- Written in Korean by Suk Yong Kwak, 1970’s, Korean Journal, Toronto
- Translated by June and Ok Ryong Kwak
Although written roughly 40 years ago and the countries of origin may be different today, the human struggle to survive and prosper continues to play out worldwide including within our borders.
Where the St Lawrence River is frozen and blanketed by snow, the border between the US and Canada is a snowy field. A bitterly cold snowy field that is very quiet, except for those who enjoy skating or ice fishing. Yet some people wait for blustery snow storms and foggy nights to cross the border.
Christmas carols play in the splendidly decorated streets, crowded with people dreaming of holiday plans who hurry to warm homes, yet some people walk with no place to go.
People who don’t want to be in the streets when it becomes quiet late at night or on a nearly empty bus approaching the final station, people who are afraid when they see a police car… When you are sick, you cannot go to the doctor, if you lose your job, you can not claim unemployment insurance. Even if you have money, you cannot deposit it in the bank easily. If your employer underpays you or does not pay you at all, you cannot complain. Even if you have money, you cannot go to a fancy hotel, you cannot rent a place to live easily. There are so many cars available but you are afraid to buy a car.
These people have not escaped from prison or committed any crime, and it’s not because they have different skin colour. If you are guilty of anything, it is that you do not have a small slip of paper that says “Landed Immigrant”. It is only that they have entered into the country and are staying undocumented. And now if they want to go back to their country they cannot because they are afraid of consequences of being here undocumented… even so they have to work to live and sleep. There are thousands of people like this in Metro Toronto. Among them, families with school aged children who cannot enter the school system. What will be their future? In a practical way, no one knows how many people. How they got here by air, by land, or by ship, it is not a matter to be discussed here. Until they are able to address their legal issues and legitimately stay here, we need to help them. It’s not to do illegal things or protect illegal activities. Among them are many Korean people under the wing of established Korean people. Is there any way to support them until they can live here safely? Korean church groups, pastors and concerned people are privately helping.
Four years ago in the spring, there was a small article that appeared in the newspaper.
Four bodies were recovered from the St Lawrence River near Montreal as the snow melted and the river began to flow again. There was no identification found and only a few hundred dollars in cash. It was speculated that these people were attempting to cross the border. Who they were or where they wanted to go is unknown. They happened to be Chinese so the story was particularly memorable. In New York’s Chinatown, it is a mystery how many people are living illegally as people can blend seamlessly into the community.
Before I wrote this story, “Mr Chung of undisclosed address”, I considered the potential consequences and I was reluctant to write. Even though I am using a pseudonym, this small article might harm people in this situation.
I have heard about two people. One person has been living with his family for 2 years and received a phone call at his workplace. His working permit is almost expired; what should he do? He would like to buy a store, is it possible? At that time, I gave him the information I knew, but I am uncertain what happened to him. I phoned a few times after that, but there was no answer. Whenever I phoned I was told that man was not there. Since then, I stopped calling in case it was causing anxiety to have the phone ring.
This story of Mr Chung, is one I heard from someone who knew him. After being in Toronto for more than a year and a half, I don’t know where Mr Chung lives or what he does, and even if I wanted to have a beer together, there is no way to get in touch with him. Let’s take a moment to stand in his shoes.
He worked in the KATUSA (Korean Augmentation To the United States Army) so he came to Canada with no difficulties in understanding English. It’s hard to know by which route he came to Canada, but he made it to Toronto successfully. He was full of hope. First of all, he looked through the phone book and found many Korean names and was relieved. His first stop was to go downtown to a Chinese restaurant and satisfy his hunger and with $100 still left in his pocket he breathed a sigh of relief. Fortunately, he could spend US currency in Canada with no difficulty. He phoned people who he knew and initially he stayed with them and rested. This friend phoned several agencies and churches and got some advice about what to do next. However, in his case, he could not simply go to Canadian Immigration office to get a work permit. So for now, he could work for a Korean business owner. He was making minimum wage but he was at ease to be working for Korean people. When he found that he could go to a well stocked Korean grocery store and restaurant and live on a small income, his thoughts turned to his family in Korea, his wife and one year old daughter and he could not hold back the tears that welled up from his heart. He was fully committed, yet how to go on with an empty heart? The first month he worked to the point of exhaustion. He worked half days or all night, taking many types of jobs.
Recognizing that he had recently arrived, many people would give him suggestions about where to go for work but he could not immediately follow up on these leads or explain his situation so that left him heartbroken. Afterwards it was hard to face these people who had made efforts to help him. He left his friend’s house and moved into a rented room and bought a cooking pot and rice and started to cook for himself. However, he did not stay long because in this neighbourhood, he saw police coming and going and that made him nervous and unable to sleep. He returned to the house where he had first been taken in. He had to use his friend’s address to send his family money or to send and receive letters from his family. He was afraid to write freely to his wife. He once called his wife long distance so they could hear each other’s voices, but he could not do this again. Waiting for the day he can go to the airport with no fear and meet his wife and daughter, he is working hard and that is the decision he lives by. When will that be? How old his daughter will be then, who knows?
Now a year and a half later, he knows several people in Toronto, he knows his way around and he is now used to living a hidden life, but still when the bus gets to the last station or the street car empties, he feels like he has been stripped of all his clothing and that feeling has not gone away.
This year it is not that cold yet, so even working late into the night your heart feels less cold. Last year on a snowy night before Christmas, he was trudging through the snow on his way home when suddenly a police car stopped and opened the door to talk to him and he thought it was his last night.
The police officer asked, “Where do you live? If we’re going the same way, we’ll give you a ride.” It took only a few seconds to process the meaning of the words, but it felt like an hour. That moment of silence is unforgettable. His face was hardened and his lips unmoving, when he was asked a second time, he blurted, “No…” and the “thank you” rolled around in his mouth unspoken. He walked quickly, a meandering path, around a corner and then using all his strength he ran as fast as he could. He felt like they were coming after him. As he was running he looked back many times. He arrived home to see reflected in the window pane the face of a stranger he was seeing for the first time. His breathing was rapid, his forehead was sweaty and his pale face couldn’t form a cheerful smile. He will never forget the policeman’s face. He still feels like someone is coming after him. So even now when he takes a taxi, he gets off one block before his destination and walks the rest of the way. On the weekend or when it is busy, it is a pleasure to walk. He especially enjoys sitting in a packed theatre when they play 2 or 3 movies in a row; that is the best thing. For the first time, you feel all alone, but at ease and he can laugh and feel excited. One thing he misses is a place like a public bath (commonplace in Korea,) where he could easily go and soak in a hot bath whenever he wanted. Christmas comes again. Beautiful lights, festive music and when it is snowing he feels like going out into the street. Remembering a time walking hand in hand in Seoul streets, last Christmas he bought a toy elephant for his daughter. After he got home, he wrapped it up, but found it too difficult to send to her, so he gave it to the neighbour’s daughter. Whenever he sees toys in the store, he is reminded of that time and he smiles.
Fortunately, he hasn’t had a problem with his health except catching a cold or two, but in the future he feels a bit worried. Another difficulty was his experience working for Canadian people a few times; he had to argue with them over unpaid wages so he had to quit.
He cannot live with his friend indefinitely. His friend’s brother is coming from Korea. He was told he would be welcome to stay; but he really cannot stay there and he cannot rent a room again…
Mr Chung’s situation, is not unique. People in his situation need to be taken under wing until the right time comes…it is not necessary to talk about them or it may not be possible to talk about them; we need to understand them and offer our warm helping hands. Finally, the Canadian government knows this problem very well. The current position of the government is that it is a necessary evil; they cannot intervene. To enforce the law, the costs in time, money and police personnel are too high to locate and deport even one person and the following side effects would be too numerous.
If a snail is poked it hides very deep underground – unexpected crimes and tragedy may follow… waiting until it is safe to emerge.