Afghan evacuees embrace new life in South Korea
When South Korean dramas were all the rage in Afghanistan a decade ago, Sadiya (not her real name) stayed up all night watching how romance blossomed between a feisty high school girl and a bratty rich man's son in the serial Boys Over Flowers.
Little did she imagine she would end up living in the land of mushy dramas after being airlifted from war-ravaged Kabul in a dramatic evacuation by the South Korean military.
The United States had pulled all its troops out of Afghanistan in August, leaving behind chaos and panic as the brutal Taliban claimed victory of a 20-year-long war.
Sadiya, 29, is among a group of 391 Afghan people rescued in a three-day mission codenamed Operation Miracle.
"I don't want to remember how I went from home to the airport," she recalled.
"They were shooting guns. I can say we risked our lives to get to the airport. It was actually a miracle that we could pass through."
Ali (not his real name), 36, voiced gratitude that South Korean officials who were evacuated first from Kabul "promised they would return with a plan and they did".
"Operation Miracle was very efficient and well directed by the Korean government and we appreciated that," he said.
The evacuated group comprises medical professionals, vocational trainers, IT experts and interpreters who had worked for the South Korean embassy in Kabul and South Korean humanitarian groups, as well as their family members.
The group of 156 adults and 235 children arrived in late August and are now staying temporarily at a state-owned facility with dormitories in Jincheon, North Chungcheong province, about 100km south of Seoul.
The government has designated them as "special contributors" instead of refugees, in recognition of their work with South Korean groups in Afghanistan.
They are now undergoing a social integration programme run by the Justice Ministry to help them adapt to life in South Korea. It includes learning the Korean language, culture and etiquette, as well as living skills such as how to separate trash and how to go to the bank.
Mr Ha Young-kook from the ministry's immigration integration division said the goal of the programme is to help them "lead independent lives and be responsible members of the society".
When The Straits Times paid a visit as part of a "press day" event last Wednesday (Oct 13), a group of 10 Afghan men were seen darting around on a big field with track, playing football under the sun.
Another group of about 50 teenagers and young children gathered to learn the basics of taekwondo. All dressed in white dobok (Korean martial arts uniform), they stretched their legs and executed flying kicks under guidance from South Korean instructors.
Mothers were seen pushing strollers for a walk in the sun, while little children zipped around on skate scooters.
It felt like any day out in a park. But that freedom to roam about freely is hard to come by.
"There's been war in our country since I was born," Rahim (not his real name), 15, told reporters.
"There is no hope in our country, but over here in South Korea, I feel like we can live well."
He also voiced hopes of going to university and become a doctor so as to help South Korean people in the future.
Jamilah (not her real name), 13, is happy to join the boys in learning taekwondo.
"In Afghanistan, there is no freedom for women to participate in sports freely like men do," she said.
"It's really satisfying that we can attend taekwondo classes with the boys without wearing a hijab."
When their integration programme ends in about four months, the group will get long-term residency visas that will allow them to find jobs.
Ms Yun Yeon-han, a social integration instructor, noted vast differences in the interests of the men and women. She said the men wanted to know more about South Korea's economic policies, wage levels, apartment prices and types of jobs available, while the women were more curious about parenting policies.
"Learning the Korean language is the most difficult part for them, followed by cultural differences," added Ms Yun.
Afghans who spoke to the media all voiced gratitude to the South Korean government for rescuing them and helping them to adjust to a new life here.
Ali said they all know it will not be easy because "we came from a developing country to a much more developed country".
However, he noted that many of them had spent long years working with South Korean organisations, so they are familiar with its people and their way of life.
He also recalled how South Korean historical drama Jewel In The Palace was so popular in Afghanistan that if electricity was cut at night, people would go out to buy petrol to power up their own generators "just so we don't miss the drama".
"If we work hard, hopefully we will be able to solve all the problems we will be facing in the future step by step," he added.
Sadiya said she found many similarities between Afghan and South Korean cultures, such as showing respect for the elderly and love for the family.
"In Afghanistan, we would also take off our shoes when visiting a friend's house. Doing the same here made us feel at home," she added.
One day, if the situation in Afghanistan improves, she hopes they can revisit their home town.
"We like to remember our roots," she said. "We will be happy to see our children visit our homeland, so our family there can see how they've grown into healthy young adults."
Note: All Afghan names have been changed to protect their identities.