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Hangeul heroes in Paris

Posted October. 13, 2017 07:36,   

Updated October. 13, 2017 09:21


A banner that read “Congratulations on the Opening of the Hangeul House” was seen hanging in a classroom on the first floor of a school building in the outskirts of Paris at 2 p.m. on Hangeul Day (also known as Korean Language Day) that falls on October 9. For the first time, Hangeul School found a home of its own, settling down in four classrooms 43 years after the first Hangeul School opened in Paris in 1974.

Lee Cheol-jong (85), honorary president of the Promotion Committee for Building Hangeul House in Paris, founded the committee in 1999 and began fundraising. It took 18 years to raise 380,000 euros (approximately 500 million won) to own its first classroom. As Lee puts it, it took precious money donated by 1,400 Koreans overseas. Students attending Hangeul School also donated prize money won at Korean speech or writing contests.

Lee, who initially refused to be seated at the VIP section at the opening ceremony, accepted the moderator’s invitation to stand on stage. His voice shook with emotion as he spoke.

“I have been to Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, the highest mountain in France, and other high peaks in south. But looking down from high above, I could feel no pleasure at all, thinking that there was no place in this vast land to teach Korean to our children. But finally we have classrooms where we can teach. I feel overwhelmed with happiness.”

Lee may never forget the year of 1943, when he was in third grade. When the second semester started, his Japanese teacher forbade him to speak in Korean at school. He was constantly punished for speaking Korean by holding his hands up or going down on his knees. The memories of not being able to speak his language in his own country became an unforgettable and sad memory for him.

He was only able to make it through elementary school. He could no longer attend school when his father passed away after Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule, becoming responsible to look after his four brothers. He acquired a chef license, went to Paris in 1976 to work as a Korean food chef and afterwards became an owner of a Korean restaurant.

Some 60 percent of students at Hangeul School come from multicultural families, children from international marriages between French and Korean couples. Without Hangeul School, there would be no opportunity for these children to learn Korean. For 43 years since foundation, a large number of Hangeul heroes have taught children, made donations and ran odd jobs under the mission to teach Hangeul to second-generation Koreans.

Choi Yoon-kyu, chairman of the Hangeul School Foundation Board, who jointly led fund raising activities with Lee, pointed to a group of small and battered chairs and shed tears, saying, “These were brought from French schools as we had no money to buy new chairs, but I am so moved that we finally have our own classrooms to place these chairs.”

Until now, Hangeul School was run on Wednesday afternoons, convincing French schools, which open until noon on Wednesdays, to lend their classrooms. But such a “rented life” is always tough. The Hangeul School had to move more than 10 times, and had to buy liability insurance because French schools blamed Hangeul School students whenever school equipment was damaged.

But now their efforts are finally paying off. Hangeul School has expanded to a large curriculum covering grade 1 to high school seniors, attended by 250 students. Last year, Korean was chosen among foreign languages for the Baccalaureat ― an academic qualification test that French high school students must pass to graduate and enter university, and a growing number of French students are learning Korean. The Korean government promotes this as their achievement, but namely it is the outcome of Hangeul School students demanding Korean language lessons at the French schools they attend, as well as the teachers at Hangeul School.

Aside from the head of the Education Institute in France under the Education Ministry, there was no senior government official attending the ceremony on that day. The Hangeul School Foundation sent an invitation to the Korean Embassy in France, but was declined on grounds that the event was held on a holiday, a reaction that was definitely unanticipated when the day was first designated as a holiday. But then again, it doesn’t really come as a surprise, considering that there was merely one politician/government official among the 1,400 fund donators.