Strangers in a Strange Land

by Soon-Ho Kim, Columban lay missionary
August 16, 2010
Sharing Meals and More

I came to Japan from Korea as a Columban lay missionary in 1999. After a year of language studies, I became involved as a volunteer at Saalaa, a non-governmental organization founded in 1992 to care for women and children who are victims of human trafficking and domestic violence. Saalaa offers temporary accommodation and counseling and also provides other types of living assistance to foreign women in Japan.

In its early stage, most of the trafficking victims who came to Saalaa were young Thai women in their twenties. Later, trafficking victims from other nations, such as Columbia, the Philippines, Indonesia, South Korea and Taiwan also came for support. Many of the women eventually returned to their home countries.

Columban lay missionary Soon-Ho Kim (at right) is pictured with the Saalaa staff.

Columban lay missionary Soon-Ho Kim (at right) is pictured with the Saalaa staff.

As time passed, the reasons for requests for assistance from Saalaa changed. As the number of cases of human trafficking decreased, the number of cases of domestic violence experienced by the foreign wives and children of Japanese husbands and fathers increased. Now, domestic violence is the main reason people look for assistance from Saalaa. Annually, approximately 70 women and children take refuge at Saalaa. Oftentimes more families are looking for assistance than we have the means to accommodate.

At the same time, Saalaa maintains a telephone hot line in seven languages in addition to Japanese, including Thai, Spanish, Portuguese, Tagalog (Bisayan), Chinese, Korean, and English. Annually, we handle about 1,000 calls on the hot line. Consultations have to do with domestic violence, divorce, visa problems, parenting, housing and other issues. Occasionally, we also receive calls from men in distress. Since our space is limited, we have to operate the shelter and the consultation line at the same location.

During the first two years I worked as a volunteer at Saalaa, I took the night shift once a week. The shift started at 5 p.m. and continued to 10 a.m. the following morning. Once the rest of the staff went home in the evening, I had the responsibility of looking after the shelter and its residents. At that time, I did not know the residents very well, their disparate backgrounds or the reasons why they were at the shelter. My work included answering the hotline, talking with the residents, playing with the children, having dinner and watching television together. I was surprised at first by the variety of nationalities in residence as well as the variety of the foods they prepared. While sharing meals, we grew to trust each other and share our problems and concerns.

The common language was Japanese, regardless of our various nationalities. Most of the residents, like me, were not fluent in Japanese. We also had different cultural and personal backgrounds. Nevertheless, over time we discovered a common element and were able to feel empathy for each other. That common element was the realization of our vulnerability as foreign women in Japan. Most of the residents had come to Japan without family or relatives. At the same time, they had problems. I was similar to them in many ways, especially regarding the struggle with loneliness and a feeling of helplessness. I found that sometimes our limited language skills made it easier to accept one another, express ourselves frankly and share our feelings and emotions from the bottom of our hearts.

Receiving telephone calls between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. was one of the most difficult aspects of my work. The ringing of the telephone would wake me up from my sleep, and my heart would beat so fast, wondering what kind of problem a caller at that hour would want to share with me. I soon discovered that most of the midnight callers were not mentally balanced, and I felt that my language and counseling skills were not adequate to the task. I often wondered what advice to give to the caller. Over the years, the experience that caused me the most stress was that of accompanying a woman about to deliver a baby. Her labor pains started at midnight, but she endured the pain until early in the morning when she woke me up. Since I had little knowledge and no personal experience of giving birth, I felt ill-equipped to deal with the matter. Fortunately, she delivered a healthy baby as soon as we arrived at the hospital.

When Saalaa started its consultation lines in 2003, I was hired as part time staff. My main responsibility was that of operating the Korean hotline. Then, four years ago, I became a full time member of the staff. Since we are a small NGO with a small staff, I now have a great variety of responsibilities. They include all the tasks connected with managing individual cases as well as supporting the organization. I am involved in finance and accounting, counseling and interpreting, even babysitting and housekeeping. Each day is different and busy. Normally, I start the day with telephone calls from welfare offices and from different persons who are in need of advice. Occasionally, the day begins with grocery shopping.

The staff rotates the responsibility of cooking lunch. When my turn comes, I often cook simple Korean food. Residents, volunteers, and members of the staff all eat at the same table, so our lunch table is filled with international dishes. Mealtime is one of the happiest moments for all of us at Saalaa. After becoming a full time staff member, I was able to become more involved with the residents. It helped me to learn more about their situations and the problems they faced. I must say that most of our residents are very cheerful, courageous and optimistic in spite of their troubles. Some mothers who are emotionally unstable come to us for assistance. Some need medical treatment. Sometimes, their children are emotionally unstable, though the mothers may not be aware of this. Some women have a hard time understanding and explaining their condition and expressing their feelings.

Language is one of the hardest things for our residents. Most residents who are not from China or Korea cannot read or write Japanese because of the difficulty of learning the Japanese writing system, based on the Chinese characters, or kanji. Some have difficulty communicating in Japanese, despite the fact that they have lived for more than ten years in Japan. Consequently, mothers cannot follow directives provided by administrative offices and their children’s schools. We often have children coming to the shelter who cannot keep up with their studies. During their stay at the shelter, we try to teach Japanese to the mothers and help the children with their studies.

Even after the mothers and their children move out of Saalaa, we try to continue supporting them in different ways such as accompanying them to law offices for those who need legal assistance in divorce procedures, acting as interpreters, accompanying them in the processing of papers needed in ward offices for different purposes like child allowances, visa extensions at the immigration office and other concerns.

Personally, I feel blessed to have this opportunity of being together with such a devoted staff, including the volunteers and residents. At the same time, I think about how I came to Saalaa and what the meaning of my work here is. Being involved with mothers and children gives me many chances to reflect on my relationship with my own parents, especially my ceased mother. I have come to appreciate the difficulty of caring for and nurturing infants and children without having the support of any other family members, even though it must also be a joy and a comfort for mothers to have children.

Basically, what all mothers want is the happiness of their children. My own mother passed away in her thirties. I did not have any chance to talk with her about her life and whether she was happy with her husband and children.

I do not remember whether she expressed her love to me in words. However, being with the mothers at the Saalaa shelter I have come to recall her love and to better understand both my mother and myself.

Columban lay missionary Soon-Ho Kim works in Japan.

This article first appeared in the August / September 2010 issue of Columban Mission.