Syrian car mechanic struggles to ply his trade in the safe haven of Seoul

South Korea has been receiving a growing number of Syrian asylum-seekers. Some 650 fleeing war have sought asylum, with many receiving the temporary right to stay.

Ajar, with his back to the camera, meets UNHCR staff recently in Seoul.  © UNHCR

SEOUL, Republic of Korea, March 24 (UNHCR) - When he fled from his home in Aleppo, Syria two years ago, Ajar Ahmad* had only one thought on his mind: Run. Run as far as possible from the danger.

Thinking of a safe haven far away, Ajar settled on the Republic of Korea (South Korea), a country he had never visited but whose cars - by makers such as Hyundai, Daewoo and Kia - he serviced and sold in his garage and used-car business. He also had a good impression of the Korean businessmen he dealt with.

So after the 30-year-old crossed the border and arrived in Lebanon, he headed to the South Korean Embassy, obtained an entry visa and flew to the capital, Seoul, in March 2013.

"I was carrying my passport and nothing else," Ajar recalls. "I told immigration officials that I was a refugee. They said I did not need to give them any information and later I was issued with this," he added, producing his alien registration card.

This showed that he had been given a G -1 visa, or humanitarian status, which allows him to stay in the country for six months at a time and gives him the right to work. It also gives the holder access to free medical care and other basic rights.

As the conflict in Syria enters its fifth year and the number of refugees tops 3.9 million, distant South Korea has been receiving a growing number of Syrian asylum-seekers. Some 650 Syrians had sought asylum in South Korea as of January this year, among whom more than 500 have been granted humanitarian status.

In recognition of the deteriorating conditions and increasing danger in Syria, the South Korean government decided in 2014 to permit Syrians to stay without having to go through the usual refugee determination process, which can take years. Of some 730 humanitarian status holders in Korea, the majority are now Syrians. Others include Palestinians, Egyptians, Chinese and some people from Myanmar.

Ajar used to live a comfortable life running his business in Aleppo, Syria's second largest city. But in late 2012, members of a militant group told him and his partner to close the garage. Then his partner was abducted and his family had to pay a large ransom for his freedom. Ajar, an ethnic Kurd, decided it was time to leave. "I had to run," he tells UNHCR in Seoul.

With his current humanitarian status, Ajar is entitled to stay in the country until it is safe to return home and he can also work legally in South Korea. But he has to renew his G-1 visa every six months and so he wants to be recognized as a refugee, a status that he feels is more permanent and secure and also understood by Korean employees.

"I applied, but was rejected by the Korean government. If I can be a refugee, I would like to stay, but if not I want to go to another country," he said. Out of 9,800 asylum claims since 1994, only about 470 have been granted refugee status, including two Syrians.

Many employers are confused by the G-1 visa because of its sixth month validity. The language barrier also affects Ajar's ability to find a permanent job as a skilled mechanic familiar with Korean cars. When he does get part time work, he earns the equivalent of US$50 to US$100 a day. A cousin in Turkey sends money transfers from time to time, but it is difficult making ends meet.

"Every time there is a car to dismantle, I work. I don't need the Korean language for this because I know Korean cars well," he explains. "If there are no cars to open up, I might not work for days or weeks."

Unlike most refugees or humanitarian status holders. Ajar lives outside Seoul in the small eastern city of Chuncheon, where rent is cheaper. Living alone, he pays less than US$100 a month in rent for a modest apartment compared to US$500 in Incheon, where he stayed for a month before he was granted humanitarian status.

"Where I live now is very beautiful and similar to my hometown in Syria, and the Koreans are kind," he said. "Still, I hope the war will be over soon so that I can return to Syria and be reunited with my mother, who is not well." Ajar's mother and one brother are the only family members who remain in Syria. Others have fled to countries such as Turkey, Belgium and Italy.

* Name changed for protection reasons

By Heinn Shin in Seoul, Korea