Kopino Children Association Director and Founder Son Bum-sik, center, shares a light moment with Dawn Dela Dia, left, and teacher Ella Medado.
/ Korea Times Photo by Jonathan Hicap
By Jonathan M. Hicap
Korea Times Correspondent
MANILA ― In an apartment in a poor community in Culiat, Quezon City, north of Manila, the endless laughter of 11 children fills the driveway. But beyond their loud chatter and playful stance, these kids are struggling to find their true identity and future in a country mired in poverty.
The two rooms in the apartment's Unit 6 provide shelter to these deprived Filipino children―unrelated by blood but bound by a painful and haunting past: they were abandoned by their Korean fathers.
They are called Kopinos, a term that refers to children born to Korean fathers and Filipino mothers. Their number in the Philippines has increased as the number of Korean tourists visiting the Southeast Asian country has grown in the last two decades.
One of the 11 children is 15-year-old Dawn Dela Dia, who never met her father and was abandoned by him even before she was born.
Since 2007, Dawn has been living at the shelter run by the Kopino Children Association (KCA), a recognized non-government organization established in 2006 by spouses Son Bum-sik, a Korean, and Normi Son, a Filipino.
Dawn said her only memory of her dad was his picture, which was kept secretly by her mom.
The issue of Kopinos has become a social problem in the Philippines and viewed as a disgrace in South Korea. According to Son, there are more than 10,000 Kopinos in the Philippines, although there is no official data on their exact number.
Kopinos are the product of the multibillion tourism industry in the Philippines. Foreign visitors prop up the Philippine economy through the spending much-needed dollars.
However, tourism gave birth to the sex tourism industry in the Philippines, where thousands of Filipino women work as guest relations officers, bar girls and prostitutes despite the fact prostitution is illegal in the predominantly Christian country.
This has taken its toll on the welfare of Filipino women, and resulted in an increase in the number of illegitimate Filipino children born to foreigners.
For decades, the presence of U.S. military bases in Zambales and Pampanga provinces in the northern Philippines fueled red-light districts in Angeles City, Olongapo and nearby areas.
When the U.S. bases moved out in 1992, more than 50,000 `Amerasian' children―those born to American fathers and Filipino mothers―were left behind.
In addition, there is also a group of children called Japinos, who were born to Filipino and Japanese parents.
The rise in the number of Kopinos is attributed to the upsurge in the number of Koreans visiting the Philippines. Koreans are now the No. 1 tourist group in the country. In 2008, more than 611,000 Koreans visited the country. In addition, there are 115,400 Koreans who are currently living in the Philippines.
This phenomenon is attributed to South Korea's rise as a developed nation. Koreans can now afford to travel and even study in different countries. The Philippines is a favorite destination because of the low cost of living, tropical weather and schools offering English education to Koreans.
The present migration of Koreans to the Philippines is being driven by Korea's increasing prosperity, wrote Virginia Miralao in a study exploring transnational communities in the Philippines, which dealt in part with the Korean diaspora in the country.
Son said the rise in the number of fatherless Kopinos was a product of the mindset of Koreans who were visiting the Philippines to enjoy life but not to get married to Filipino women. Enjoying life, of course, means hitting strip bars, paying for sex and getting temporary Filipina girlfriends.
They never think of marrying Filipino women and just enjoy their lives here, she said.
But, for some Filipino women, they consider relationships with foreigners as their ticket out of poverty. Unfortunately, this often turns out to be wishful thinking as Korean men quickly abandon the women after a night of sex or when they learn they are pregnant.
Son explained that the Korean cultural history of disapproving of mixed marriages has been a factor in the abandoning of Filipino children.
"In the past, mixed marriage was prohibited. That's why I understand the behavior of the Korean men," he said.
Most fathers of Kopinos are tourists, students and businessmen who visited the Philippines for a short time and then went back to their home country.
About 85 to 90 percent of the mothers of Kopino children work as bar girls or in brothels frequented by foreigners.
Son said he and his wife established the KCA to improve the lives of Kopino children.
They want to give them the opportunity to study, he said.
Son first visited the Philippines in 1992 for a vacation. He was a member of Stump Mission, a missionary group in the Philippines.
He met his wife, Normi, through the mission center. His wife is the founder of the Montessori Teacher Preparation (MTP) program in the Philippines.
Son said he felt the need to help Kopino children since their child is also half-Korean, half-Filipino and he wanted to erase discrimination against these children.
"It is my responsibility to my wife and my child. I want to give the Kopinos the opportunity," he said.
Most Kopino children come from poor families that can't afford to send them to school.
The KCA was established in Quezon City in 2006. Across from the shelter is the Seedschild School, which was also established by the Sons, where the Kopino children involved with the association study.
The school offers preschool and elementary education to Kopino children, alongside other children in the community as well.
According to Ella Medado, a teacher there, the school now has 24 elementary students, including 10 Kopinos, and 35 preschool students.
Jason Sarcon, a 16-year-old Kopino, is a Grade 6 student at the school. He said that at an early age, he stopped going to school because of poverty. He arrived at the shelter in May this year.
He said he met his Korean father when he was four years old and recalled that he was in the garments business. He said his mother no longer wants him but still hopes to receive money for child support.
Son said they took it upon themselves to take care of the children rather than give money to their mothers, to ensure that the kids get a proper education.
"If we give them money directly, they will use it in different ways. Probably, they will not use the money for the education of the children," he said.
The 11 youngsters live at the shelter while their mothers live at home. Every Saturday, the mothers visit the shelter.
The children not only receive a basic education but learn all about Korea as well.
"We have a Saturday school where we teach them the Korean language and culture," Son said. "The mothers are also taught how to write in Hangeul."
The Sons take care of the children's expenses with the help of donors and their Korean friends, without assistance from the Philippine and Korean governments.
While they want to take in more Kopino children, Son says the facilities are not large enough to accommodate them.
"We need a bigger space, more volunteers and more workers. The facility should be big enough."
To help the mothers of the Kopino children, Son said they are planning to start a livelihood project.
"We want to teach them (the mothers) how to catch fish to teach the mothers how to have their own source of income."
In addition, he said they will start a canteen where they will sell Korean food at a lower price compared to restaurants.
For the Kopino children, the possibility of acquiring Korean citizenship cannot happen unless their parents get married, according to Korean law.
"If the parents are not legally married, it is not possible for them to become Korean citizens. The parents must be legally married," Son said.
But Son hopes the problems of a low birthrate and an aging population in South Korea may become an opportunity for the children.
``I hope they can get Korean citizenship. In Korea, the population is now declining. Few people are giving birth while the aging population is growing. They need a labor force. They need our Kopino children,'' Son said.
However, the Korean government has been silent on the issue.
Dawn and Jason said one of their dreams is to be able to go to Korea, though not necessarily to meet their fathers.
When asked about his dad, Jason says he misses him and that he is not angry despite the fact he was abandoned.
"I am not mad at him because I don't know the real reason why he and my mom parted ways," he said.
For his part, Son said he doesn't want to judge his countrymen.
"We don't want to judge them morally. We must understand them. Actually, it is not only the father's mistake but also the mother's," he said, adding that some of the fathers do not know that they have a child in the Philippines.
Medado said some Filipino women may have the idea that foreigners can help change the course of their lives, a perception that has become a vicious cycle that must be stopped.
She said Filipino women should be educated to prevent the cycle from happening again.
For the KCA and the Sons, their mission will continue as long as there are Kopino children and their mothers in need of help.
They will continue to help the children secure a better future and, in the process, help them find their true identity.
To donate to the Kopino Children Association, go to www.kopino.co.kr.