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The Angels of Sorok Island

Posted December. 29, 2005 03:01,   


I made my way to Innsbruck, Austria last week to visit two sisters who used to work on the Korean island of Sorok. One of them, Sister Marian, now lives in the small Austrian village known as Matrei, which is 20 minutes away from Innsbruck by train.

Armed only with an address, I tried to find her house, asking for directions along the way. Fortunately, we arrived at Marian’s home and she was there.

We brought letters from Sorok Island residents, who are patients who are suffering from Hansen’s disease and leprosy, from Korea to her. The letters say such things as: “Grandmas, thanks a lot,” and, “We are really thankful for the both of you, who devoted your beautiful and young spirits the people of Sorok Island.”

After reading a handful of letters, she said, “I still dream about Sorok Island.” The sisters remembered the tears they shed on the day when they left Sorok Island and its indigo-blue waves. For them, Sorok Island embodies their young spirit and the place where they lived for 40 years since they were in their 20s. It is their “spiritual home” because of how long they lived there.

Austria is now a strange place for them. “Thanks to my sisters, I am adjusting to life in Austria,” says Marian. She has an Austrian residence registration certificate and started making friends, visiting neighbors, and making contacts.

But she still dines on traditional Korean food.

Her room, which is more than three pyeong, was filled with a variety of small ornaments from Korea. There was a phrase written in Korean that read: “Be a good and modest person,” attached to her door. “The phrase applies to myself,” she said.

Her life has never strayed from this phrase. In 1962, she went to Sorok Island. At that time, she wasn`t determined to spend her life serving patients on Sorok Island yet. But she couldn’t leave.

“When I first arrived, there were 6,000 patients, including 200 children. There was no medicine and no people to care for them. This dire situation reminded me that I should devote myself to treating everyone through all my life.

The sisters treated their patients with zeal and devotion. When they lacked medicine, they asked friends for help in Austria. They received medicine from Austria, Germany and Switzerland, and they got powdered milk and medicine for children who were suffering from malnutrition.

Children were constantly being born on Sorok Island. To cope, the two sisters opened a day care center for children who couldn’t live with their parents because their parents had Hansen’s Disease. Because they lived in poverty, they even had to make children’s clothes. When the children turned six-years-old, they were sent to other day care centers inland if they had no symptoms of Hansen’s disease.

”Sending children inland made us very happy,” she said. “Sending patients who were completely cured back to the mainland pleased us, too. No one ever visited Sorok Island while we were there, but we never were sorry about that. It’s okay if they enjoy a happy life.”

Dong-Keun Keum Seung-Ho Jung gold@donga.com shjung@donga.com