Giving back: How to get involved in community
Many expats come to Korea and, after getting adjusted, want to volunteer and get involved in charitable or human rights organizations. The language barrier can sometimes seem like an insurmountable obstacle when it comes to finding organizations and how you can help.
Here’s a list of expat volunteer groups who have created a place for others to give back to the community while living in Korea. Leaders of the groups all stress the same things when describing their motivations for their volunteer and activist work while in Korea – to refute negative stereotypes of foreigners in Korea, to create bridges between expat and Korean communities, to give voice and bring attention to marginalized segments of Korean society, and to support the international human rights community.
This group coordinates a litany of events to keep members active in human rights events, online actions, and other campaigns run through Amnesty International Korea and related human rights groups. They hold a regular meeting on the first Saturday of each month at the Seoul Women’s Plaza from 4-6 to discuss, organize, and plan upcoming events. According to the Amnesty G48 coordinator, Tom Rainey-Smith, the group has also brought speakers from as far and wide as “Myanmar, India, Iran, the Occupied Territories, and many other places (to) present first-hand accounts of their experiences.”
The group, which is one of many Amnesty International Korea chapters around the country, is the only one that communicates in English, which gives expats an opportunity to get involved without having to speak Korean. The group’s members come from all over the world: Nepal, Myanmar, New Zealand, Australia, Belgium, Iran, England, the United States, Canada, Germany, Malaysia, and Korea, just to name a few.
Rainey-Smith, who has been coordinating the group for two years said although he wanted to, “It was difficult for me to connect with human rights groups at first due to the language barrier, so I was very excited when I found out about Amnesty G48.” Rainey-Smith continues by emphasizing both the need to and benefits of getting involved in Korea, “It’s an important way to give back to the community during your stay here. Whether you’re here for a short time or a long time, you’ll find your time spent much more rewarding if (you) give something back.” For more information about Amnesty G48, please e-mail Rainey-Smith at .
House of Sharing – International Outreach Team
This group takes foreigners on visits and tours of the House of Sharing, a house for the survivors of the Japanese army’s “Comfort Women” sexual slavery camps. The tours are typically scheduled once or twice a month alternating between Saturday or Sunday tours, to try to accommodate visitor`s schedules. The group started when a Canadian reporter named Saroja, went to the House and realized that there was no easy way for English speakers to visit and gain information about the women, affectionately called “halmoni,” or grandmother. She began offering the tours, which developed into the IOT, now a team with seven volunteers. The group also hosts fundraisers and documentary screenings about the House and its survivors and continues to research, in order to update the international community about events and news about the issue.
To get involved with the group, you should first come as a visitor to the House during one of the tours. To reserve your space on the tour, e-mail or find the group on Facebook. After experiencing the tour, you can apply to be a volunteer. Requirements include a long-term commitments, free weekend days once a month, and some background knowledge of the history of the issue. To be a tour guide, Korean is not necessary but is a plus. Translators for the Halmoni’s personal testimony are also always helpful. The group is currently in the process of producing materials for a free history curriculum for international use and volunteers interested in research, transcription, and translation work are needed.
Heather Evans, one of the coordinators for the IOT who has been volunteering there since 2005, says she was compelled to volunteer after going on a tour in 2005. When asked about her reasons for her volunteer work, she said, “Coming from a place of privilege in terms of being a Caucasian, English-speaking American citizen, it is my responsibility as a global citizen to assist those who are not as privileged. My privilege is linked to other people’s lack thereof.” About her motivations for volunteering in Korea specifically, she said, “I want to give back to the community that is supporting me, and especially segments of the community that are disadvantaged and marginalized.”
Mustard Seed is a new group, only a couple of months in the making. The group volunteers to teach English to underprivileged children from low-income or single parent families. With the competitiveness of the Korean education system and the increased need for English to succeed, families who can`t afford expensive study abroad programs or extra after school hagwon English classes can find their children already at a disadvantage from a young age. While the increasing wealth gap in Korea threatens to perpetuate this trend through rising education costs, Brad Curtin’s group attempts to alleviate some of the education.
Take it from a seasoned expat – volunteering is beneficial for everyone involved. Curtin, who has been living and volunteering in Korea on and off for ten years, says that volunteering “gives a unique perspective on (Korea). I think foreigners should volunteer in Korea to have a more rounded experience here.”
Mustard Seed meets roughly twice a month on Saturdays for three hours in the afternoon near Sindaebang station. To find out more information or to get involved, you can find them on Facebook under “Mustard Seed Seoul.”
N.K. human rights volunteer groups
“Justice for North Korea” holds an awareness campaign in Insadong every Saturday from 3-5 p.m. (near Anguk Station, Exit 6) where they hold a small performance exhibition and distribute information about North Korea. In addition, the group also hosts and participates in screenings, demonstrations, panels, and helps raise funds for partner organizations that rescue North Korean refugees hiding in China.
“Helping Hands Korea” hosts an informational meeting called “Catacombs” each week in Samgakji on Tuesdays from 7-9 p.m. Participants can learn more about the humanitarian crisis in North Korea and how to get involved in supporting North Korean human rights.
“People for Successful Corean Reunification,” or PSCORE provides complimentary tutors to North Korean defectors and also holds conferences to “promote awareness, friendships, and unity between North and South Koreans and foreigners in Seoul.”
Lauren Walker, who has been volunteering with all three of the above North Korean human rights organizations, said, “I am motivated by the desire for others to experience the freedom and love and fulfillment of needs that I have always had.” For more information on how to get involved in Justice for North Korea, Helping Hands Korea, or PSCORE, find them on Facebook under “RescueNK” or by e-mailing .
PLUR (Peace, Love, Unity & Respect)
This group meets every Friday and Sunday to go to a soup kitchen and help serve dinner and wash dishes. The group also has another volunteer opportunity every Sunday in Seoul Station, where they buy and distribute food to the homeless around the subway station.
In addition, they organize a monthly orphanage visit to Hyang-ae orphanage in Eumsong. To get involved, you don’t need anything more than “an open, compassionate mind and (a) willingness to help others,” said volunteer Liz Oh, who has been volunteering with the group for about a year.
Oh, says she thinks it’s important for foreigners to volunteer during their stay in Korea because, “Foreigners can bring attention to issues that would normally be overlooked in Korean society. If Koreans see that foreigners are interested in an issue like homelessness, they begin to question the lack of attention and perhaps their own attitudes towards it.”
She also emphasizes the ways that volunteering can bridge the gap between expats and Korean society, saying “There are so many of us who are interested in helping the Korean community and volunteerism is a great way to challenge negative stereotypes of foreigners.” For more information, you can find them on Facebook under the group name, “Volunteer for PLUR!”
Women’s human rights Korea
This group runs the “Wild Women Performing Arts Festival” twice a year to raise money for the Korean Women’s Associations United. Acts are performed by both expat and Korean talent and are woman-centered but audience members are welcome in both male and female forms. The next Wild Women Performing Arts Festival will be held in Hongdae on Saturday, Feb. 27 in conjunction with events to celebrate International Women’s Day 2010.
Women’s Human Rights Korea also helps connect volunteers to various women’s organizations in Korea – teaching English, editing, etc. Most recently, they’ve been working with Duraebang, an NGO that supports women who have been trafficked into prostitution around U.S. military camp towns.
Volunteers are both expats and Koreans and it’s helpful to be able to speak English and at least a little Korean, but not necessary. Volunteers who speak Tagalong would be particularly helpful at Duraebang.
For more info on volunteering with this group, you can find info on both the Wild Women festival and Duraebang through Facebook or contact Angela Lytle by email . Lytle, who has been a volunteer in Korea for three years, said that for her, volunteering gives her an opportunity “to be an ally to the local women’s movement and to support gender equality in Korea.”
For more information about the groups above, please visit their websites or find them on Facebook. For more general inquiries about life in Seoul, visit the Seoul Global Center’s website http://global.seoul.go.kr or unofficial blog www.seoulcityblog.com.