Counseling facility offers N.K. refugees a place free from judgment and prejudice
It is nearly 10 minutes until new-patient registration closes, but people continue to file into the counseling center.
The patrons, quiet and reserved at first, engage in small talk with their neighbors. Their faces, hardened moments before, light up the tiny medical office.
At first glance, they could be good friends keeping each other company. Yet only one thing links these people: their former life in North Korea.
Defectors, like many others living in South Korea, suffer from ailments, but, unlike most, they have difficulty conveying them to doctors. Their options are limited with only two medical counseling centers in the country: one in Seoul and the other in Daejeon.
Tucked inside the National Medical Center in Seoul, the North Korean Defector Medical Counseling Center has been host to over 4,000 patients since its opening in 2007.
“We have new and follow-up patients, and people who come in to talk to us about a wide range of issues outside of medical consultations,” said Im Hyang, a counselor at the center.
With 30 to 40 patients a day, the center keeps Im and assistant manager Kim Geum-hi on their feet.
“Even though patient registration ends at 4:30 p.m. we usually have admitted patients coming in for counseling afterwards and sometimes we don’t go home till well after 6,” said Im.
Run by The Organization for One Korea, a civic group in favor of unification, the center helps refugees communicate with hospital staff and understand the medical culture here.
Kim Geum-hi (left) and Im Hyang run the North Korean Defector Medical Counseling Center at the National Medical Center in Seoul. (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)
The center also gives them a place free from judgment and prejudice.
“There are a lot of people who come for consultations and while they are waiting they usually talk about their hometown and things they have been through without hesitation, developing a bond like relatives,” said Im, 38.
And Im, a defector herself, said it doesn’t matter if they do not know one another because, for those 10 minutes of waiting, they are family.
“It almost acts as a community center because people come in here and pour out their feelings that they could not do otherwise, which helps people here become more familiar with each other,” she said.
But one cannot help but wonder why North Korean refugees come from as far as Jeju Island and Busan to seek medical counseling in Seoul, simply for companionship.
One of the reasons might be because of the benefits they receive at NMC far exceed those of a private institution, or Chungnam National University Hospital, which houses the second defector counseling center.
According to Im, defectors enrolled in the “Medical Aid” public assistance program receive 80 percent off their co-payment for inpatient services, and 50 percent off for outpatient services at NMC. This was made possible through an agreement between NMC and TOOK led by Shin Mi-nyeu.
“Medical Aid” covers North Korean defectors for up to five years after graduating from their Hana Center resettlement facility.
Another reason why refugees from the North choose NMC is because of the staff.
“There is miscommunication and cultural differences in the medical care here,” said Im, who is currently studying social welfare at Seoul Cyber University.
According to Im, the center had South Korean counselors before, but that made the defectors apprehensive.
Im said that defectors were unwilling to share with the counselors, worried that they may be judged or ridiculed, which led to strong feelings of rejection.
“Sometimes they would come to the center, but leave without being able to tell anyone,” she said.
“But with us, they are able to say whatever they want, because we can understand each other, and we know what each other has been through.”
Defectors also have difficulty understanding medical procedures in the South.
Im said that in the North, doctors do most of their diagnoses through a drop of blood, and use more herbal remedies.
But here, defectors are wary of the amount of blood doctors draw, and the logistics of navigating a hospital.
Many defectors are struck by depression and loneliness which become root problems for other ailments.
According to Im, they defect into the South alone and have no one to lean on in tough times, often exacerbating illnesses and leading to excessive drinking.
Im and Kim, also a defector, do their best to put them back on their feet, but it isn’t always smooth sailing.
“In the beginning it was very difficult because we had very little knowhow but now counselor Kim and I are able to handle most situations,” said Im.
For Im, the process of becoming a medical counselor for defectors helped to calm the storm in her own life.
“Studying to become a counselor, listening to lectures at TOOK, and the high expectations of representative Shin, helped me deal with a lot of my own difficulties after defecting,” said Im, who graduated from the Hana Center in 2007.
Im and Kim feel good about what they have done.
“I don’t know how the day goes by and it can be difficult at times, but I enjoy it because it is worthwhile,” said Im.
Im hopes that one day defectors will be able to receive the same counseling and benefits wherever they go in Korea.
By Robert Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org