Story by: Jenny Na, Photos by:
It’s your turn to make a difference
If you arrived in Korea more than 10 years ago, you wouldn’t have found many groups offering opportunities for involvement that catered to foreign residents. Even further back, before social media existed, the only way to connect was at the local pub. But the landscape of the expat community has evolved quickly, shaped by a dynamic group of people guided by their interests, identities and a drive for something more.
Some had a vision for a different kind of world than the one they saw, like Mahbub Alam, who as a migrant worker was part of a growing but largely invisible population. He started the Migrant Workers’ Film Festival to give his community a voice. Udaya Rai, the Migrants’ Trade Union president, and Yiombi Thona, an author, professor and human rights activist, were motivated by injustices against their communities. Daniel Payne and Kim Thompson sought to create safe spaces for sexual minorities who aren’t free to be themselves in society.
Others discovered a desire to make a difference for someone else. When Shannon Heit went to a protest for comfort women, she was “so struck by the women’s perseverance and fight for justice that I felt compelled to get involved.” She is now one of the most visible volunteers in the adoptee community.
That’s not to say you need such a serious cause to get active in your community. Brian Aylward, Jeff Sinclair and Rudy Tyburczy give audiences a reason to laugh and blow off steam each month with the event they founded and maintain, Stand Up Seoul. Others like Robert Gibson and Declan Griffin help run sports leagues that have welcomed dozens, proving there’s more than one way to make a difference. Anna Desmarais, the owner of mixed martial arts gym Body & Seoul, says she wanted to “give others the opportunity to train or otherwise work out in a nontraditional way.” Bryan Hylenski founded KOTRi (Korea on the Rocks Initiative) to ensure the climbing routes he loved to explore would still be available to those who followed in his tracks.
None of this is easy, and anyone who has tried to shake things up or make space for a community knows there are challenges along the way. One of the biggest is finding volunteers willing to give their time and energy. As Gibson says, “Without the volunteers, we wouldn’t function.”
These pages highlight the contributions of just some of the many expats who have helped shape their communities over the years. They are people who have helped direct our energies, created new spaces and inspired us to do things that matter to us. They’ve discovered that living abroad can give you the freedom to reinvent yourself, and that the only way you can shape your community is by becoming a part of it.