Ethnic Koreans adopted in America support unwed mothers’ home here
For several Korean single mothers, it has already been a godsend ― providing them with a safe place to give birth when turned away from other facilities.
But when the country’s only shelter run for unwed mothers by the mothers themselves was threatened with closure, two Korean adoptees living in America launched a campaign to save the safe house in Seoul.
The Korean Unwed Mothers and Families Association has run the facility, named Heater, for the past year and has already provided seven women with somewhere to live immediately before and after giving birth.
The time period for staying at the Hongdae home is limited to two months in order to give as many moms as possible the chance to stay at the facility that can accommodate two women and their babies at one time.
“They stay there while they are trying to get on their feet immediately after giving birth. They live there for free, get food for free and even get a small allowance,” explained KUMFA volunteer and returning Korean adoptee Shannon Heit, who said the stigma of being a single mom heaped pressure upon unwed women here.
“A lot of moms pregnant out of marriage get kicked out of their houses or fired from their jobs. It is very difficult for them,” she said.
She explained that many unwed mothers opt to have abortions obtained in return for cash at private clinics although the practice is still illegal in Korea. Of the mothers who do give birth, many give up their children for adoption, she said.
Heit said that Heater was a haven for women making the choice to give birth, providing them with a better chance at keeping and raising their own babies.
She told of one mother who stayed there recently after she and her new baby, who was born with health defects, were turned away from another facility.
An unwed mother uses the facilities at KUMFA’s Heater shelter in Hongdae, Seoul. (Shannon Heit)
“In Korean society, in order to raise your child as an unwed mother, you experience a lot of hurt and tears and need a lot of patience,” KUMFA member and mother Choi Hyung-sook explained.
“My pregnancy, the birth of my son seven years ago and the process of raising him since then has been the hardest period of my life. Heater is precious because it is a place that protects moms and children who are struggling just as I was seven years ago. Through Heater, moms and their children can feel warmth and hope in the world.”
On hearing that the center would close in February unless 7 million won ($6,000) was found to cover next year’s rent and running costs, Korea-born adoptees living in America, Jennifer Kwon Dobbs and Kevin Ost-Vollmers, began raising funds and awareness for the cause close to both their hearts.
Professor Kwon Dobbs, who first worked with KUMFA when researching a book she is writing about Korean unwed mothers’ lives said: “This is the first facility of its kind to provide housing for unwed mothers and their families who might have been rejected by other facilities due to the mother’s age or her child’s needs.
“There are other facilities that provide short-term housing for mothers and their families, but this is the first one that accepts all mothers regardless of their ages or their children’s health.”
They have already collected $4,000, but must raise another $2,000 before February to keep the center open for one more year.
Fund-raising efforts so far have included a sponsored kimchi-eating challenge led by Ost-Vollmers. Another donor, Jim Lee, chair of Asian American Studies at the University of California in Irvine is set to run the Pomona Half-marathon on Dec. 11 to benefit the cause.
And students from the Korean Culture Association at St. Olaf College in Minnesota will raise funds during the first week of January.
Their KUMFA awareness week will include a dance featuring Korean and Western music as well as a presentation by Kwon Dobbs, who is a professor at the college. Students will also sell paper flowers to raise cash for Heater.
Minnesota resident Kevin Ost-Vollmers explained why he supported the cause: “On a societal level, a mother should be able to keep her children if she has a desire to do so. There should be organizations available to help and support them.
“On a personal level, I was adopted when I was seven. My mother raised me during the late ’70s and early ’80s when discrimination against single mothers was much more severe.
“I keep thinking about what it might have been like if my mother had had the kind of support that KUMFA is offering now.
“My mother died a year and a half after I left Korea from a heart condition. Who knows what would have happened if there had been more support for her.”
As well as raising money, Ost-Vollmers is focused on talking about the conditions facing unwed mothers in Korea, especially among Korean adoptees and adoptive parents abroad. KUMFA has already received interest from Canada and Australia as well as here and the U.S. offering “a big boost for the mothers and children involved in the organization.”
The father of two also wants to establish an endowment fund so that KUMFA will always have access to cash to keep Heater running in future years.
But Heit said more support from the Korean government is also needed.
“Up until April of this year, unwed mothers only received 50,000 won per month while foster parents and Korean adoptive parents received 75,000 won and 100,000 won per month, respectively.” she said.
“Although the amount has only been raised to 100,000 won across the board, at least we can see the government is starting to acknowledge the discrimination against unwed mothers who are raising their children. In the future, the government must be committed to more support for these moms.”
By Kirsty Taylor (firstname.lastname@example.org