The war in Syria continues to send tens of thousands of refugees into Europe.
But some who have escaped the fighting at home have made it all the way to South Korea.
Reporter Jason Strother introduces us to one young Syrian man who now calls the country home – though he’s not sure for how much longer.
Jason has more from Jeju Island, an hour flight away, south of Seoul.
Jeju Island is best known as a honeymoon get away for South Koreans.
It’s covered in black, volcanic rocks that jut out of the sea.
About 600-thousand Koreans call the island home and now that also includes one man from Syria. His name is Ahmed Lababidi.
It’s a typically windy day here, so we go into a nearby café to have a chat.
Lababidi is 22 years old. He wears glasses, is clean shaven and is growing his dark hair long.
As the war back home engulfed his hometown, Aleppo, in 2012, his family escaped to Turkey.
By the end of that year, he and his brother both obtained 3-month business visas for South Korea – they said they were going to buy cars.
Labadidi says he expected he’d live in the capital, Seoul, but he changed his mind during a trip to Jeju.
“I visit Seoul many times, but whenever I go I get sick, I get stressed, tired, so I just want to back.”
After a few months living on the island, he went to immigration and applied for refugee status. But officials there told him that fleeing war is not grounds for asylum – only escaping persecution is.
Lababidi repeats the conversation he had with the immigration agent to me.
“I said of course the government wants me. How do you know that? Gives us proof and then we will give you refugee. I said how can I prove that? I had some activities on Facebook, anti-government, they know my name.”
Instead they issued him a humanitarian visa, which allows him to stay in Korea, but as he explains, it’s a lot different than refugee status.
“No healthcare, no housing, no salary. They just say you are not a refugee, we are just giving you this humanitarian status.”
Immigration won’t say for how long or for how many times he can re-apply for this visa.
Lababidi is not alone. By the end of last year, around 850 other Syrians have applied for refugee status in South Korea and only 3 have been granted it.
I spoke with an official at immigration who says all applicants are treated fairly.
While South Korea has a very generous resettlement program for North Korean refugees, some human rights advocates say there’s a negative bias toward other types of refugees.
The call to prayer rings out from Seoul’s central mosque, the largest Islamic house of worship in the country.
Chung Shin-Young, an immigration lawyer, says Muslim asylum seekers are generally treated with suspicion in South Korea.
“If you see Korea, it’s a very homogenous society, it’s really hard to accept diversity. When it comes to other people, other nationalities, they come to Korea for seeking asylum, we don’t feel, they feel different feelings, cause they have different skin colors, different cultures.”
Chung Shin-Young continues, “So I think that’s the most important reason we don’t accept these different people.”
Like in Europe or North America, some South Korean politicians, media and law enforcement try to make the link between Syrian refugees and terrorism, Shin-Yung says.
She gives me an example of what police reportedly told Muslim migrants in one city here.
“These police approach Muslims and ask them to shave their beard, you look like terrorists, you should shave your beard, that’s what they say. And they go to Muslim’s Mosque just to search anyone who looks like terrorist,” according to Shin-Yung.
For Ahmed Lababidi, life on Jeju Island has been pretty good and he’s made a lot of friends through his job waiting tables at a local Indian restaurant.
But he says police did question him and all the other Syrians in Korea following the terrorist attacks in Paris last year.
“I feel bad, why they come to me, they think I am terrorist. I understand later, they have to, they don’t know me.”
Lababidi says he hopes South Korean immigration will reconsider his refugee application.
Another option is that if his parents, who are still in Turkey, get refugee status in Europe, he might go there.
But he says he prefers to bring his family to Jeju Island.
“It will be better they can come here to visit Jeju. Wherever I go on Jeju, I think about them. They cannot see these kind of places, they cannot feel this kind of life here, so maybe.”
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