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Center helps foreigners out of sticky situations

May 30,2018
After getting hit by a taxi in March, a 30-year-old Cambodian man living in Korea was able to find the driver who fled the scene and get his medical fees paid thanks to a new multilingual support center in South Chungcheong.

With a growing number of foreign residents in Korea, the government has expanded its network of support centers that provide translation and counseling services for residents navigating their new home. Since 2013, Korea has seen an upward trend of foreign residents, from 1.5 million to 2 million in 2016, according to the latest census released by Statistics Korea in 2017. The figure includes an estimate of undocumented immigrants.

Last May, the South Chungcheong Multilingual Support Center for Foreign Residents opened in Cheonan with 24 employees, mostly women who immigrated to Korea for a prearranged marriage and have attained a level of fluency in Korean. Since November, the center has received more than 20,786 calls and visitors.

One of them was the Cambodian man involved in a hit-and-run.

In mid-March, a taxi driver hit the man while he was walking out of a convenience store in Cheonan. As soon as the driver realized the man wasn’t Korean, he drove away without leaving any contact information, according to the center.

The next day, the man began feeling dizzy and started vomiting. He quickly sought help from the multilingual support center, where he met a Cambodian worker who adopted the Korean name Yoo Hyun-ah.

Yoo alerted police about the incident, and authorities were able to track down the driver who then provided the victim with compensation for medical fees. Yoo came to Korea through a prearranged marriage.

The center provides translation services in 15 different languages, with Cambodian, Vietnamese and Russian being the most popular. Most of the employees have over 10 years of prior work experience in state-backed or nongovernmental organizations.

“It usually takes more than an hour to help someone because we have to go through several different organizations,” said Yang Eng, a 39-year-old female employee in charge of assisting Chinese residents, “but I don’t feel any hardship knowing that I’m helping someone from my native country.”

In July, the center was able to help a 35-year-old Indonesian living in Cheonan avoid legal repercussions after he lent his alien registration card to a friend - who then used it to buy 18 cars under his name and illegally sold them without making any records.

According to authorities, the drivers who bought these vehicles broke about 65 traffic laws, including parking and speeding violations, accruing fines of 6 million won ($5,558). The Indonesian man who lent the card to his friend was arrested at customs when he flew back to Korea from a trip.

Through the center, he met an Indonesian translator who helped explain his situation to the authorities. A court found him not guilty.

The most common problem that many residents seek the center’s help for is their overdue wage. In February, they made up more than half of the calls to the center. Most foreign residents work at small and medium-sized companies that often skirt labor laws.

“We don’t want to stop at providing translation services,” said Hwang Se-kyung, head of the center’s operations team. “We are also pushing to expand our support system professionally by creating a committee that specifically handles problems related to customs.”

BY LAURA SONG, SHIN JIN-HO [song.hankyul@joongang.co.kr]