Refugee women in the Republic of Korea find ways to help each other integrate into society
On a bright Sunday afternoon, a group of women refugees and asylum-seekers can be seen gathering around a plot of land on the outskirts of South Korea’s capital, Seoul. With barely a word uttered between them, they calmly pick up their farming tools and start to work on prepping the soil.
Soon enough, the area fills with laughter, humming and smiles as they plough and plan on how to make the most out of the farmland they’ve been provided by the South Korean government.
Dorcas Ngalula, a Congolese refugee, says this is not the first time they are growing African vegetables on this plot of land.
“You can apply to a public programme offered by the Ansan Migrant Community Center. Last year we applied. The centre gave us three rows of farmland. And this year, we applied again. The centre must have thought what we did was interesting because this year, they gave us five [rows],” Dorcas said with a smile on her face.
When she fled to South Korea in 2010, everything was new and unfamiliar, especially the language. Dorcas managed to learn Korean with the help from her neighbours, church congregation and local NGOs. The process, however, was not always smooth sailing.
Her experience motivated her to think long and hard about how she could best share the knowledge she obtained with those facing similar hurdles. She wanted to help other refugees, so they didn’t have to go through the same struggles.
In the spirit of sharing
In 2020, Dorcas established a non-profit organization called the Wise Women Association (WWA) in South Korea. Currently, there are about 30 members, mostly from Africa. WWA helps them build a support network and encourage each other to do exactly what Dorcas had in mind – sharing knowledge and experience.
“At Wise Women Association, we have five activities: interpretation, counselling, language, life and social education, cooking class and farming. This farming activity helped each mom who participated to save money because we grew lots of vegetables last year,” said Dorcas.
Making a living in a foreign country can be a challenge for anyone, including refugees. WWA’s farming activities help minimize expenses while putting food on the table for refugee families.
“When the idea came that we could harvest our own vegetables, it was really a happy decision to make because we could buy ourselves plants and harvest what we were looking for,” said Micheline Musumar, a member of WWA.
It’s not just the farming activity that helps them stay together in solidarity. One of the main goals of Dorcas’ organization is to empower refugee women. Members of WWA, including Dorcas, take time out of their busy schedules to offer informal vocational training activities such as life and social education, language classes and interpretation.
“When Dorcas came to me and suggested the idea of creating this association, I was really impressed because I wanted to help those who newly arrived in the country. I did not want them to go through the same struggles that I did,” said Micheline. “I know that the knowledge I have when I give it to other women, they can also pass it on to other people, so that's what I really love about our association.”
Promoting social integration
Dorcas and members of WWA also underline the importance of facilitating the exchange of cultural and intellectual knowledge, not only amongst themselves but also with the local community.
Muriel Ndolo Sumbu, a fellow WWA member, said she is eager to share the produce harvested from the land with her Korean friends.
“Having this association is a good opportunity for us to showcase our different cultures and to try to be independent and do something, not only for us but also for the Korean society,” she said.
When asked about her dreams for the future, she smiled and said “It will be great if we could have our own cultural centre, where we can share our culture with many other people, not only from diverse countries but also from South Korea. We can teach, we can have some cultural classes for kids. That's my dream, my hope and plan in South Korea.”