The Jumma tribes indigenous to the CHT region of Bangladesh have been persecuted since the partitioning of the Indian subcontinent.
Although the 650,000 non-Muslim Jumma people made up 98.5 percent of the CHT population, in 1947 the British ceded the region to become part of Muslim East Pakistan, which is now Bangladesh.
The Jumma have suffered since the country won its war for independence with Pakistan in 1971, becoming victims of Bangladeshi government-sanctioned persecution.
Ronel, who owned a pharmacy business in Bangladesh, fled the country after being “involved in activities against the government” that was persecuting his people.
“I have a long history,” he said. “In 1986 I was arrested by the army. I was in jail for three years. Even after the peace accord I was supposed to be arrested, but I failed to be prosecuted.”
He first came to Korea alone in 1994 but returned home after Jumma rebels and the Bangladeshi government forged a peace agreement in 1997. However, he returned here in 2000 because “the human rights violations did not cease, they just took a different form.”
He has been living in Yangchon since then, and was joined in 2003 by his wife and son, who is now 11 years old and attending Korean school.
Ronel, who worked as an English teacher after gaining refugee status here and is now assisting a Hangyang University professor, wants to raise awareness about and preserve the culture of the Jumma people for his son’s generation and beyond.
“When I started Jumma People’s Network Korea our members were very few,” he said.
“Our objective is to protect the Jumma people so that we can help each other, teaching our culture, language and tradition, and to protect our nation from extinction.
“Initially we made a center for ourselves but we hope we can increase the size of the library in a bigger building with many books that we can share with the people in this community. That way we can have cultural exchange with the people living around this area.”
The library has been assisted by Korean rights group Human Asia and stocked by BIR Publishing and Kinderland publishers, who both donated 1,000 books each, including Korean and English children’s texts. Stationary company Monami contributed pens and art supplies while Global Health NGO MediPeace has helped renovate the JPNK headquarters and five refugees’ households following rain damage this summer.
Though the small community is well settled now, 13 of the 60 Jumma in the Gimpo area are still waiting for the Korean government to grant them refugee status.
The wait, which lasted two years for Ronel, is a time when a displaced person is not permitted to work or claim any kind of financial support from the government.
“We just survived by ourselves on the grace of God,” said Ronel.
“I think that the Korean government still has to do a lot of things. The refugee policy of Korea should be equal to the international standards so that refugees in Korea can live like in EU countries.
“We have had a lot of problems until now. Even if you get refugee status, the government doesn’t give you any kind of support to resettle economically or socially ... my son can go to school but they should provide education not only to the children but to the families to help them fit into Korean society.
“As a result, we cannot change our lives economically or socially. We remain refugees.”
However, he noted that the people around him had grown welcoming to his group since he came as one of the first handful of Jumma people to enter Korea.
“At first, the people here were not rude or bad to us but we recognized a rural sentiment (in the Yangchon area).
“They liked to keep to themselves and they didn’t want to mix with foreigners, but now we have a lot of communication here and a lot of people support our cause. They understand our plight.”
While Ronel’s ultimate wish is to return to his homeland if the conflict there can be resolved, for now he and his people are happy to call Korea their home.
By Kirsty Taylor (email@example.com