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Korean Catholics help immigrants integrate into society

Dongducheon parish church in Uijeongbu Diocese offers support to immigrants from various Asian and African nations
Father Lee Jong-won (far left), pastor of Dongducheon parish of  Uijeongbu Catholic Diocese, and Father Clement K. Gachoka, (second from right), director of Dongducheon International Catholic Community are seen with immigrants in this undated image. The diocese has been helping immigrants to integrate into Korean society

Father Lee Jong-won (far left), pastor of Dongducheon parish of  Uijeongbu Catholic Diocese, and Father Clement K. Gachoka, (second from right), director of Dongducheon International Catholic Community are seen with immigrants in this undated image. The diocese has been helping immigrants to integrate into Korean society. (Photo: CPBC)

Published: September 20, 2023 11:47 AM GMT
Updated: September 20, 2023 12:24 PM GMT

Ezenma John Amech left Nigeria with his family in 2008 due to a financial crisis and moved to South Korea for a better fortune.

The Catholic father of three now lives in an area covered by the Dongducheon parish church of Uijeongbu Catholic Diocese with his family.

He is thankful to the church-sponsored Dongducheon International Catholic Community (DICC) for his resettlement in the East Asian nation.

“Thanks to DICC and parishioners, I was able to survive in an unfamiliar land for a long time,” Amech said.

After arriving in South Korea, Amech was forced to take up the job of factory worker to support his family.

Despite having professional skills, it took a long time for him to find a better job due to language barriers and lack of socialization with local people, Amech said.

The church and DICC helped him fill up the gaps and better integrate into society.

However, he laments that immigrant children interact with Korean children in their school and slowly forget their mother tongue which “cut off” their communication with parents and elders.

Father Lee Jong-won, rector of Dongducheon parish, said the church’s long-term goal is to build a community of immigrants and natives united in faith and compassion for one another amidst socio-economic challenges.

“We are trying to support the lives of these people with a long-term direction and flow while providing as much help as possible at the parish level,” Lee said.

“We are moving forward together within the direction we have been pursuing with DICC for over 10 years,” he added.

The DICC was established in 2012 after a Consolata missionary celebrated Holy Mass for foreigners at the parish with the approval of the diocese.

The parish and its area have around 950 foreigners among its total population of 3,691 people.

The members of the immigrant group are from various countries including Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, and Uganda, as well as the Philippines, India, Timor-Leste, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Japan, Cuba, and Ecuador.

One key reason for the large number of migrants concentrated in the region is due to the US military base located in Bosan-dong in Dongducheon.

The relatively low housing prices and the perceived safety due to the presence of US troops attracted most of the unregistered immigrants to the area.

The parish community approaches the immigrants with a non-discriminatory perspective and embraces them with various kinds of support.

The immigrants are welcome to receive support from the diocese, through the efforts of parish priests and parishioners.

However, assimilation into the sociocultural environment is not easy for the immigrants and their families.

Father Clement K. Gachoka, director of the DICC pointed out that the barriers of communication and cultural differences are overcome through cooperation, understanding, and acceptance among the members of the parish.

“Even if there are communication problems and cultural differences, parish priests and believers treat immigrants without discrimination. This is possible because we work together,” Gachoka said.

Father Lee said looking at immigrants with compassion is important for their integration.

“It is important to not only see immigrants as objects of charity but to accept them as they are. We will continue to play the role of the parish in the local community as we do now without being swayed by the social atmosphere,” he said.

The DICC reports that many of the immigrant children born in the country lack citizenship and are not covered by insurance, and thus they are unable to approach hospitals for treatment.

However, the group constituted its own pastoral and social worker groups to take care of the pastoral, social, economic, and medical needs of the immigrants and refugees.

The DICC has its pastoral group for immigrants and is achieving unity through liturgy, choir, and home-visiting activities.

The group in cooperation with the parishioners operates the Raphael Clinic, which takes care of the medical needs of immigrants and refugees.

It provides free Korean language classes.

The services provided by the group are available to believers and non-believers alike making the parish a base for the faith and culture of local immigrants.

Gachoka pointed out that his dream of a united and helpful community is being achieved at present.

“My dream is to create a community where immigrants and indigenous people help each other with their needs and live together, and it is already coming true,” Gachoka rejoiced.

The group had helped in cleaning and purchasing supplies for the parish during the Covid-19 pandemic.

It collected and donated around 1 million Korean Won (US$752) to Dongducheon City and delivered 500,000 Korean Won (US$376) worth of goods to public health centers during the pandemic.

Park Seong-han, a member of the pastoral group pointed out that coexistence is possible under one roof for everyone.

“Although cultures, languages, and skin colors are different, as long as we have the awareness that we are all children of the same God, we will accept each other as brothers and sisters,” Park said.

This report has been translated and edited from a feature that first appeared in the Korean-language Catholic Peace Broadcasting Corporation (CPBC) on Sept. 20.

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