SEUNG YOUNG JUNG (52) grew up in Seoul, South Korea, one of five children of a construction labourer. His extended family supported his education, and he went on to win a university scholarship to study machine design. After graduation, Seung worked as a construction project manager for Standard Chartered Bank for years, but always longed to care for vulnerable children. In 2007, he moved to Cape Town, South Africa, with his two children, leaving his wife, Joy, working in Seoul as a banker to fund the family and Seung’s work. In 2012, Seung established The Children’s Library for underprivileged children in Philippi township. Here he talks to JEAN ALFELD about his vision…
Fuelled by a persistent vision, Seung Young Jung gave up his comfortable Korean life to care for vulnerable Cape Town children | Photo: Tonya Hester
‘During my time in the corporate world, I had a good life. I was able to build a four-storey house for my extended family and send my children to good schools. However, my childhood dream had always been to work with vulnerable children, and after I’d been earning good money for years, it was time to start giving back. I also wanted to journey spiritually and study theology. I chose to come to South Africa because it’s English-speaking, has good schools and institutions for further study, and is so beautiful. My vision was clear, so despite concerns about security over here, I was more determined than afraid when I left Joy behind in South Korea and moved over with our children.
When we arrived in Cape Town, I registered my son Joseph, who was 14 at the time, at Abbotts College and my daughter, Pearl, at Greenfields Girls’ Primary, both in Claremont. My English was a challenge, but they adapted pretty easily to English, schoolwork and their social lives, though going through puberty without their mother’s guidance and support was a struggle! Joseph went on to study philosophy, politics and economics at the University of Cape Town (UCT) before returning recently to South Korea for compulsory military service. Pearl went through Rustenburg Girls’ High, then on to UCT to study the cello.
The biggest difference between Cape Town and Seoul is the environment: Seoul is stressful and polluted, Cape Town is relaxed and clean! I bought a town house in Kenilworth for us with a beautiful private garden and registered at Cornerstone College to study Christian ministry. With other missionaries, I visited several informal settlements and was deeply touched by the extreme poverty I witnessed. I was particularly drawn to a community called Jim se Bos on the outskirts of Philippi, which houses the poorest of the poor. Jim se Bos consists of about 400 shacks and is home to approximately 3000 people. It is built on private land so the city can’t provide services, though it’s installed a few taps, toilets and a dumpster just outside the area.
The level of hygiene is shocking and there are great environmental hazards. A few of the adults work on nearby farms or as construction workers, but most are unemployed and uneducated. The levels of alcoholism, addiction, abuse and crime are very high. When I first went to Jim se Bos, my heart broke for the malnourished and vulnerable children living there. Some don’t even go to school.
Two years ago, one of the little boys was electrocuted while playing in a puddle. This drove me to set up somewhere to keep the children in a safe, happy place while receiving basic education. In 2012, my work began in earnest. I installed a number of wendy houses on top of a disused dump in Jim se Bos, and started on The Children’s Library. I gradually introduced tables, chairs and shelves to create a library and homework room for the kids. Thus, my first project took off!
New horizons opening at The Children’s Library
We run morning and afternoon sessions. In the morning I give the little children sandwiches and fruit. Together with my co-librarians Daphne and Elaine, who come from the Jim se Bos community, I usually pray with the children, read them bible stories and show them the love of Jesus. I just try to shine his light in this terrible place. The afternoon is mainly for schoolchildren who come to read books, and we help them with homework where needed and have just started a maths club. I try to feed these children as well, but financial constraints don’t allow for it every day. I believe that the only way these children can escape this poverty trap is through education. I’m determined to get them enrolled in local preschools, connected with other institutions and going on outings to be introduced to a different way of life. As a boy, I had Sunday school teachers who loved and believed in me, and this is what I’m trying to do for these children.
Last year, a boy called Poodle (named after the cute type of dog) was killed by a careless driver. I got a late-night call from our caretaker and found Poodle lying on the road with his head full of blood. I cried and cried, and asked God why these things happen to these vulnerable children. The next day, I started building a garden and playground in front of the library to keep the children off the streets. This was project number two. I recently bought up some shacks, demolished them and created a bigger play area.
I also planted many trees, but some have been stolen! I’ve also had my car stolen, the library has been robbed and the garden gets damaged and littered. It’s especially depressing and isolating when this is done by people I’ve helped. Sometimes I feel such despair, I just lie on my bed overwhelmed and struggling to understand and perceive God’s guidance. But then He pulls me forward and I feel His presence within me. Each time I see the children or work with people in the community, building or cleaning, God gives me joy, and I feel a strong bond with these people, and a happiness that God’s with us as a community. And I’m a really happy old man when enjoying an after-work glass of beer with the adults! I believe God is with this community, crying at their utter despair, and that He’s given me the privilege of embracing these people. When things go wrong, I don’t believe it means He doesn’t care. Rather, it leads me to discover new opportunities.
I sing in two choirs, including the Cape Town Philharmonic Choir and my church choir, and it leaves me feeling purified and transported into another realm. It’s a time to free myself, and keeps me connected with the strength of God’s joy.
Seung takes inspiration from the dandelion: ‘It survives the toughest winters’
Until recently my projects were self-funded through my savings and my wife Joy’s salary. When my son went to UCT, I sold the Kenilworth house and downsized to live near Jim se Bos so I could use the money for the project. It was tough for my children to live in this isolated farming area with a father who didn’t always have the energy to care for his own children, and I feel guilty about that still. But, thanks to God, they now understand, and support and pray for me and the library, while Joy prays for me back in Korea. We are so hoping she’ll be able to move over here one day.
I needed to raise funds, so I set up a charity shop in Wynberg where we sell donated items. Some people also donate money to the project and I sincerely wish to thank all the donors. Friends at Christ Church, Kenilworth, are also praying for me and helping me with more plans such as a new library in a container.
My email address is ‘dandelion63’ because in South Korea the dandelion is a symbol of perseverance which survives through the toughest winters. Sometimes I feel I’m too meek and mild and lacking in self-esteem, but in my work I feel I’ve become strong like the dandelion because I believe I’m doing what God wants me to do, and I’m not afraid to speak out when needed.
My father named me Seung Young, which means ‘measuring bucket’, a very useful thing. I believe I must be useful in this world. God put me here to bring hope and change, so this is what I strive to do every day.’
Recently, children in the community unofficially changed the name of Jim se Bos to Jung se Bos in honour of Seung
Contact Seung on firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to offer any help to The Children’s Library in the form of assistance, children’s books or a donation. Seung’s Hope Link charity shop can be found at the corner of Mosque and Broad Roads, Wynberg, Cape Town