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‘Afghan students not welcome here’

Some parents protest admission of refugee kids to school in Ulsan

157 Afghan evacuees arrive in Ulsan on Feb.7. (Yonhap)
157 Afghan evacuees arrive in Ulsan on Feb.7. (Yonhap)

Come March, students will return to Seoboo Elementary School in the southeastern city of Ulsan for the spring semester. Among them will be some 25 kids from Afghanistan who last year were airlifted from their home country to South Korea along with their families following the Taliban takeover. 

One mother of a current student of Seoboo Elementary says the new group of incoming students is why she is considering moving. 

“Muslim refugees from Afghanistan are living together in a building located near where my child studies. I don’t want to expose my child to potential danger,” said the mother who only gave her surname Park. She said she has read news articles about social problems and dangerous situations surrounding some Muslim refugees’ settlements in other countries. 

Her worry extends to the possibility of the school’s educational atmosphere being ruined by the new kids on the block. 

“It is difficult for Afghan children, who just settled in Korea, to properly communicate with Korean students and teachers. Sometimes, this could harm the learning environment,” Park continued. 

“They need to spend some time at academic institutions for non-Koreans to get used to the Korean language and culture.”

Nearly 50 parents of children attending Seoboo Elementary School in Dong-gu, Ulsan, hold a protest against the city’s education office to nullify the admission of the Afghan children into the school. (Courtesy of Park)
Nearly 50 parents of children attending Seoboo Elementary School in Dong-gu, Ulsan, hold a protest against the city’s education office to nullify the admission of the Afghan children into the school. (Courtesy of Park)

The 25 kids belong to 29 families that have settled down in the Ulsan administrative district of Seoboo-dong, following their father’s employment at a subcontractor of Hyundai Heavy Industries based in the industrial port city. 

All 25 primary school-age kids will attend Seoboo Elementary, as school allotment is determined by one’s home address for young students in Korea. The families’ older kids are set to begin their Korean school life this March -- 17 at a nearby middle school and 22 at a high school. 

The Afghan settlers in Ulsan, totaling 157, are among the 391 “special contributors” and their family members that South Korean government airlifted last year. They include medical professionals, vocational trainers, IT experts and interpreters who worked for Korea’s embassy in Kabul and its humanitarian and relief facilities in the country. 

The rest have spread out to multiple cities in the central region, government data shows. 

Ninety-nine have settled down in Incheon, including 23 school-age kids. Sixteen of them are to receive elementary education here.    

The remaining 135 are scattered across Gyeonggi Province’s Gimpo, Hwaseong, Yongin, Namyangju, Goyang and Siheung. A total of 46 children of the settlers will begin schooling next month – 15 in Gimpo, nine in Hwaseong, eight in Yongin, eight in Namyangju, five in Yongin and one in Siheung, according to an official at the Gyeonggi Provincial Office of Education. 

Gimpo has the largest number of elementary school students with 11, followed by Namyangju with eight, Hwaseong, Yongin and Goyang with five and Siheung with one. 

This shows that at 25, the number of Afghan admissions at Seoboo Elementary is by far the largest for a single institution. 

That’s partly why parents at Seoboo Elementary are protesting, unlike those at other schools.

On the evening of Feb. 18, a group of parents gathered on the school’s campus with lanterns in hand to oppose the admission of the Afghan children. They also criticized education authorities for the “unilateral” decision to allocate the children to a public school like Seoboo Elementary.

“On Feb. 10, the education office vowed to set up a special committee consisting of the city’s education authorities and parents of Seoboo Elementary School to resolve the issue, but the promise was never met,” said Baek, 41, whose daughter is a third grader at the school. 

The issue of the Afghan settlement in Ulsan has reached the presidential office through Cheong Wa Dae’s online petition system. 

A screenshot of the Cheong Wa Dae petition calling for the cancellation of Afghan evacuees’ settlement in Ulsan and their children’s assignment to nearby schools. (Cheong Wa Dae website)
A screenshot of the Cheong Wa Dae petition calling for the cancellation of Afghan evacuees’ settlement in Ulsan and their children’s assignment to nearby schools. (Cheong Wa Dae website)


A petition demanding a halt to the current group home system for Afghan evacuees in Ulsan has gained more than 15,180 A petition demanding a halt to the current group home system for Afghan evacuees in Ulsan has gained more than 15,180 signatures, as of Thursday. It also calls for the assignment of the young refugees to foreign schools, not regular local schools. 

“Without listening to voices of Korean nationals who pay taxes, the city has pushed ahead with assigning the Muslim evacuees to areas next to the school zone. I hope the city officials guarantee the security and safety of local residents first, before tending to the refugees,” the petition reads. 

As for the 25 kids assigned to Seoboo Elementary, Ulsan’s education office stands firm. 

“Since the address of Afghan evacuees’ children is within Seoboo-dong’s school district, they have been assigned to Seoboo Elementary School. The education office doesn’t have the authority to arbitrarily change an individual student’s school assignment, overriding the address-based system,” the authority said in a statement on Wednesday. 

Addressing the parents’ concerns over cultural differences resulting in a deterioration in learning, Noh Ok-hee, Ulsan’s education superintendent said the office will “operate various teaching programs for Afghan evacuees’ children to help them learn the Korean language and adapt well to school life here.”

On the other hand, some raised criticism over the parents’ refusal to embrace asylum seekers, describing their stance as “group egoism.” 

“The parents said they are worried over cultural differences between Afghan and Korean students. If so, they should have tried to come up with practical solutions with an open mind, instead of shutting the door against the refugees,” said Jang Jung-ki, a senior member of Hopeful Ulsan, a non-profit civic group dedicated to the protection of human rights.
Jang also warned against hasty generalization about young Afghans, based on some foreign news covering extreme crimes involving Muslims.

“It could fuel the already rampant xenophobia in Korean society.” 

By Choi Jae-hee (cjh@heraldcorp.com)
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