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Korean women pray for 'nest' to live out final days

An elderly Korean woman makes her way down a winding street in the military town of Anjung-Ri. UMNS photos by Kathy L. Gilbert.

By Kathy L. Gilbert*
Dec. 8, 2008 | ANJUNG-RI, Korea (UMNS)

On a winding, narrow street, an elderly woman walks to her one-room apartment where she lives with a past that left her without a future.

She is one of 300,000 women who became prostitutes as a result of the Korean War.

A woman eats dinner at Sunlit Sisters' Center, a facility for women forced into prostitution as a result of the Korean War.

Many women orphaned or widowed by the 1950-53 conflict were drawn to the military town of Anjung-Ri looking for a way to survive. They were left with few choices and became sex workers in an industry supported and regulated by both the Korean and U.S. governments. Now in their 60s and 70s, many suffer from poor health, social alienation and personal anguish, according to Soon Duk Woo.

A United Methodist, Woo started the Sunlit Sisters' Center in 2002 to support the Asian women and the children they conceived with American soldier fathers. Called "Amerasians," these children also are typically shunned by society. Woo said the Korean government and Korean Methodist Church provide no official support.

Woo is a graduate of Methodist Theological University and Methodist Theological Graduate School in Korea. The United Methodist Women’s Division supported Woo as a student at Ewah Graduate School of Social Welfare, and she receives support for the center from alumni at those schools and their churches.

The center also received a $30,000 ethnic local grant in 2004 from the United Methodist Board of Church and Society.

"These are women stripped of property, dignity, family," said the Rev. Neal Christie, a Church and Society board director. "They live with diminished physical and mental capacity, physical scars from abuse, but they have a vibrant, trusting faith. They do art therapy, physical therapy, literacy training, legal advocacy for them and have tried to hold the military accountable. I preached at a midday worship service for them in their center. Five years later, I still remember their faces."

Christie said the center "is a visible witness to the evils of U.S. empire expansionism and neo-colonial collusion. It is not situated outside the gate of the city, to use a biblical reference. It is located at its center and very visible."

Homes in jeopardy

In a small rented house, Woo offers Monday evening gatherings where the sisters share a meal and a worship service. The center also holds special worship services throughout the year. As often as possible, Woo arranges outings, picnics, art therapy and visits to doctors and dentists.

Former Korean sex workers find refuge, acceptance and support at the United Methodist-supported center.

"The center throws special rice cake parties on festive days to console the sister’s loneliness," she said. Contributions from Methodist churches and other organizations help Woo offer the women these simple pleasures.

A larger problem looms, however. Woo is frightened the women will be evicted from their modest homes as the area grows and changes to meet the demands of more U.S. Army soldiers moving from Seoul to nearby Camp Humphreys. By 2012, the U.S. Korean headquarters move will swell the population from about 10,000 to 45,000.

While that is good news for many in the town, the change represents another threat to the women's fragile existence. Most live in one-room apartments for $100 a month, but their landlords are increasingly selling those properties to build new houses that can fetch $1,500 to $2,000 a month to rent.

"Our sisters are about to be expelled into the streets," Woo said. "The Sunlit Sisters' Center is praying hard for a nest for our sisters to spend the rest of their lives."

'Life is very hard'

On a recent Saturday afternoon, the women gathered at the center to cook, share a meal and talk about their needs. Esther Cho, 21, an Amerasian educated in American schools in Korea, helps Woo and the women speak to their U.S. visitor.

Educated in Methodist schools, Soon Duk Woo started
the center in 2002.

Because of their past, the women asked not to be identified or photographed. Many said they have children who are adopted and living in the United States.

"We don't want to embarrass them," one woman explains.

"My health is bad and they are taking all the old buildings," said one of the women. "It is a big problem, especially when the government only gives you $200 and your rent is $100."

"My ceiling has been leaking and I have asked the landlord to fix the roof for the past five years," said another. "It costs too much to move. What can I do?"

The women are grateful for Woo’s assistance. "Ms. Woo tries to help as much as she can. She gives us comfort but it is not enough. Life is very hard," said one woman.

Cho is one of the Amerasian children Woo is trying to help. She would like to go to college, but there is no money to send Cho to a Korean college and she would need assistance from her father to attend an American university. Cho's father is a U.S. soldier who left her mother while she was pregnant.

"I tried to communicate with my father, but he doesn't want to have anything to do with us," Cho said, wiping away tears.

Woo is trying to raise funds to build a new multipurpose building. It is her dream to be able to provide the women with rooms to live as well as a place for worship, fellowship and recreation.

"God commands us to protect widows, orphans and strangers," Woo said. "The project (a new multipurpose building) aims to help women and children in Anjung-Li live like human beings in Christ Jesus."

Donations to the Sunlit Sisters can be made to Sunlit Sisters’ Center, 113-195 AnJung-Ri, PaengSung-Eup, PyungTaek-Si, Kyonggi-Do, Korea,451-807 or to Kukmin Bank (use code: CZNBKRSE), Woo Soon Duk (Sunlit), Account #165-01-0067-976, Wha Jung Yok Branch, 973 WhaJung 2-Dong, Yojin Tower 2nd Fl., Duk-Yank-Ku, Koyang-Si, KyungGi-Do, Korea 412-746; telephone and fax 031-978-8100, 031-978-8104.

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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