Helping those who need it the most

by Limb Jae-un, JoongAng Daily, Dec 16, 2004

Seoul, South Korea -- Dozens of people flock to the basement of a Buddhist temple building in southern Seoul on Sunday. They write their names on a board and wait to be called. They are there not for prayer or religious services, but to obtain medical care, for free.

At Bongeun Temple in Samseong-dong, Gangnam district, doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other volunteers provide medical services to migrant workers at no charge every Sunday. The program is under the auspices of the Korea Buddhism Seonjae Community Medical Association and the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism.

In 1999, as the country was recovering from the financial crisis, some Buddhist physicians came to the realization that they were not doing enough to help their fellow human beings. They formed the Korea Buddhism Seonjae Community Medical Association and joined together with Bongeun Temple's head monk, Reverend Wonhye, to try to free individuals from physical suffering.

"The most fundamental doctrine of Buddhism is benevolence," Reverend Wonhye says. "The living conditions for migrant workers were very harsh and we wanted to help them."
Bongeun Temple began to offer food and religious services for migrant workers from Southeast Asian countries, as well as medical assistance. This was aimed not only at migrant workers but also homeless people and low-income Korean families. Now, the services are provided at other temples as well.

Medical services are available at Bongeun Temple and Seokwang Temple in Bucheon for migrant workers on Sundays, and near Seoul Station for the homeless on Wednesdays. At Bongeun Temple, usually fewer than 50 patients show up, while about 10 patients appear at Seokwang Temple.

Around 40 doctors, 40 dentists, 15 pharmacists, 70 nurses, two oriental medicine doctors and hundreds of other volunteers currently are registered with the Seonjae Community. They tour the country's temples each month to provide medical care, mainly for low-income Korean families.

"Many foreigners live in extremely poor conditions and do not have medical insurance," says Kim Jeong-suk, a radiologist at Inje University Paik Hospital in Sanggye-dong, northern Seoul. "Because they do not have medical insurance, they cannot seek medical treatment. When they do seek medical assistance, often they are already in serious condition."

Dr. Kim has been doing volunteer work once a month for the last three years, and is responsible for providing internal medicine services.

Helping the most disadvantaged

At Bongeun Temple, dental care is available as well. "One of the biggest goals of our center is to help the most disadvantaged, and they happen to be illegal migrant workers," says Seo Dae-seon, a dentist at Seoul Municipal Dongbu Hospital. "We should target people who cannot benefit from the medical system in the country, mostly illegal migrant workers."
Many of the doctors who are members of the Seonjae Community and the volunteers are Buddhist, but Dr. Seo is Christian. "Buddhism is so tolerant that even non-Buddhists come here for volunteer work," he says.

Most people who come to Bongeun Temple for help have found out about the services through word of mouth.

"My husband's friends told us about the service," says Yun Ok-ran, 55, a Korean-Chinese woman who comes from an area near the Heilung River in northeastern China. "I heard that doctors here are kindhearted and explain things in detail."

"I come here very often, for free health service," says Otgontsetseg, a 26-year-old woman who is studying for a doctorate in Korean at Seoul National University. She comes from Mongolia, a primarily Buddhist nation. "When I feel sick, I wait until Sunday and I come here for treatment and get medicine. I feel very grateful."

"Migrant workers who turn up here for medical assistance come from as far as Uijeongbu or Icheon in Gyeonggi province," says Lee Hee-se, a volunteer and chief administrator of the program, who also is an official at Jawoon High School in northern Seoul. According to Mr. Lee, many of the patients at the temple are Buddhist.

"I have seen many churches offering free medical service for foreigners, but there weren't many Buddhist temples providing such services," says Otgontsetseg. "I am not a Christian and I felt uncomfortable about going to a church for free medical service just because I was sick.

"Coming here also gives me a chance to pray. I feel the day is well spent," she adds.

Less diversity among patients

In the past, the patients at Bongeun Temple were a diverse group, coming from such countries as Morocco, Bangladesh and Myanmar. But after the government's introduction of a work permit system in August and a subsequent crackdown on illegal aliens, the number of people from these countries seeking medical assistance dropped significantly.

Now, Korean-Chinese and a small number of Mongolians, mostly legal immigrants, are the majority of the patients. "Legal migrant workers now have medical insurance and less need for free services, while many illegal foreigners returned to their own country," Dr. Kim says.
"These days, because of law enforcement's onslaught on illegal immigrants, Mongolians stopped coming here and just stay home for fear of being caught by the police," Otgontsetseg says.

The volunteers feel remorse at being unable to serve illegal migrant workers. "After the crackdown began, they ceased to come here," Dr. Seo says. "Illegal immigrants are the ones who need us the most."

In Seokwang Temple, the situation is slightly different because of its location, in Bucheon, near an industrial park. Patients from Russia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Myanmar and China still come to the temple for medical services.

Aside from the declining number of migrant workers at Bongeun Temple, Dr. Kim has noticed other changes. "From their appearance, I feel their living conditions have improved," she says. "They seem to lead a more comfortable life and to be getting better treatment in Korea."

On the other hand, the situation for homeless people seems to be going downhill. "The number of homeless people seeking free medical service in front of Seoul Station has increased and they are in more serious condition," Dr. Kim says.
Despite giving up the traditional day of rest, the volunteers say they are happy to be there for those in need.

"Now, volunteering has become a part of my life," Dr. Seo says. "Most doctors who come here are like that. Even though working on Sunday is hard, they continue to do it because they know there are patients waiting for them."

Dr. Seo has no break until he finishes work, except for lunch, but he says he enjoys meeting new people from diverse backgrounds, such as teachers and lawyers. "There need to be some fun aspects to volunteering, otherwise it is hard to do," he says.

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