JEJU: Weeks after the South Korean government denied refugee status to hundreds of Yemenis who arrived in the East Asian country last year to flee catastrophe back home, classical musician Ha Min-kyung knew she had to do something to help.
First, she offered more than a hundred Yemenis shelter at her music studio in her hometown of Jeju, a tourist island off the southern coast of South Korea which a no-visa entry policy has turned into a safe haven for asylum seekers fleeing civil-war in Yemen.
Next, Min-Kyung decided to give Yemenis a taste of home by opening a halal food restaurant serving the dishes they were accustomed to eating in their ravaged homeland. The Yemeni civil war, which the United Nations has described as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, has displaced about 2 million people and more than 8 million are on the brink of famine.
“I lent my studio in the basement to scores of Yemenis and decided to open a Yemeni restaurant with the help of a couple of Yemeni employees,” Min-Kyung told Arab News in the resort town of Jeju.
The restaurant is named Wardah after the nickname Min-Kyung’s Yemeni friends gave her, which means flower in Arabic. Wardah opened its doors to the public last November. Designed and built by her Yemeni friends, its cosy interior is made almost entirely of wood, with Yemeni ornaments hanging on the wall. The menu is entirely halal and comprises hot dishes of lamb and chicken kabsa, a mixed rice dish, meat soups, agdah chicken with flat bread and Middle Eastern appetizers such as hummus.
The sudden influx of asylum seekers in 2018 spawned anti-migrant and anti-Muslim sentiment across South Korea and only two of the more than 480 Yemenis there were granted refugee status in December. The central government has also since changed its policy and now requires Yemenis to get visas to enter Jeju.
But Min-Kyung’s new restaurant promises to be a cultural bridge. Every day the five-table restaurant opens at noon and both South Koreans and Yemenis arrive to eat and chat together.
“One of the reasons for opening Wardah was to help more Koreans understand Yemen and its people better,” Min-Kyung said. “Korean travelers as well as local residents are coming here to enjoy a taste of Yemeni food, and they can develop more positive views about Yemeni people.”
Indeed, if Korean guests arrive with Yemeni friends, they get a discount, Min-Kyung said, chuckling. Customers can also buy tiny brooches made by Yemeni children, and all proceeds go to the community.
Lee Hye-rim, 39, said he ate at Wardah during a recent trip to the island. He had arrived on the island with feelings of “some prejudice” against Yemenis but left with a better understanding of their culture.
“I was introduced to this restaurant by a friend living in Jeju,” Hye-rim said. “The taste is really good and I think this kind of place is a good way to get to know each other and make cultural exchanges.”
Lee Dong-hyung, 25, who works at a street market near the restaurant, said many locals “talk bad” about Yemenis but she had learnt that much of the anti-refugee, Islamophobic rhetoric was not true.
“Most of (the Yemenis) I’ve met here in the restaurant are very friendly to Koreans and are peaceful people,” she said.
The chef at Wardah is Mohammed Ameen Almaamari, 35, who has worked in the food industry in Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as back home in Yemen, for the past 12 years. “I cook food for both Yemenis and Koreans here,” said Almaamari, who fled Yemen to escape being recruited by a rebel force. “There were many Yemenis here but many of them went to Seoul.”
Immigration authorities last year barred the refugees from traveling to mainland South Korea, though many have since left Jeju. Employment has been restricted to fishing, fish farms and restaurant work but many remain unemployed.
Najla, 35, arrived in Jeju by plane last April. She is one of a handful of Yemenis with a humanitarian residence permit that allows her to travel to other regions of the country. In September, she flew to Gwangju, a southwestern region of South Korea, to work as a painter but lost her job and returned to Jeju.
“It’s a great atmosphere here. It’s like a piece of my country,” she said as she ate at Wardah. “Everything, the people working here, the atmosphere, food, the tea, is as I remember it.”
Sami Al-Baadni, a waiter of the restaurant, called Wardah a “home for Yemenis.” “When you eat this food, you remember your country and the days when you were a child,” said the 23-year-old Yemeni who studied computer data-processing at a university in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen. “So it’s like a home for Yemenis.”