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'The Big Issue'

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By Lee Chang-kook

Last week I bought a magazine on the street. I bought it more out of sympathy for the man who sold it.

For some period of time I had watched from afar this middle-aged man in a red jumper at the main entrance to Chung-Ang University in Heukseok-dong, Seoul. He was displaying several copies of a magazine on an empty bench within the university precinct and stood nearby holding up one copy in his hand, braving the inclement weather conditions. Although the area was crowded with passers-by, I could scarcely see anyone buying the magazine. I felt sorry for the man.

At the same time I felt somewhat curious about him and the way he was conducting his business. It was plain that he was selling a magazine, and to my surprise and wonder, the logo type of the magazine was in English: ''The Big Issue." I thought at first that it was a new English magazine something like or similar to TIME or Newsweek. However, I could not understand any man trying to sell a magazine, furthermore, an English magazine, on the street.

I could satisfy my curiosity easily, if only I just approached the bench, picked up one copy and turned over several pages, but I hesitated to do that simply because I did not want to buy a magazine, whatever it was about; nor would I give the vendor false hope that I was a prospective buyer. I knew that if once I touched a copy, I could not leave the place without buying it.

However, one day last week, I bought it in spite of myself. To my surprise and relief, it was not an English magazine. It was an ordinary entertainment magazine in Korean, only with an English logo on its cover. My question over the English was soon solved, as I learned from the man in the red jumper more about this particular magazine.

The Big Issue is a magazine for the homeless. It was first conceived and published in England in 1991 to help and rehabilitate the homeless, and the good idea as well as the high ideal has spread out to and has been adopted by the good people in the world who are concerned about the sorry lot of the homeless.

More than 14 countries throughout the world are now publishing this magazine with the same English logo. It is supported by people and organizations that are willing to contribute time, money and talent to the making of the magazine. The Big Issue (Korea) has been published twice a month since 2010. The sellers are chosen among the homeless who are willing to help themselves by selling it. Out of 3,000 won per copy the seller gets 1,600 won.

Yim Heung-shik, 57, the man in the red jumper, the seller of The Big Issue, was a homeless before he started to sell this magazine. He, a high school graduate, had been an electric technician, leading a happy life, married with a son, until one day, to his great misfortune, he lost the sight in his left eye in an accident during work, and could not continue his job. From then on he did any kind of work he could lay his hand on including the hard physical labors.

To make his bad situation worse, carrying a heavy material on his back in the construction site one day, he had his waist dislocated. He could not only work. He could not move his body. All his money dwindled away soon, his married life ended as his wife and son left him. He was evicted from his last lodging house for not paying the rent, and one day he found himself sleeping on the hard floor of a subway station in Seoul.

But he was lucky. He met a kind and good doctor and counselor who encouraged and recommended him to sell The Big Issue. Now he is one of the fifty or more sellers of The Big Issue in the country. He is living in a tiny apartment room permanently rented to him. He is not homeless so long as he sells The Big Issue on the street, and he is no longer sleeping on the street at least. The red jumper he is wearing all the time is a kind of uniform given to the sellers of the magazine.

Even his meager business has had its ups and downs. He was ordered twice by university security not to use the bench as his shop and leave the place immediately, but thanks to petitions and the mediation of the students who met with the school authorities for him, he was allowed to continue his business in the present place. He is immensely grateful for the kind action of the students and for the generosity of the school authorities.

And, he has enjoyed unexpected privilege, honor and glory in his life as a homeless person, as a seller of The Big Issue. He was selected as a member of the Korean football team and participated in the annual Homeless World Cup held in Paris, France, under the auspices of The Big Issue (France). During the game he stayed in a luxury hotel, and after the game made a grand tour of the great and beautiful city of Paris, including the Eiffel Tower.

During my conversation with Yim I found him surprisingly smart, cheerful and sometimes even humorous. More than anything else, he was grateful for and proud of being a seller of the magazine. Of course he wants to sell more copies, but for the merits of the magazine itself, not out of pity for him. Being asked about his future plans, he said to me casually, "I just wish to recover my health and hope I could have a shop of my own with a roof over me. I cannot stand outdoors long in the rain, or in cold weather or under the hot summer sun. I feel I am getting old fast."

The writer is Emeritus Professor at Chung-Ang University.

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