Aventures missionaire

Housing street children

Publié le 12/04/2024

Father Philippe Blot, MEP, who has been a missionary in Korea for thirty-five years, has created homes for disadvantaged children and orphans. Interview.
Le Père Philippe Blot avec les jeunes du foyer.

Le Père Philippe Blot avec les jeunes du foyer.

Le Petit Échotier – Local News Reporter. When and how did you come to South Korea?

I was ordained a missionary priest in June 1990 and arrived in Korea at the end of October 1990. It’s not a country that I chose, but one where I was sent, as part of the mission that I was given by my superior. I started by learning the Korean language, Chinese writing, then the culture, over a period of two and a half years. After these studies, I spent eight months on Ganghwa-do island, in a fishing village, to continue learning Korean. Next, the bishop of Andong diocese sent me to a parish where I spent two wonderful years. I didn’t have any specific missionary project, but I was there to do whatever the bishop wanted from me at that time.


How did you come to take particular care of children?

One day, I saw that some young people were waiting at the door of the parish and I thought this wasstrange. This parish had the special feature of having a restaurant, where meals were served for the elderlyevery lunchtime by volunteers. Every day, together with the priest, we went to greet these people (around seventy in total). One day, with them, I saw these young people again. So I went to see them, they were sitting among the elderly people and eating. I asked them: ‘What are you doing here? Why aren’t you at school?’ They told me some fibs, saying that there is no class. They were young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who were truanting from school and living on the streets. I told them, ‘Tonight, if there’s a problem, come back. Every Saturday afternoon, we have Mass with young people and we play a game of football right after. So if you like football, come on Saturday too.’ That same evening, next to the main door of the parish, the five children were waiting for me. I went to speak to them, they told me they didn’t know where they could sleep. So we invited them to the presbytery, we asked them a few questions. They smelled quite bad and also smelled strongly of glue. There was no question of letting them return to the streets. So we housed them in a catechism room and, the next day, we took them to the Korean baths. We clothed them and had a one-on-one interview with each one. We then realized that most of them did not live with their parents, but were living on the streets, in the markets, and other places. Finally, having realised that there were other young people in that situation, we ended up opening the ‘House of Five Children’, which was officially blessed by the bishop, who said to me: ‘You need to open a home for them and for others like them’. It was the beginning of a great adventure. The idea of the Home was that young people should stay there temporarily. The first thing we had to do was to make sure they didn’t get addicted to strong glue, which is a real drug. Often, they would get up even during the night to get high. Why were they sniffing glue? Firstly, as a protection against the cold, against hunger – if they sniffed glue, they no longer felt the cramps in their stomachs – but also to forget their loneliness. So they would stay for a few months at the House of Five Children, which was able to operate for two years. I was then appointed priest in a parish where I spent three years, at the end of which the bishop entrusted me with the Maison Saint-François, for young people in difficulties in the countryside, in the diocese of Andong. I told the bishop: ‘I completely accept this mission, but I no longer want to do this alone’. I realised, when living with the children, that a maternal presence was missing.  The bishop then found three nuns with whom I worked at Maison Saint-François. The young people that we looked after did not go to school, they lived like homeless people, were beaten by their parents or by other adults in the village. At that time, we were also getting phone calls from the mayors of surrounding villages, asking us to take in young girls who also had major problems and were living on the streets. So for them we opened the Maison Sainte-Claire. I stayed at Maison Saint-François for three or four years, before being sent to the diocese of Suwon, where I was asked to open a home to accommodate young squatters. Aged between 16 and 25, these young people lived together in old apartments, took on various little jobs, stole and did drugs.  For them we opened the Maison Saint-Jean in 1999. Following a change in the law, we were no longer permitted to care for young people over the age of 19. They had to gain their independence; the government no longer wanted to be responsible for them, it even banned us from looking after them. As a result, over time, the residents in the Home underwent a change; we accommodated young people between 5 and 19 years old who then had to leave the nest and live independently. It was a difficult time because we had to find places where young people over the age of 19 could be looked after. I also had to get an educator’s certificate so I went to university to obtain a diploma to be an ‘orphanage director’. Then, over time, while I was doing this on my own, the government told me that I needed specialized educators.

How do your homes operate?

We have three homes: Maison Saint-Jean, Maison Saint-Jacques and Maison Saint-Pierre. I didn’t want a big orphanage; I wanted small organisations. Children hold so many difficulties and so much suffering within themselves that individual support and therapy are essential. No more than seven under one roof. At first we only had one educator, then two, and now there are three. Which results in small, somewhat family-like structures, with seven children and three educators in each house. Twenty-one children in total. Since I’m not immortal, I think about the future. So, gradually, I have withdrawn from my position as manager for each home. They now each operate with a manager. As for me, I am a bit like the spiritual ‘grandfather’, the ‘founder’. My goal is for it to continue working well. Even though it is the educators who provide the first tier of education, I try to provide some training, too. We have one meeting per month. And then I often visit the three homes. And I keep my eyes open.


In these homes there are some North Korean children. How did they get there?

In our diocese there is a centre for refugees in Hanawon, which is meant for North Koreans who make their way to the South. When they arrive, via Thailand, Mongolia or Vietnam, they go through an initial vetting in Incheon, where they are interviewed, investigated and questioned to find out if they are spies. Once they have passed the initial vetting, they are sent for some months to the centre in Hanawon, where I go once a month, particularly to the centre for women and children – the men go to Ganghwa-do and are separated from the women. I was invited to go there for the first time by a priest, in order to meet North Korean refugees and to celebrate Mass with them – even if there were no Catholics, they would come anyway to pray – and then to eat with them. As a result of this contact, I asked the bishop if we could accommodate North Korean boys and, as a result, our three homes are also open to North Korean refugees aged 5 to 19.


These are children who have lost their families?

It’s a bit of everything. Some of them arrive with an elder brother or an uncle, others with their parents. But some of the parents have major psychological problems. And then they have to work to survive and they do not have much time to look after their children. In such cases, they put them in the home. When I go to the centre in Hanawon, often there are mothers that come to see me as they know I have children’s homes. The refugees stay about three to six months in Hanawon and, once they get out, they’re kind of left to their own devices and they have to find work. Some North Koreans give us their children to look after and then pick them up later. Some children stay with us a long time, sometimes for more than ten years; others only stay for three or four years. When the North Koreans start working, if at the end of two or three years they have been able to put aside enough money, they can look after their children again. We have also seen situations where North Koreans who already have children get married to South Koreans. Some husbands will absolutely not accept a son who is not theirs. That’s another reason why I have taken in some of those children.


How well do the North Korean children integrate into the group?

In our homes, that works very well. They are all young people from broken families. Whether they are North or South Korean, what they have in common is that they can’t live with their parents. The little ones, between 5 and 8 years old, don’t ask many questions. For them, the most important thing is to find a friend who is more or less the same age as them. Initially, North Korean children have a vocabulary that is a bit different. It’s old Korean, a bit like Canadians when they speak to people from France and they use words that are a bit outdated. And they also have a specific accent. But young people are very adaptable and they quickly drop this accent as they spend time with South Koreans. In our homes, there is no problems with adjustment. We don’t make any distinctions and that’s how you get to understand that it is just one country, it’s exactly the same people.

There is more of a problem at school. All the children in our homes go to the local school. They go there in the morning and return in the afternoon, just like their friends. But the North Korean children do not always understand what the teacher is saying. The teacher is in the know, but then in the end the friends finish up finding out. Once they say where they are from, unfortunately there is some finger-pointing and then integration can be difficult.


Has the profile of your residents changed over all these years?

We are now having completely new cases coming to us. Generally, young people stay with us between five and ten years. But there are more and more cases of young people who are victims of violence, most often from their parents. It is so urgent to place them that the city very quickly removes them from their families and asks us to house them. We currently have five children like this. They only stay for a few weeks or a few days. They are very traumatized. Of course, from our side we welcome them with the same open heart, but we find it very difficult to make contact with them. They lock themselves in their rooms, they don’t even want to see the other residents. They have difficulty taking part in our communal life, in returning to being a family. They are afraid of adults, especially men and educators.


Information collected by Marie-Alix de Castelbajac,
with the kind permission of Le Petit Échotier