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Expats step up to help nuns connect with runaway teens

It was an unusual evening gathering in Seoul’s Gangdong-gu.

Several nuns met up with a Korean investment banker, some foreign professionals and English teachers to spend four hours outside a mall at a busy teenage hangout.

But the disparate group of adults did have a common purpose ― they were meeting for the first night of a pilot project aiming to reach out to teenage runaways in Cheonho-dong.

Nuns who work for Sonia’s House women’s shelter had chosen this area in the hope of meeting vulnerable middle and high school-aged students. The idea was to talk to them as they moved between the area’s shops and PC rooms, to reach out to them lest they get caught up in trouble, explained Sister Stephania Shim.

“We are targeting teenagers here who are going on the street, who run away from their family, who run away from their school.

“They get together with friends then they are ... going to PC rooms, going to multi rooms. Then they don’t go to their homes. They go another way. Some run away to go into prostitution, some are going on to commit crimes.”

Another path that Shim would rather see them tread is one toward Sonia’s House. The center caters for runaway girls offering them an escape from or alternative to the sex trade.

While nuns have tried different ways to reach such girls, rescuing many over the years, they hope that the new street project can bring their work directly to the people they want to help.

But talking to teens from under the habit is not always easy. And that is where the expats came in. Expats from the U.S. and U.K. from the Korea International Volunteer group joined to hand out candies, pens and tissue packs bearing details of the shelter where teenage girls could go to seek help if they wanted.

Once the foreigners got them talking, nuns conducted questionnaires with the kids to try to discover if they had any problems with which they could help.

Although timid of the unusual sight of smiling foreigners approached them waving trinkets, many were curious enough to be drawn over.

Soon, they were lingering to take surveys on their views on school and answer questionnaires with trained volunteers.

“At the start we speak with them if they open we could help to bring them to our shelter,” said Shim. “We can take them another way … to their homes again.”

The project funded by Seoul City Government is already running in Sillim and another started up near Sagajeong Subway Station last Friday.

In Cheonho-dong, the nuns plan to go out every Wednesday and have trained up 30 Korean college students to help them. They also want foreigners to come along to try and connect with the passing teenagers on a different level.

“The teenagers don’t always seem to open up their minds to the Korean volunteers but they do for expats because many of them are curious about what is going on with foreigners. Apart from if they have a native English teacher at school, they don’t meet many foreigners. They express their curiosity and open up,” said Korean banker James Kim, who organizes the volunteer group via meetup.org.

“I am so happy that these expats who are thousands of miles from their homes and have nothing to do with these Korean runaways are coming here after a long day at work because they think that they can help.”

And U.S. volunteer Joe Olson thought that having some international faces among the crowd had helped the nuns communicate with the kids on the first trial night last Wednesday.

“It makes the teenagers pause long enough for the Korean volunteers to get to speak to them and have them stop,” said the 25-year-old who works at an English academy in Seoul. “In terms of this outreach to endangered youth you can’t set up this kind of project overnight. It takes a while to establish a connection but after a while the word gets around between the kids themselves. They have a better connection among themselves. Hopefully something is starting now that can go on long-term.”

For more information go to www.meetup.com/volunteers/.

By Kirsty Taylor (kirstyt@heraldcorp.com)
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