Graduated from Ewha Womans University in 1967, Kim Ki-hae is the head of House of Soosunhwa, a shelter for homeless women. However, Kim worked in a completely different sphere when she was young.
She used to work for Monsanto Company and Standard Chartered Bank after her graduation. Kim depicted what life of a businessmen in a foreign company was like during the 1970s.
“People in Korea still had to work on Saturdays, but foreign companies let workers rest during the weekends,” Kim said. “Multinational businesses strictly managed work and life balance, so I could return home before six.”
In 1997, however, Korea was devastated from the IMF financial crisis. People were unemployed and lost their homes, unable to pay rent. Kim described it was impossible to walk properly in Seoul and Yongsan station because so many displaced people were sleeping on the station floors.
One day, Kim received a call from a friend. Her friend was taking care of homeless women in Seoul, but as the number grew, she reached out to Kim if she could lend a hand. Kim quit her job and accepted her friend’s request without hesitation.
Kim dated back to when she was in middle school as she explained why she was desperate to help the homeless.
“Back in my days, there was a fancy costume parade that churches open to young kids,” Kim explained.
In the parade, the kids bought costumes to dress up like a princess, Miss Korea, or a Cleopatra. But Kim was different. She prepared ragged cloths, a basket, and a tong to pick up wastes. Kim tried to look like a displaced person among fancy dressed kids.
She also recollected a story of teaching Korean to the homeless when she was 19. Kim believed her childhood experiences led to affection toward the homeless.
“My friend and I got a 90-millionwon bank loan, and we rented a house to accommodate homeless women,” Kim said.
Unfortunately, there was more than monetary difficulty. Official shelters had to be operated by social workers. Kim went to graduate school when she was 52 and obtained a first grade social worker certificate.
“I applied for governmental approval after that, but I was considered unqualified because I did not have a job,” Kim said. “In 2003, however, I was unexpectedly awarded Korea’s Leading Women Award from YWCA. That gave me credibility and our house officially became a shelter.”
Although Kim thought there was nothing that could stop her, an amendment banned the usage of rent houses as shelters in 2005. Kim and her friend inevitably got more bank loans and bought a new house. This became today’s House of Soosunhwa.
On top of the loans, the House was excluded from government subsidies because it was managed personally, not by a corporate. Kim’s reputation as a YWCA awardee provided donations to pay the loans and shelter managing fees. But 15 years passed and Kim’s situation changed.
“15 years were enough for my story to be forgotten. I am 75 years old now, and my body gets tired after simple labor,” Kim said. “My friends started to pass away. My kids became too busy to spare time for me. The House barely gets donations.”
Kim sometimes feels there is no space left for her in this world, but she recalls she has families waiting for her at the House of Soosunhwa.
“I am happy that there are people who still need my talent even today,” Kim concluded. “Although I am 75 years old, I still aim to become a gift that brings joy in people’s lives.”
The House of Soosunhwa (수선화의 집) is located at 62-1, Mokdongjungangnamro 16na-gil, Yangcheon-gu, Seoul. If you wish to support the House of Soosunhwa, you could make a donation to Shinhan Bank, 100-026-948832