Muhamad Anwar, who until last year worked as a nurse in Kabul, admits he could be the world’s least likely person to be assembling parts for ship engines — and in Ulsan, South Korea, of all places.
“To be honest, up to this point I had never even used a screwdriver,” said Anwar, a soft-spoken, middle-aged man who had also never considered life in Korea until the Taliban swept through his country last summer.
“Within a week, everything changed,” explained Anwar, who fled with his wife, two daughters and three sons, all of whom brought “only a pair of clothes — nothing else.”
They are among the 391 Afghan evacuees allowed to enter South Korea last year — an unusually large number for a country that admitted only 79 refugees in 2019, the year before the coronavirus pandemic slowed global movement.
The Afghans, who had worked for South Korea’s embassy in Kabul or affiliated aid organizations, were designated as “special contributors,” a more domestically palatable concept than “refugees.”
The Afghan evacuees face unique opportunities and challenges in South Korea, which has long seen itself as ethnically homogenous. Although the country has slowly begun to accept more foreigners, non-Koreans sometimes feel unwelcome — especially Muslims, who are at times the target of explicitly bigoted protests.
New life in a ‘Hyundai town’
Like many of the Afghan “special contributors,” Anwar settled in the southeastern coastal city of Ulsan, which is often described as a “Hyundai town.” A city of 1.1 million people with a skyline dotted by giant cranes, Ulsan boasts the world’s largest car manufacturing plant and its largest shipyard. Both are run by subsidiaries of the massive Hyundai conglomerate.
Many Ulsan residents not only work at Hyundai factories, they shop at Hyundai department stores, send their children to Hyundai schools, receive medical treatment at Hyundai hospitals and root for Ulsan Hyundai FC, the town’s professional soccer team.
After six months of cultural orientation, the Afghan evacuees in Ulsan were given jobs at a subcontractor for the shipbuilder Hyundai Heavy Industries. Anwar’s family lives in company housing — an older but recently renovated five-level apartment building. In the evenings, the building is brightened by the sound of Afghan children chasing each other around a makeshift playground, which consists of a soccer goal and a basketball hoop. Anwar jokes that the building, which houses about 30 Afghan families, sometimes feels like a small Afghan village.
Sitting inside his three-bedroom apartment, which is simply furnished but spacious by South Korean standards, Anwar is quick to point out that his family is fortunate. “Society is peaceful. Our kids go to school. I have a job. We are in such a good situation now,” he said.
But for the Afghan evacuees, life in South Korea can be challenging in the most basic ways.
Language is a major barrier. Sometimes when Anwar’s Korean-speaking coworkers ask for a tool, such as a hammer, he has to stop and think, “Now what is a hammer?” Sometimes he hands them the wrong tool, prompting good-natured laughter.
Korean food is also unfamiliar. Many of the Afghan children bring their own lunches to school. Others eat school-provided meals, except for the meat, which isn’t halal. But eating Korean lunches raises another practical barrier: how to use chopsticks. One of the Anwar daughters jokes that her schoolteachers double as “chopstick tutors.”
School is especially challenging. After all, how is a Korean-speaking public school supposed to educate dozens of children who speak only the tiniest bit of Korean? In Ulsan, public school officials are solving the problem by having the Afghan children spend a few hours each day learning Korean in their own dedicated classes.
Progress is steady but there’s a long way to go. During a recent class at an Ulsan middle school, VOA watched as three Afghan girls struggled with even the most basic Korean sentences, such as “I ride the bus” or “Korean is hard.” But language teacher Seo Jeong-sook is impressed by how much the students had learned in a month. “They are quite motivated,” she said. “And they are learning very fast.”
For the rest of the school day, the Afghan kids attend the same classes as their Korean peers. They are paired with “helper buddies,” Korean classmates who explain the teacher’s instructions and other basic information using a mix of broken English, broken Korean, and nonverbal gestures.
Certain problems are thornier. When word broke out that Ulsan schools would host a large percentage of the Afghans, some local parents were outraged, even forming protests outside an elementary school. In interviews with local media, some parents said they were concerned about their children’s safety, while others expressed fears about being subjected to Islamic culture.
The protests eventually subsided following two meetings with Ulsan school officials, who assured the Korean parents their children’s education would not be affected. But the incident remains distressing for the Afghan parents, even if many are reluctant to discuss it.
Asked how he felt about Koreans forming protests over the mere presence of his young children, Anwar acknowledges it was difficult but quickly pivots to his gratitude that all of his children — even the girls — can get an education.
“We need to tolerate it. Why? Because this is not our country. This is Korea. Made by Korea and built by Koreans,” he said.
“But also, I have never ever directly met any people who are opposed to our presence or the presence of our children,” he said. “We only heard about this through the media.”
Throughout the conversation, Anwar’s wife had been listening quietly as she sat on the couch next to her husband and youngest child, a 10-year-old boy who attends the elementary school where the protests were held. When asked about the situation, her eyes fill with tears.
“We were so stressed,” she said, recounting how she sometimes accompanied her children on their way to school out of concern for their safety.
“But now the situation has changed. Now it’s OK,” she said, wiping her eyes.
‘We must overcome’
The situation improved partly because of Roh Ok-hee, the superintendent of the Ulsan Education Office, who attended the two tense public meetings with Korean parents. Many of the problems arose from South Koreans’ lack of familiarity with Islamic culture, she explained in an interview with VOA.
“These people came here to escape Taliban violence, but we did not fully appreciate this. We had a preconception of women in Islamic culture, so parents were worried,” Roh said.
In preparation for the Afghan students’ arrival, Roh says her office provided multicultural sensitivity training for teachers. The district tried to provide similar classes for students, but some Korean parents objected – a decision she warns could have long-term ramifications.
“We already live in a multicultural, global era, and we should acknowledge that,” she said. “If we use this opportunity well, there will be many new ways to open up.”
One of the Korean parents’ main complaints is that the school is using limited resources to accommodate the Afghan students, which they fear could lower the overall education quality for their own kids. But Roh rejects that argument.
“Even if there are certain expenses right now, it’s better to learn how to live together. If we can’t do that, then the problems of the future, such as increased conflicts in society, will cost much, much more,” she said.
In the meantime, the Anwar family is eager to make a new life in Korea. Along with the other Afghan evacuees, they were given long-term residency visas. They have no plans to leave.
“I think we have left our country for good,” Anwar said with a sigh. Despite the challenges, he is optimistic. “It’s not easy, but we must overcome.”
Note: The names of the Afghan evacuees have been changed to protect their privacy.