A School of Their Own
KoreAm Journal/April 2009
Story & Photos by Bill Stephens
This is the last in a two-part series on Seoul's poor.
Sitting on a couch in the lobby of the Homeless Weekend School, or Homeless Joomal Baeumtuh, I watched students and teachers hurry eagerly to classes on a Saturday afternoon. The school occupies a series of donated rooms in a nondescript building in northeast Seoul's Hyehwa neighborhood. I had never heard of a school for the homeless and was spending an afternoon here to find out more.
When the school's founding director Lee Dong Hyun arrived, he eased into a seat across from me. To my surprise, I learned that this was not a vocational school as I had originally thought.
"The goal of our unique weekend school is to improve and enrich the leisure time of poor and homeless people," said Lee through an interpreter. "It's not to get a job."
In fact, most of the 40 people who attend the school do work, many of them in construction, government jobs or doing low-paying menial labor like cleaning. Despite being employed, most are homeless or live in jjokbangs, closet-sized rooms rentable by the day. While other schools or organizations offer job training and counseling for the working poor, this weekend school focuses more on developing students' creative self-expression and giving them opportunities for personal enrichment and social interaction.
"Being homeless is not just suffering from extreme poverty," said Lee, a lean man casually dressed in jeans, who also teaches at the school. "Most of the homeless people have no formal schooling. Most don't have relationships with their family and are alienated from society. They are deprived of many essentials that make life ‘normal.' The Homeless Weekend School is focusing on breaking down this deprivation by providing learning opportunities, cultural activities and communication."
Students here study subjects as broad as crafts, music, filmmaking, computers and English. Those who are illiterate can also learn to read. Enrollment is double what it was a year ago, Lee said, and most students are male.
Kim Tae Hee is one of five female students at the school who began attending after encouragement from Lee.
"Before this school, I was miserable," said the 57-year-old during a break from a music class led by the school's founder. Sharing music sheets, she and her classmates sing Korean traditional songs with emotion, with some putting their arms around each other. "Now I feel my life is meaningful and worth living. I like this school because I'm learning something, and the teachers are good and energetic."
Previously homeless, the Taegu native lives in a jjokbang near Seoul train station and said she cleans bathrooms and offices to earn money. "I'm working hard and saving money. I dream of moving into a better home and having a happy life," she said. "I want my own toilet and shower."
As I sat with the music students, someone from a neighboring class began filming me with a digital camera. His teacher, 23-year-old Song Yun Hyuk, told me this class encourages students to make documentaries that share their personal stories.
"Media companies tell stories from the viewpoint of the rich," Song said. "We want to let the world know real stories from poor people."
In crafts class, the mood is playful, and many participants are laughing and teasing each other. Lee Ok Kyung joins about a half-dozen other students making pillows. She said she is a high school graduate from the countryside who is currently unemployed and rents a room in a house. In addition to crafts, the 40-year-old takes English, filmmaking and computer classes at the weekend school, while elsewhere, she is learning to be a manicurist and skin care specialist. "I'm poor, and it makes me angry," she lamented. "If I'd been born in Europe or the U.S., my life could have been better."
In addition to offering classes, the school, funded by charitable donations and supported by volunteer teachers, encourages students to learn about their rights and be politically active. In fact, the core philosophies of the school are built on two common goals, said founder Lee: nurturing the relationship between teachers and students, and ending homelessness.
Song Hwa Young, a volunteer teacher at the weekend school, credits Lee with his ability to communicate with homeless people and encourage self-empowerment. "Mr. Lee tries to make them see for themselves what their problems are and what their human rights are," she said.
A native of Chungcheong province, Lee first took up the causes of the poor as an activist in college. Soon, it became his life's work. In 2001 he joined Homeless Action, formerly called Nosilsa, a nonprofit group aiding the homeless, which is a major supporter of the weekend school.
In addition to the school and his homeless advocacy work, Lee has a part-time job in a factory to help pay his bills. "I don't know if it's fortunate or unfortunate, but my parents didn't live long enough to see what I'm doing," said Lee. "However, my wife is a companion of my life as well as a companion of my activity. She does not participate in the weekend school, but she is an activist and has always been supportive of me and gives me advice.
"I get discouraged at times, " the 31-year-old admitted. "But I keep going."
Shin Yoon Cheol, a fellow homeless advocate who knows Lee well, calls him an unusual person in his level of compassion for the poor.
Shin also noted that Lee refuses to accept money from the South Korean government for his school because he does not want to create any conflicts of interest when the need arises to criticize government policies regarding the homeless. Lee even refused a human rights honor that carried a monetary reward from the government for the same reason, said Shin.
"He maybe looks like a stubborn man, but that's the reason I respect and admire him," said Shin. "He's been sticking to his convictions."
The victories at the Homeless Weekend School are measured in small doses. Lee described one student who struggled with alcoholism for more than 20 years. He underwent treatment and entered a rehabilitation program to no avail. Lee says, the man realized that what he needed to overcome his problem was not only medical treatment, but consistent activities to help him re-engage in a healthy life. "After that, he participated in the Homeless Weekend School and stopped drinking for a year," Lee said. "It is still early to tell if he has overcome his alcoholism, but one thing is definitely sure: The school is not a temporary event, but something that gives him quiet energy to return to a normal life."
Lee said the problems of Seoul's poor are getting worse. The "new poor" are desperately so. "Thirty years ago, if you worked hard, you could escape poverty," he said. "Now, if you're trapped in poverty, it's hard to get out."
That's why he is trying to raise money to rent a new space this fall so he can offer classes several days a week. For now, though, this humble effort is not unappreciated.
"The weekend school has had a big impact on my life," said Kim Dong Min, 38, a jjokbang dweller who takes crafts and filmmaking classes. "The social part of the school helps me.
"These people are like my family," he added. "[The school] gives me something to look forward to."