|The Yemeni restaurant "Wardah" is in Jeju City on Jeju Island. Courtesy of the UNHCR Korea|
By Ko Dong-hwan
Yemeni asylum seekers on Korea's Jeju Island recently began cooking their home-style dishes and serving diners at a new restaurant in the tourism hotspot's Jeju City.
"Wardah" is a joint venture between the Yemenis and a local restaurateur-musician, according to UNHCR Korea.
The eatery, named after Yemeni for "flower," has attracted a diverse range of visitors, including Koreans, tourists, foreign residents of the island and, of course, Yemeni migrants.
Kebabs, falafel, agdah chicken, hummus and other Middle Eastern foods made and served by chefs and waiters from the war-torn Arabic nation are on the menu.
"Eating the food cooked and served by the people makes me feel that I know Yemen better," says Kim Hee-yeol, who visited Friday evening. "I was moved by the waiter who tried to take the order in Korean using a translation app. They are really trying hard to adapt to the country."
Wardah is less than four kilometers from Jeju International Airport and was opened by Ha Min-kyung, who has befriended Yemeni refugees on the island. Her first sympathetic outreach was using her music studio to house some of the people whose financial hardship made them desperate to find a place to sleep.
She told the UNHCR the Yemenis thanked her "so earnestly for something that was so easy to do" that she felt almost ashamed.
"The studio was empty most of the time and all I had to do was to unlock it. How difficult is that?" said Ha, 38.
Seeing they weren't eating properly because of their religious obligation to eat halal foods that were rare on the resort island, she decided to open its first Yemeni restaurant. Her Yemeni and Korean friends supported setting up the establishment, which was named after the nickname given to her by the Yemenis.
"This is a taste of home," said Mohammed Ali, 37, a Yemeni asylum seeker and Wardah regular. Yemenis get a 50 percent discount at the restaurant. "Outside, I only ate vegetables because I wasn't sure if the chicken sold in the Korean shops was proper halal. I don't worry about that here."
American Nathan Dewan ― who has lived on the island for four years ― frequently dines at Wardah. He said the restaurant's food is "a great medium for sharing personalities and stories."
"It is wonderful to have this place for the bridging of cultural gaps," said Dewan, who teaches English at a local public school.
Wardah's Yemeni staff come from the 484 Yemenis who fled the civil war in their country and arrived on the island in June 2018 on a direct flight from Kuala Lumpur. By the end of that year, the island's immigration authority had granted two of them refugee status, gave temporary humanitarian status to 412 and rejected 56.
The so-called Yemeni crisis has displaced about 2.3 million within the country and put more than 20 million in need of humanitarian aid. Some 70,000 nationals have fled abroad in search of safety.
Sami Al-Baadni, a waiter at Wardah, said he and other refugees didn't come to Korea for money or for better jobs ― which was claimed by anti-refugee protesters who clashed with opposing movements last year.
"We came because Korea is a safe country and because Korea was our only option," said the 23-year-old worker. "We cannot return now or even in the near future. If we return, we will die."
Mohammed Ameen Almaamari, a chef at the venue, said he wants peace in Yemen and a chance to go home in safety. He hoped Koreans see Yemenis as human beings "beneath the different race, culture and religion."