Red Cross helps African family as they seek a new life in Korea

Published: 29 July 2013 12:00 CET

By Francis Markus in Seoul

From the cheerful and easy way in which Niouma Doucoure interacts in Korean with the doctor and Red Cross medical social worker, you would not immediately divine the tough struggles this young asylum-seeker from Mali in West Africa has faced.

“When I was pregnant with my first two children, I had to rush to the hospital and dash home, because my husband and I were still here illegally and we were very scared of getting arrested,” says Niouma. She is cradling her third baby, a six-week-old boy. Now that she and her husband – whom she was unable to see for nine years after he came to Korea in 1996 – have started procedures to apply for asylum, things are much easier.

She and her husband first received livelihoods support from the Republic of Korea National Red Cross under a project that was rolled out in seven provinces as a collaboration between the Red Cross and the national broadcaster, KBS, in 2011.

Niouma says Red Cross volunteers helped the family adjust to Korean society with such programmes as ‘kimchi sharing’ – kimchi is the spicy pickled cabbage without which no Korean meal is considered complete.

On a practical level, she can also receive treatment and baby items here at the Healthy Neighbor Center of Seoul’s Red Cross Hospital. Some 60 to 90 per cent of the cost is subsidized at this special facility, which provides support to migrants and multicultural families. It was established under a three-way cooperation agreement between the Red Cross, Seoul National University Hospital and Hyundai Motor Chung Mong-Koo Foundation.

“Before, I didn’t know about the Red Cross medical support for foreigners,” says Niouma. “We had nothing and I was very worried about the costs. I’m very grateful for the help.”

But things are still far from straightforward for the couple. Niouma’s husband is unable to hold down a steady job, because of an injury he sustained while working in a local piping factory. The conflict raging around the city of Timbuktu near Niouma’s home in Mali is also preying on her mind. Her mother and brother have escaped to neighbouring Niger, but she worries and it’s hard to get news. “My mother can only call me when she manages to borrow a phone from somebody.”

As if that wasn’t enough, the family’s previous home in a small rural town was destroyed by a typhoon, which hit the Korean Peninsula last year. So they moved to Seoul. Luckily, they found a landlord who agreed to compromise on the deposit.

Hyun jin Chu, one of the Red Cross medical social workers, says the migrants “usually don’t have much money and don’t have Korean government insurance, so the medical fees are very expensive for them.

“Most women have their babies only a year after coming to Korea, because in the countryside, men want their babies at once, so the women don’t have a chance to learn the language and culture,” says Professor Minsun Kim, a pediatrician working at the centre from Seoul National University Hospital.

The struggle to master the Korean language and understand the culture is one that’s all too familiar to Niouma. It was hard at first to feel at home among a mainly elderly rural population. “People would make remarks about how black I was and ask me why I came to Korea. But then they started saying that my child was cute and giving me kimchi (the spicy pickled cabbage) and I started to help the elderly people with their vegetable gardens.”

Now, she is waiting for the family’s asylum application to go through, hoping they will be accepted for legal residence status. It’s an uncertain period, but at least she can count on support from the Red Cross.