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[Herald Interview] Actor committed to helping refugees

Albeit powerless and hapless far away from his homeland Bhutan, the young boy could not give up his dream of becoming an actor like Jung Woo-sung since watching his 2004 film “A Moment to Remember.”

As the boy re-enacted a perilous cross-border journey on a makeshift stage alongside his peers at the Beldangi refugee camp in Nepal, the 41-year-old South Korean actor Jung was shaken by the young refugees’ purity and unity even while lacking basic needs.

The encounter took place during Jung’s first field trip to a refugee camp from Nov. 3-7 since he became an honorary advocate for the South Korean office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in May.

“The play was short and simple, but their performance was not artificial,” Jung said in a recent interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul. 
Actor Jung Woo-sung speaks during an interview ahead of a year-end reception hosted by UNHCR Korea in Seoul on Friday. (Yonhap)
Actor Jung Woo-sung speaks during an interview ahead of a year-end reception hosted by UNHCR Korea in Seoul on Friday. (Yonhap)

“It was heartbreaking to see the boy saying he had watched my movie and will succeed as an actor and come visit me in Korea because nothing is guaranteed for his future ― education, medical care, even nationality, nothing.”

During the five-day stay, he met refugees from Bhutan in camps in eastern Nepal and others in the capital city of Kathmandu, and visited medical facilities, schools, food distribution centers and other institutions. He was accompanied by UNHCR Korea representative Dirk Hebecker, renowned Korean photographer Cho Sei-hon and other officials and activists.

Even to the seasoned actor, however, the rare mission evoked a “new kind of anxiety,” which he felt until the night before the departure, he said.

“It was like when I was very young and a novice I couldn’t sleep the night before a shooting schedule. I was asking myself questions like ‘Are you really ready?’ ‘Can you do this?’ ‘What are you thinking going there?’” said Jung, who debuted on the big screen in 1994.

“But I had more confidence when I actually went there, witnessing numerous problems that the word ‘refugee’ can’t possibly speak for. And I promised myself to work harder, constantly on this.”

Since 2007, the U.N. Refugee Agency in Nepal has helped more than 93,000 people from Bhutan resettle in countries including the U.S., Canada, Australia, Denmark, Norway and the U.K.

The Geneva-based body currently carries out various protection and assistance programs for another 24,000 refugees from Bhutan in the Beldangi and Sanischare camps in eastern Nepal.

Jung, who starred in Korean flicks “Beat” and “Cold Eyes,” is set to become the organization’s 12th official goodwill ambassador next year. He is seeking to model himself after Ahn Sung-ki, a veteran actor who is credited with helping expand the presence and fundraising campaign of the U.N. Children’s Fund as national ambassador of Korea.

“It’s vital to help the refugees establish identity. … These people face tremendous hardships, living stateless, without basic essentials and unable to return to their native country,” Jung said.

“Seeing the situation firsthand, I thought it seemed that the reason people become refugees is crystal clear, whether it is for political, religious or racial persecution, but the resolution is absolutely not. I believe that the first step to help the refugees is to deepen our understanding about them.”

By Shin Hyon-hee (heeshin@heraldcorp.com)
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