06/18/2021, 16.18
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Seoul rewards the missionary of workers on society's margins

by Alessandra De Poli

To the Irish Fr. Donal O'Keeffe has been awarded the recognition of being "immigrant of the year". Since the 1980s he has dedicated himself to helping the less skilled workers living in the slums. His story: "Today the country has changed; poverty is more hidden, but people feel even more isolated".

Seoul (AsiaNews) - Each year South Korea awards a prize to the "immigrants of the year", a recognition for those who are dedicated to national progress particularly in the country in the social field. This year he went to an Irish missionary from San Colombano, Fr. Donal O’Keeffe, who has spent more than 40 years giving dignity to workers on the outskirts of the capital.

O'Keeffe, 70, arrived in Korea in 1976, when the country was still marked by military dictatorship and strong repression: "This is what struck me the most," the priest told AsiaNews.  In a nation still influenced by Confucianism, where the level of education determines social prestige, starting from the 1980s Fr. O’Keeffe dedicated himself to the workers who move from the slums to the industrial districts of Korean cities. "Any type of association - explains the religious - was forbidden at the time, the only place where people could meet were churches".

With the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, Fr. O'Keeffe has created an “open house”, a place where workers, sometimes even very young people aged 15 or 16, could meet and share problems, dreams, aspirations.

The priest describes how “most of them had abandoned their studies after middle school. They were people who felt terribly inferior because they had not studied, with very low self-esteem due to social pressures. We started with personal growth programs, created groups where young people could make friends or engage in various activities, from learning to play the guitar to walking in the mountains ".

The most beautiful thing was to see the children grow up, “to see them flourish”, says Fr. O'Keeffe. At the same time, Korea has also been transformed. The situation changed shortly before the 1988 Seoul Olympics, when it was realized that in order to host the Games, the country had to be more stable. The democratic movement had organized demonstrations across the nation to demand free elections and civil rights. The first presidential elections took place in 1987 and since then, with what is called the Sixth Republic, South Korea has become increasingly rich, free and open.

The social challenges are not over though. With the economic development of the 1990s, the middle class began to move to the suburbs, where the "moon towns" were, slums on the sides of the hills from where the moon could be seen. The people who lived there were evacuated to build apartments which would then be rented at prohibitive prices.

“Those big buildings have begun to rise where the richest people live at the top and the poorest in the basements. As seen in the movie 'Parasite'. Although before when there were slums life might have seemed worse, the quality of relationships was actually better. Poverty has been hidden, but people have become increasingly isolated”.

Now the problems of Korean society are different. Here too, as in China, women are valued much less than men, especially in rural areas. And women are not that attracted to marriage now that they are economically independent. As a result, some Korean men "order" their wives from abroad. They are the so-called "mail order brides" and come mainly from the Philippines, Vietnam and China.

“In many cases they don't turn out to be good relationships. In the villages the living conditions of these women are not easy; their children are excluded because Korean society takes great pride in being ethnically pure”. A new challenge for the government but also for the Church.

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