Photo: Superintendent Roh Ok-hee accompanies Afghan children on their first day to school. Credit: Facebook page of Roh Ok-hee.
When Kabul fell to the Taliban, South Korea airlifted 79 Afghan families who were working for the Korean embassy and other facilities as “people of special merit” 특별공로자. (See previous coverage, “Operation Miracle.”) In early February, 29 of those families - or 157 individuals - relocated to the industrial city of Ulsan 울산 in the southeast, having secured jobs at a supplier for Hyundai Heavy Industries 현대중공업.
Sixty-four of the Afghans who moved to Ulsan were school aged children who were assigned to public schools of the area. Racist reaction flared immediately: the parents of children attending schools to which the Afghan children were likely to be assigned formed a picket line. Fearing a backlash, Ulsan’s Dong-gu district 울산 동구 had to cancel the welcoming ceremony for the Afghan families.
Not everyone in Ulsan was xenophobic. Fifty-three civic groups based in Ulsan issued a statement supporting the people of special merit. Superintendent Roh Ok-hee of the Ulsan Metropolitan Office of Education 노옥희 울산광역시 교육감 noted that many people volunteered to help the students adjust into the Korean curriculum.
After a fierce negotiation, the Afghan children had their first day in school on March 21, a month and a half after they moved to their new homes. Roh accompanied the children on their first walk to the school; the Afghan children each carried bags filled with candies and small presents for their new classmates.