Running for refugees, Korean peacekeeper donates $1 for every kilometre he ran

News Stories, 30 May 2014

© Dongmyeong UN Peacekeepers Unit in Lebanon
Sergeant Kim Seung-hun training in Beirut, Lebanon.

SEOUL, South Korea, May 30 (UNHCR) -- To colleagues at the Korean Army 37th Division, Sergeant Kim Seung-hun was known as bit of an oddball. Unlike other soon-to-be-discharged servicemen, Kim never seemed to be at ease or to join others at leisure. Instead, he was using every bit of his free time running.

"I had no choice," the 22-year-old sergeant said during an interview with UNHCR. "If I idle away a day, I would have to run twice as much the next day, which was unbearable."

Entering Korea's mandatory military service in August 2012, Kim first came across refugees during his dispatch to Lebanon as part of the Dongmyeong UN Peacekeepers Unit from last July to February this year. He promised himself that he would donate US$1 to Syrian refugees for every kilometre he ran after returning to the army base in South Korea. With his goal set at 1,000 km and his army discharge slated for May, Kim felt not a minute could be wasted.

In late March, Kim was able to keep the pledge he made to himself and refugees. He donated $1,000 to UNHCR Korea with an email saying he hoped the money could be used for Syrian refugees "as soon as possible" and "in the best way possible".

"In a way, I received much more through this small donation," Kim said. "I got to know the true meaning of sharing and became a healthier, happier person."

The epiphany came at a fast food restaurant in Lebanon, where he met two Syrian refugee children begging for leftover burgers. Instructed by his unit not to communicate with the refugees personally, Kim ignored the children and put the leftover in the trash.

Later, waiting in the car, Kim saw the children taking out the food from the waste bin. While eating, the children were looking straight at Kim, who became overwhelmed with a mix of feelings.

"Sadness doesn't do justice to what I felt that day. The scene just made me feel bad, really awful," said Kim. "I saw a need there -- a need to help these children get their ordinary, dignified life back."

The encounter made him think of issues that had never crossed his mind before. "I came to realize how important it was to have a country, a government that can protect and look after me," he said. "Most of all, these children reminded me of us, the Koreans, who used to beg for a dollar from U.S. soldiers during the Korean War."

With this realization, Kim promised himself he would do something for the Syrian children immediately after he returned to Korea. And it didn't take long for him to link his pledge with a long-time passion.

Running was a habit Kim took up long before he was enlisted. Joining the running club at college and taking part in marathons, Kim learned the joy of setting up goals and accomplishing them, an aspect he finds similar to making donations.

"Consistency is important both in running and making donations," he said. "I don't believe in massive one-off donations. Running little by little and donating little by little. That's what really makes a difference."

Kim, who returned to being an ordinary university student earlier this month, plans to keep on running, donating and meeting "good people" who share his views.

While some think donation means sacrifice, Kim believes it can actually be a chance to change one's own life for the better.

"Look at me. Through this donation method, I was able to lose 10 kg and became a healthier, happier man," he said. "Making this donation changed my life. I am overwhelmed by all the attention I'm getting for doing something so small, but I hope my story will be able to change some other people's lives for the better."

Kim also has something to say to refugees: Keep running. Run for hope.

By Heinn Shin in Seoul, South Korea




A Bleak Milestone in Lebanon, Visualized

The number of refugees fleeing from Syria into neighbouring Lebanon passed the 1 million mark today, a bleak milestone exacerbated by rapidly depleting resources and a host community stretched to breaking point.

A Bleak Milestone in Lebanon, Visualized

The Most Important Thing: Syrian Refugees

What would you bring with you if you had to flee your home and escape to another country? More than 1 million Syrians have been forced to ponder this question before making the dangerous flight to neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq or other countries in the region.

This is the second part of a project by photographer Brian Sokol that asks refugees from different parts of the world, "What is the most important thing you brought from home?" The first instalment focused on refugees fleeing from Sudan to South Sudan, who openly carried pots, water containers and other objects to sustain them along the road.

By contrast, people seeking sanctuary from the conflict in Syria must typically conceal their intentions by appearing as though they are out for a family stroll or a Sunday drive as they make their way towards a border. Thus they carry little more than keys, pieces of paper, phones and bracelets - things that can be worn or concealed in pockets. Some Syrians bring a symbol of their religious faith, others clutch a reminder of home or of happier times.

The Most Important Thing: Syrian Refugees

Forced to grow up too soon in Lebanon: Mahmoud

Mahmoud,15, hasn't been to school in 3 years. In his native Syria, his parents were afraid to send him because of the civil war. They ended up fleeing a year ago when, in the early morning hours, a bomb fell on a nearby house. The family, still groggy from being jolted awake, grabbed what they could and fled to Lebanon. Their home and the local school have since been destroyed.

In Lebanon, Mahmoud's father is unable to find work and now the family can barely afford rent.

A month ago, Mahmoud started working for tips cleaning fish at a small shop next to his home. He makes about $60 USD a month. With this money he helps pay rent on his family's tiny underground room, shared between his parents and eight brothers and sisters. Mahmoud is proud to help his family but with the fish shop located in the same subterranean structure as his home, he barely goes out into the sunshine.

Children like Mahmoud, some as young as seven, often work long hours for little pay, and in some cases in dangerous conditions. These children forfeit their future by missing out on an education and the carefree years of childhood. Many are also traumatized by what they witnessed back in Syria.

UNHCR and its partners together with local governments are providing financial assistance to help vulnerable Syrian refugee families cover expenses like rent and medical care, which means there is less need to pull children out of school and put them to work. UN agencies and their partners have also established case management and referral systems in Jordan and Lebanon to identify children at risk and refer them to the appropriate services.

Forced to grow up too soon in Lebanon: Mahmoud