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[Hello Hangeul] In Brasilia, worldly dreams are born from Korean classes

An unlikely, yet perhaps fateful link blossoms between Christian boarding school for underprivileged girls and Korea

Nov. 12, 2023 - 16:54 By Lee Sun-young

BRASILIA, Brazil -- On the opposite side of the world from South Korea, a group of high school girls dream of someday visiting the country.

The northeast Asian nation seems far removed from these girls’ disciplined lives at their Christian boarding school, yet it is made familiar through weekly Korean language classes, Taekwondo practice and TV viewing sessions where all 850 students simultaneously watch K-dramas like "Extraordinary Attorney Woo."

From left: The Sisters of Mary Girlstown Brasilia's students, Emilly Vitoria de Oliveira Silva, Maria Eduarda Moreira and Eyshila Teles Lima (Lee Sun-young/ The Korea Herald)

“Every day, I study Korean by myself,” said Emilly Vitoria de Oliveira Silva in Korean, a third-year high school student at the Sisters of Mary Girlstown school (Escola Vila das Criancas) in Brazil's capital city.

“From 8:30 to 9:15 at night,” she added, pausing to choose the correct Korean words.

Fellow third-year Maria Eduarda Moreira shared her favorite Korean expression, “jamkkanman,” which is equivalent to English phrases like “hold on,” or “wait a second.” It became the first Korean phrase she learned from her enthusiastic and cheerful Korean teacher, Suh Min-jeong, who frequently used it in class.

To Moreira, the sound of the teacher speaking in Korean is music to her ears, and is always uplifting, she said.

Second-year Eyshila Teles Lima had one year less of Korean class than the other two, but when she watched “Attorney Woo” last year, she was still able to put what she had learned to use.

“I watched, listened and thought, ‘This is fun,’” she said.

Sister Melinda Lisondra, who is in charge of the Girlstown school, said there are many other girls who are interested in Korean language and culture.

“Here, we’re privileged to be able to provide our girls with courses on Korean language and also on Korean culture,” she said, expressing gratitude to the Korea Education Institute in Sao Paulo, which dispatched a qualified native Korean teacher to take up a full-time position at the school.

Sister Melinda Lisondra, head of the Sisters of Mary Girlstown Brasilia (Lee Sun-young/ The Korea Herald)

Avenue to 'dream high'

Girlstown Brasilia is no ordinary school.

“Students here come from the poorest of the poor,” said Sister Melinda. Many hail from the northern part of Brazil, where extreme poverty persists. With regular access to water and electricity rare there, children often have to leave school in order to work and support their families’ basic needs.

The Sisters of Mary’s official website explains that Girlstown Brasilia, which opened in 2002, is among 18 such schools in six countries run by the group dedicated to providing underprivileged children with free, quality education and an opportunity for a better life.

Home to some 850 girls from underprivileged families all across Brazil, the Sisters of Mary Girlstown Brasilia operates solely on donations and provides full-day care and education to students for free. (Lee Sun-young/ The Korea Herald)

Here, girls 12-18 years old are provided a full day of care and education for free so that they can “enjoy their childhood, regain their health, thrive at school and learn the skills they need to build a productive future for themselves and their families.”

The girls receive free vocational training, on top of the regular school curriculum, in strategic fields like culinary arts, dressmaking, dental hygiene and nursing.

Sister Melinda said the incorporation of Korean into the school's programs provides students with an opportunity to expand their horizons and dream beyond the constraints of their realities in their home country, Brazil.

“Also, Korean culture is very popular among teens now,” she added.

On Oct. 26, the day of this reporter’s visit, accompanied by the chief and a staff member from the Korea Education Institute in Sao Paulo, Girlstown organized a 90-minute-long event titled the Korean Culture Festival. During the festival, various student teams competed on stage with K-pop cover dances, songs and Korean speeches, with seniors Silva and Moreira serving as the emcees.

Students of the Sisters of Mary Girlstown Brasilia perform a K-pop dance cover on stage as part of the Korean Culture Festival, held on Oct. 26 at the school located in Brazil's capital city. (Lee Sun-young/The Korea Herald)

Sister Melinda shared that the Christian group was started in none other than Korea, by the late Father Aloysius Schwartz in 1964, who wanted to help orphaned children in Busan. It is now headquartered in the Philippines and no longer operates welfare and care facilities in Korea, but many of its sisters are from Korea, she said. At Girlstown Brasilia, there are currently two Korean sisters in the service. The former head sister of the school was also Korean.

This winter, one of the students – Moreira -- will be flying over to Seoul at the invitation of the Korean government. She will be joining fellow teens from all over the world at a weeklong Youth Camp organized by the Education Ministry.

“It is the first time anyone in our school is going outside Brazil. First time to any other country,” Sister Melinda stressed, expressing hope that it would be a great inspiration for all of the girls.

“For them, Brazil is Brazil. That’s their boundary. But this time (watching their fellow students win a chance to visit Korea), they can broaden their minds and dream high.”

The Korean government runs various scholarship and exchange programs for outstanding students of Korean language overseas. Still, it is worth noting that for underprivileged youth like those at Girlstown Brasilia, there could be insurmountable walls to accessing those opportunities, Korean teacher Suh said.

“I never knew that for some, (just) having a passport might be an impossible dream. But it truly was the case for certain girls here, whose parents, for various reasons, couldn't be reached for the necessary paperwork,” she said.

Despite these many tough challenges, however, Sister Melinda praised the girls for taking “the first, great step” into the world, with their interest in Korea acting as a gateway.

Asked to share her personal impressions or expectations of Korea, Silva, the third-year student, said that she initially became interested in Korea through its dramas and music. As she learned more about the country, she got more drawn to its history.

“Korea is a country that had its difficult moments but didn’t give up," she said.

Moreira, who at the time of this interview was not informed of her winning a slot at the upcoming Youth Camp in Seoul, said that for her, Korea conjures up images of a lot of fun, alien but beautiful scenery and smart people.

Lima shared that she saw Jeju Island in a book and found it incredibly beautiful.

This is part of The Korea Herald’s “Hello Hangeul” project which consists of interviews, in-depth analyses, videos and various other forms of content that shed light on the stories of people who are learning the Korean language and the correlation between Korea’s soft power and the rise of its language within the league of world languages. – Ed.

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