[Herald Interview] ‘Hero’ migrant worker fears being kicked out of Korea

By Ock Hyun-ju
  • Published : Jul 6, 2017 - 17:55
  • Updated : Jul 6, 2017 - 19:51

An illegal migrant worker who was hailed as a hero for rescuing a stranger from a house fire now fears being kicked out of the country, the Sri Lankan man told The Korea Herald.

Nimal Siri Vandara, 38, lost his job and source of income, which was a lifeline for his family back home, after rescuing a 90-year-old woman from a fire in Gunwi-gun, North Gyeongsang Province, in February. He suffered burns and smoke inhalation injuries, which require continued medical treatment. 

He will also have to leave the country at the end of this year, as the incident revealed his illegal status to the immigration authorities.

“Even though I got caught, I don’t regret my action. I would do the same if it happened again,” Siri Vandara said during an interview held in a Sri Lankan Buddhist temple in Daegu last week. He spoke both in Korean and Sri Lankan, which was interpreted by Sri Lankan Buddhist monk Wansa. 

Nimal Siri Vandara (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)

On Feb. 10, he was having lunch near an apple orchard where he worked when he heard a woman screaming for help.

He ran to the place right away and found a house full of smoke. The woman said her mother-in-law was still inside.

“I opened the back gate and went inside. I searched the rooms, found her and brought her outside,” Siri Vandara said between coughs, “I thought we both are going to die.”

“I don’t remember much, because I lost consciousness at the end. When I woke up, I was at a hospital.”

The possibility of his illegal status being exposed did not occur to him then, he said.

“How can I just sit back and watch a person trapped inside the burning house? I could not look away because she reminded me of my mother back home.”

Siri Vandara used to be a math teacher in Sri Lanka.

To support the medical expenses for his mother, who was suffering from cancer, he came to work in South Korea in July 2013 on a work visa. After his visa expired last July, he had stayed on.

As a teacher, he took home about 300,000 won ($260) per month in Sri Lanka. In Korea, he was able to earn about 2 million won per month and remit most of it back home.

Recognizing his heroic act, the Ministry of Health and Welfare granted him an award that came with prize money of about 10 million won. He became the first unregistered migrant to win the honor.

However, the immigration office slapped him with a 4.8 million won fine for illegal stay.

After his story came to light, the office canceled the fine and issued him a six-month visa for medical treatment, which will expire at the end of this year.

Despite everything, the Sri Lankan said he is grateful to South Korea.

“I didn’t expect it at all. I was very grateful. I am very happy,” he said.

His biggest concern now is that he is to be kicked out of the country. As he was caught staying here illegally, he is required to return to Sri Lanka after he recovers.

“The only thing I want now is that I stay here and earn money to support my children until they grow up.”

By Ock Hyun-ju in Daegu (