A passion for volunteering

A South Korean woman who resisted family opposition to become a volunteer in Myanmar says helping others makes her “feel alive”.


WHEN South Korean Ms Hyebin You decided to apply to become an overseas volunteer more than a year ago her mother was aghast at the idea.

“I will never sign this paper,” was her mother’s first reaction when You, 24, sought her written approval for volunteering with the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA).

You then came under pressure from her mother to visit a clairvoyant to predict her future.

“She wanted somebody to tell me that I should not go away from the family and from Korea,” You said.

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Despite opposition from her mother, You persisted with her application. Although she felt bad about disappointing her mother, You – who came to Myanmar in October 2017 soon after graduating from university – does not regret her decision.

It’s not the first time she has lived abroad. You left South Korea when she was 11 to attend middle and high school in Canada and later studied at university in Hong Kong.

Describing herself as a “free soul” who likes to travel, You said she applied to volunteer with KOICA to experience another country and to indulge a passion for volunteerism.

You has been volunteering since she was at school in Canada, where she gave her time to groups that helped the needy, including the children of minorities and immigrants. In Hong Kong, she volunteered with a group that helped the children of low-income families. A motivation for You is a desire to repay the help and support she received from others when she lived abroad.

“I always have this motto that wherever I go, I need to leave some kind of mark,” she told Frontier. “That mark has been volunteering; it’s something that I must do wherever I go.”

You, who graduated in international studies, joined the KOICA volunteer programme in the hope that it would enable her to fulfill a dream of a career in international relations, in which she has special interest.

“I was very firm that I wanted to do something related to international relations or volunteering,” she said, adding that she chose the KOICA programme because it combined both objectives.

KOICA, a government organisation under South Korea’s foreign ministry, focuses on providing Official Development Assistance to support economic and social development in developing nations.

As a volunteer in Myanmar, You is in charge of monitoring five villages for what’s known as the Saemaul Undong Project, a role that includes updating KOICA about development progress in each community.

She’s the only person from KOICA still working on a five-year rural development project in Mon State, and one of three volunteers overseeing Saemaul Undong across the country.

The project consists of three pillars – capacity building, the lived environment and income generation – and You helps to teach residents of participating villages about sustainable development planning and assists them through the process. The project has also resulted in new infrastructure, like roads, bridges, water tanks, libraries and clinics. You visits each village on a fortnightly basis to monitor their activities and progress, and attend planning meetings.

“[Saemaul Undong Project] is helping villagers to think about their needs and to take actions to fulfill their needs,” she said. “Supporting villages to work together and really help themselves… it’s like a start-up for them to continuously develop the village.”

You initially intended to spend a year volunteering in Myanmar, but decided in August 2018 to extend her stay with KOICA to October of this year.

“I just don’t want to leave when everything was not finished; I want to be really responsible for the villagers and for the project,” she said.

In the second year of her stay she gets to initiate her own mini-project and she plans to tackle water problems in the villages.

You said volunteering in Myanmar had contributed to her personal development, partly because it was satisfying to be helping people rather than receiving help from others, as had been the case when she lived in Canada and Hong Kong.

“I feel alive by contributing and being useful,” she said.

She said she enjoyed interacting with Myanmar people and trying to understand a different culture. “Just working together, and growing with them together,” she said.

Compared with her earlier volunteering roles, You said she felt a greater sense of responsibility over the project, which had changed how she defines her role as a volunteer.

Previously it was “somebody told me to do something”, she said. Now, it’s about “wanting to do more for whomever I’m serving”.

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