How much do you know about Korean adoptees? According to research, Korea ranked 4th place in the number of children adopted in the USA. SIWA is no ordinary volunteer group, in that they visit the US each year to teach these Korean adoptees the culture of Korea. The Sookmyung Times (SMT) went to hear more about this uncommon volunteer group with the head of SIWA, Shin Heejung.
SMT Please tell us about SIWA.
SIWA SIWA stands for Sookmyung International Women’s Association. The main purpose of our group is to participate as volunteers at the Korean adoptee camps held in the US every summer. The activity period for SIWA volunteers is one year but still we become really close to each other. We treat each other like sisters, and this is what makes the atmosphere of SIWA warm and pleasant. Around 20 students are selected each fall. Members of SIWA undertake around 10 months of training before heading to the camps, therefore there is plenty of time to improve English skills. After the new members are selected, they partake in the regular activities of SIWA which are basically preparation for the Korean adoptee camps. Also, SIWA members regularly visit a social welfare center called Holt, and help people who have trouble moving or bathing.
SMT Exactly what kind of volunteer work do you do for the Korean adoptees?
SIWA We stay in the US for one month, and about a week is spent in two big Korean adoptee camps, one called Mujigae Camp and the other called Chingu Camp. There are five different subjects that we teach the Korean adoptees: history, Korean, dance and music, Korea Today and folktales. The theme and content of the classes change each summer, because most of the Korean adoptees who participate are regular comers who visit every year. For instance, this year we taught about painter Kim Hongdo, Talchum*and Jjimjilbang.** During the rest of the 3 weeks, we stay with American families who have adopted Korean children. It depends on the family you stay at, but if the family likes to travel, you get to sightsee various places in the US. Sometimes we cook Korean food and open a Korean food party for the whole neighborhood to join. We get to experience things that one could never experience during a simple trip to America.
SMT To these adoptees, Korea, as their native land, can be a painful or sensitive subject. Were there any signs of ill sentiments?
SIWA No. It seemed as if we were more sensitive than they were about this. Before arriving, I thought my heart would hurt seeing the children, but when I actually met them I saw that they received more love than any average Korean child. The parents who apply for the Korean adoptee camps are very open-minded, and never try to hide the fact that the home country of the children is Korea. To the adoptees, adoption is a simple fact and no more. Since they were adopted, they got to meet their lovely parents they have today. No one has any hard feelings. The camps are not only for Korean adoptees. Sisters and brothers of Korean adoptees also participate to learn more about the culture of their family. With the support of their adoptive parents and family members, the Korean adoptees enthusiastically participate with joy.
SMT What was the most memorable moment you had during the month in the US?
SIWA The last day, everyone cries. All the SIWA volunteers, all the Korean adoptees, everyone. The adoptive parents all say that we now have an extended family in the US. Even though, we are a different race, we are linked together through our children. “Whenever you visit again, contact us and stay at our houses, because we are family.” This is the most memorable part of our trip. A strong emotional bond occurs between us and the families. SIWA is something much more than the average volunteer group. SIWA offers invaluable experience that you can’t get elsewhere. Anyone who is interested in volunteering for Korean adoptees is welcome to join!
* Talchum is a Korean traditional masked dance
** Jjimjilbang refers to Korean saunas