Residents of Jeju island offer helping hand to the Yemenis

Jeju, South Korea – When Cristina arrived on South Korea’s Jeju island last December, she thought the move from Anyang, just outside capital Seoul, would help her catch up on life after a busy decade.

Working with the migrant community in Seoul, Cristina’s organisation wanted to expand into other parts of the country. Jeju, a tourist destination with a visa-free policy in order to boost tourism, had migrants who might have needed help, Cristina thought before relocating.

“When I first came to Jeju, I thought there wasn’t much work to do here. It’s a small island, not too many people and I will be able to get some rest too,” Cristina, who is from Romania, told Al Jazeera in her refugee shelter at the Naomi Centre.

“But then God sent me so many people. I don’t get any rest now and there are no off days. God sent me here to help these Yemeni refugees.”

More than 550 Yemeni nationals have arrived on the island since April, seeking asylum and refugee status. The government has barred them from leaving the island and entering mainland Korea.

Although they are allowed to work, the opportunities are limited to washing dishes at restaurants, fish farming or fishing at sea. They are often subject to long hours of manual labour, resulting in injuries and health issues. There have also been reported cases of assault at work and non-payment of wages.

South Korea’s refugee acceptance rate stands at around four percent. The Yemenis’ arrival, mostly from Malaysia – to which they fled war-torn Yemen – sparked an online outcry and protests on the island, as well as Seoul.

The island has a population of around 600,000 and a recent survey of 500 islanders revealed 90 percent felt insecure about going outside since the Yemenis’ arrival.

Most of the Koreans protesting and calling on the government to deport the asylum seekers have never met a Yemeni. But an increase in fake news has inflamed an anti-Islam sentiment among the Koreans, driving protests and forcing the government to take Yemen off the visa-free list and also tweak its refugee policy.

The Yemenis arrived on the island with limited cash, unsure of how they would survive and what their future would look like. Without jobs, and with their movements restricted, almost all of them were staring into the unknown, fearing the worst – being homeless – when the cash runs out.

Lee Jung-hoon is a 65-year-old Jeju resident who has given shelter to five Yemenis, providing them food and teaching them the Korean language on a daily basis. 

Cristina has been working in South Korea for a decade now [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]

“As far as I know, nobody is sleeping on the streets now because people who have nowhere to go can get help from NGOs or some locals who are willing to help out,” said Jung-hoon, flanked by three of the young Yemenis he is helping out.

Ammar, one of the refugees Jung-hoon helped out, found a job at a fish farm on Jeju. But the work was not easy.

“I worked from 5am to midnight. I only got four hours of sleep. I developed some health issues because of the lack of sleep and the hard labour. And that forced me to quit,” added Ammar, his Arabic translated into English by Azzam, 20, who wants to finish off the business administration degree he was pursing in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital.

READ MORE: How Islamophobia is driving anti-refugee sentiment in Korea

Pastor Jung-hoon added that some refugees were still living in hotel, but would be needing shelter soon as they will be running out of money.

“I’m working with some other people and we have around 60 Yemenis in a shelter. We’re planning a bigger one where we can house 100 of them. We’ve also asked Jeju’s mayor for help. And despite all the anti-Islam sentiment that we see, there are many, many locals coming out to help these refugees.”

A few kilometres away, Mohammad Salem takes a break from his interpretation job at a refugee assistance centre. When he arrived in May, with his wife and his newborn kid, Salem had just $2,000 in his pocket.

After three weeks of stay at a hotel, and spending on food, he had difficulty sleeping, fearing the family would be forced to sleep on the streets after the money runs out. 

Azzam wants to go to Seoul and finish off his undergraduate degree [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]

“I did some research about organisations helping out on the island and was lucky enough to find Cristina’s contact,” said Salem, sighing as he remembered the anxious days and nights prior to that.

“She was like an angel that came down from the sky to help us. She found us a local couple who gave us a room in their house. This was just two days before we would’ve been kicked out of the hotel.

“We’ve been with the Korean family for two months now. They buy food and toys for my son. They are like my parents now.”

Cristina, meanwhile, remembers the first Yemeni who came to her for help. Now, she says she has helped more than 200 others, and also assisted other NGOs with their requirements – shelter, food, medicine, health checkups and other commodities.

“There are so many people coming forward and offering help. Some offer shelter, others offer money and some are helping out with food. The NGOs contact me and tell me what they need and I can then help out accordingly.”

She was like an angel that came down from the sky to help us

Mohammad Salem, Yemeni asylum seeker

Back at the church, pastor Jung-hoon resumes the Korean language class, impressed by his students’ ability to pick up vocabulary and pronunciation quickly. He also realised that despite his efforts, those young refugees needed to get out and mingle more frequently.

“By teaching them Korean, we are preparing them to get decent jobs and to be able to interact with the locals. We also run a healing camp, provide tour of the island and also have football camp. At night, we make them write letters to their families.”

But Jung-hoon admits the private organisations could only do so much and it is the government that needs to get more involved.

“It’s the fake news that’s the root of the problem. The government, superficially, says it will fight against this. But no action has been taken so far. Nothing is stopping this fake news from spreading and causing more problems.

“But at least, living on Jeju, you realise most of the people here are not that bad.”

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