoul's bustling youth hangout of Daehangno, Coffee for Tomorrow looks like a run-of-the-mill cafe that does not have much to offer except its specialty African beans and drip coffee.

There is a hidden surprise, however, once you step in. An African barista busy at a coffee machine greets every visitor in slightly awkward Korean. The amiable grin on his face belies the hardship the 23-year-old Egyptian had to endure as he fled his home country in search of freedom and safety half a world away.

He came to South Korea more than a year ago. As many of his peers do, he first got a job at a factory where he had to work around 12 hours a day. Tough working conditions and a tight schedule made it hard for him to mingle with others and learn Korean language and culture.

"I have worked at this cafe for almost six months," Tomy told Yonhap News Agency using an alias. "I am working 10 hours a day but it's totally different from working at a factory because I can meet people. Time passes so fast here."

   Tomy and another employee at the cafe are among a growing number of people coming all the way to Korea in search of safety and protection after escaping political persecution, wars, religious conflicts and other hardships in their home countries.

According to government data, from 1994 to February this year, a total of 24,126 people had applied for refugee status in South Korea. But only 681 of them had been granted official refugee status that guarantees a similar level of social security benefits to South Korean nationals.

Last year alone, a mere 98 received the status, the data showed. That was a little more than 1 percent of the total annual applicants.

The relatively low acceptance ratio comes despite the government's move to enforce a refugee law in 2013 -- the first of its kind in Asia -- aimed at streamlining needed procedures, making it easier for newcomers to apply for refugee status and providing financial support for those awaiting the results of their applications.

Those applicants can work on a contract that should be renewed every six months and there are virtually no restrictions on what types of jobs they can have. But many are still struggling to find a stable job due to deep-rooted prejudice and their lack of language skills and cultural understanding.

This undated photo offered by Coffee for Tomorrow shows Mun Jun-suk (L), owner of the cafe, posing with one of his African baristas. (Yonhap) This undated photo offered by Coffee for Tomorrow shows Mun Jun-suk (L), owner of the cafe, posing with one of his African baristas. (Yonhap)

When Mun Jun-suk, 35, launched Coffee for Tomorrow in October 2014, he knew much about the realities facing refugees even after escaping from the harsh predicaments back in their home countries.

After participating in volunteer programs helping refugees for years and spending a lot of time with them day and night, he came to view them not as refugees but as friends and became more aware of deep-rooted prejudices and discrimination against them.

The prejudices and discriminations might be associated with the stigma attached to refugees as illegal aliens. No background and no friends, coupled with a lack of language skills and cultural understanding, obviously make it harder for them to get decent and stable work, which is critical for their successful settlement.

That's where companies like Coffee for Tomorrow should come in, Mun said, as it aims to provide them with a chance to work and mingle with Korean people and culture.

"Six months after applying for refugee status they are allowed to work, but it's hard to find work and there is little support or help available for job placement or anything like that," he said. "It will be great if they have a job through which they can utilize their own talent. It will be great not just for them but also for our whole society."

   The cafe is similar to a social enterprise that provides vocational training to refugees. Its aim is not only to provide a chance to work but also to help them get used to their new life and job.

In that sense, the African baristas at the cafe have to periodically take Korean and coffee classes aimed at helping them quickly improve. So far six African baristas including Tomy have worked at the cafe.

Baristas can work at the cafe for at least two years during which Mun hopes they get more experience with Korean people and culture while building a credible "reference" that they can present to their next employer down the road.

"Besides a lack of language skills and cultural grasp, no personal network, family or anyone they could possibly rely on makes it hard for them to find work. They don't have any references whatsoever," Mun said. "Our objective, among other things, is to provide a reference that they can use in their next job search."


Coffee for Tomorrow is a rarity and virtually the first of its kind as a social enterprise intended to support refugees. There are few other businesses dedicated to helping refugees. But it is not alone as more appear to be getting interested in the harsh reality facing newcomers and working on how to better integrate them into Korean society.

Kim Ji-eun, a staff member of Refuge pNan, a Christian non-governmental organization helping refugees, said that what refugees want most is a stable job as it is the start of what could be a years-long process of becoming a genuine part of Korean society.

"I think that what many refugees want is to get their sons and daughters to be part of Korean society by receiving the same education that Korean kids do. Having a stable job must be the starting point of that dream," she said.

To that end, the NGO is currently working on the so-called "Mom Chef Soul Food" program, a catering service in which three female refugees from Syria, Iraq and Congo will jointly develop food menus by combining the recipes and business models of their countries.

"We will launch that either late this year or early next year," Kim said.

She still underlined the need for making "procedural" preparations to accept the growing number of refugees as part of "our neighbors" and more efforts to ease people's prejudice against them by making successful cases of their settlement.

"For example, even after they are granted refugee status, there is a lot of hassle involved in getting their kids into school. No support or services for that are currently in place," she said.

"People still have a lot of antipathy against refugees and tend to see them as a threat to their life and safety. They seem to regard them as a burden," she said. "I understand why they think like that since there have been few good examples (of successful settlement) to show, and I believe that it is the job of NGOs like us going forward."

   Tomy at Coffee for Tomorrow said that he is happy about receiving refugee status months ago. He is still anxious to have a stable life, not worrying about being forced to leave this country anymore and eventually hoping to be one of the "good examples."

   "I just want a stable life. I just got refugee status and worry that they might just cancel it. I don't want to feel like they will just cancel my refugee status," he said. "I feel like being a part of Korea when I work here. I want to be an owner of my own cafe in the future."