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[Weekender] Koryoin from Ukraine find new home in ancestors' land

Korean descendants from war ravaged Ukraine search for their roots, future in a village near Gwangju

Feb. 25, 2023 - 16:01 By Lee Jung-youn
The building of service center for Koryoin living in Gwangju is also used as the headquarters of Koyorin Village. (Lee Jung-youn/The Korea Herald)

GWANGJU -- Kim Volodymyr, a 17-year-old fourth-generation Koryoin, had no particular interest in K-pop, Korean language or food before coming to the country.

He heard his parents talking about South Korea from time to time, but never thought that he’d be living in the country. Escaping from his hometown Kremenchuk, an industrial city in Ukraine that became the target of massive bombing, Kim entered his ancestors' land in July last year with a flight ticket sent by a friend who left Ukraine before him.

Like his friend, Kim settled down in a village near Gwangju, where hundreds of Koryoin live and help each other. Koryoin are descendants of Koreans who migrated to Russia and the former Soviet Union from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century.

Having spent eight months in a country where he is surrounded by people who look like him despite not speaking their language, Kim says he has no plan to go home, and wants to get a job here.

"(Kremenchuk) was not where many Koryoin lived, but all of my relatives lived close by. Bombardment continued for several days in a factory complex near home, and eventually my mother, sister and my uncle’s family all decided to leave the city," Kim said, recalling the devastating situation in Ukraine.

“I am not considering going back to Ukraine. I want to stay in Korea. Our hometown has nothing left because of the war, and everyone I knew left there," said Kim.

“I want to get a job as soon as I finish school. I want to make money quickly and invest."

Kim, who came with his parents and younger sister, is one of 875 Koryoin who fled from the war in Ukraine and came to South Korea through the help of the Koryoin Village. The majority of them, numbering about 600, settled near Gwangju, while others moved to different places to find work.

Shin Jo-ya, the co-founder and co-head of Koryoin Village, looks at flight tickets she had sent to Koryoin refugees in Ukraine, on Feb. 15. (Lee Jung-youn/The Korea Herald)

Koryoin Village helps refugees settle in

Behind the efforts to help the Ukrainian Koryoin are the founders of the village -- Shin Jo-ya, herself a fourth-generation Koryoin from Uzbekistan, and Rev. Lee Chun-young.

They said that about 90 percent of Koryoin refugees who came to Gwangju hope to settle completely in Korea. The village is still helping them, even after providing a way to come to Korea from the battlefield, starting with plane tickets, daily necessities, rent for first two months and aid throughout the procedure to receive education and medical services.

Lee runs Saenal School in the village. About 70 percent of the Saenal school students are Koryoin, who face language barriers to attending public school.

The village sends documents for students' registration to the education office and connects hospitals with patients who are in urgent need of treatment.

"Some hospitals in Gwangju offer a 30 percent discount to those who spend time in Koryoin villages. The local community is helping us a lot in many ways," said Shin.

Another role of Koryoin Village is to awaken its people's cultural identity. The kindergarten in Koryoin Village taught children how to wear hanbok and say New Year's greetings at graduation ceremonies, and the village recently established a culture center explaining the history of Koryoin and their journey from Korea to central Asia.

The village also created a cooperative farm in Gwangsan-gu, Gwangju with the help of a community credit cooperative called Saemaul to give refugees work opportunities.

“Originally, Koryoin farmed a lot in Ukraine, so there are many people who want to keep engaged in farming as they had been for a lifetime. Thankfully, Saemaeul in Gwangsan-gu provided about 1,000 pyeong (3,300 square meters) of land for free," said Shin.

Files of documents that Koryoin villages had prepared to provide medical and housing help to Koryoin refugees. (Lee Jung-youn/The Korea Herald)

Finding work as Koryoin

Many Koryoin work on cooperative farms, repair vacant houses in rural areas, and provide labor to rural villages that lack workers, figuring out ways to co-exist with local villagers. Children and teenagers are adjusting to the new society they are about to be part of, with the help of Koryoin Village.

Son Svitlana, a 67-year-old second-generation Koryoin, moved to Korea with her entire family after the Russian invasion, one after another. Son entered Korea relatively recently, in early January, after most of her children and grandchildren settled down in Korea. The family tried to come in together, but her son, Tian Oleksii's visa expired, making entry to the country difficult, she recalled.

"My son's visa expired, so we had to leave him at the airport. He had to go to Poland again, get a visa, and extended the ticket sent from the Koryoin village, and finally entered Korea safely on Jan. 22."

Son said she thinks a lot of the house and the farm she left in Ukraine. "I do want to go back, but the electricity company in the city we lived in became a target of the bombing, so the entire city must be a mess by now,” said Son.

"I heard that the area where we lived is still being bombed. I don't know what's going to happen," Son sighed.

However, she is not considering going back to Ukraine, as all of her children and grandchildren are in Korea. One of her grandchildren, Do Anastasiia, a 12-year-old girl who attends elementary school in Anseong, Gyeonggi Province, is eagerly trying to navigate her way through South Korean society.

"When I talk to my teacher, I still need a translation application. It's hard to communicate with my friends too, but I'll continue to learn," Do said.

Do said she was taking Korean classes separately after school.

Tian, a 41-year-old, said, "I haven't found a job yet, and I've only just applied for a foreigner registration card, so there are many tasks left. As many Koryoin do, I am thinking of getting a job in factory."

In order to continue living in Korea, Son said her family would like to receive Korean citizenship.

The national flags, traditional clothing and architecture of countries where Koryoin live are illustrated alongside the Taegeukgi on the wall of the Koryoin Village Community Center. (Lee Jung-youn/The Korea Herald)

Becoming Korean

Shin, the joint head of the Koryoin Village, first came to Korea in 2001. She was once sent back to central Asia due to a visa issue but came back and began to help Koryoin living in South Korea and those who were trying to come to Korea, with Rev. Lee.

Shin expressed concerns that there are still many people asking for help, but the village has temporarily halted reaching out to Koryoin in Ukraine due to a lack of funds.

"It's not just about supporting plane tickets, but about inclusive support -- rent, rice, bowls and blankets and everything. Money is always the problem."

"Koryoin in South Korea started to donate money right after the war broke out, but Koreans also began sending help across the country. However, still our village always desperately needs help."

Aside from helping to end the war and setting aside funding, Shin said the South Korean government and society should play a key role in helping Koryoin refugees by acknowledging them as part of the country.

"Koryoin have nowhere to go, and even if they do go back, they are not returning to their real country. Korea is the land of our ancestors and is connected to us. I hope that those who fled from the war and those who came in dreaming of their parents' country will no longer be treated as mere ‘guests.’"

This is the fourth installment of a series of articles and interviews on Russia's invasion of Ukraine marking one year on Feb. 24, to shed light on the brutality of the war and its complex impact on the international community and South Korea. -- Ed.