Jumat, 04 Januari 2008

Never give up, says priest who battled blindness (AFP)

SEOUL (AFP) - Orphaned and blinded in the Korean War, Kim Sun-Tae has overcome disability, poverty and discrimination to achieve three doctorates and set up an eye clinic that has treated hundreds of thousands.

"Blessed are those who never give up," Pastor Kim said when his extraordinary lifetime achievements won him one of last years prestigious Magsaysay awards.

Kim, 66, said he would donate his 50,000-dollar prize for public service to a fund for a new centre at the Siloam Eye Clinic which he founded with others in western Seoul in 1986.

He said the clinic has already helped some 27,000 people recover their eyesight and treated another 350,000, most of them for free.

The clinic has been "a guiding light" for the disabled in Korea, Kim told AFP in an interview. "The (new) Siloam Eye Centre, if built, will serve as a guiding light for the blind not only in Korea but also in Asia."

Kims motto is: "Hope lies in despair."

For him, despair came at the age of nine, in the early weeks of the 1950-53 Korean War, when he lost first his family and then his eyesight.

After breakfast one summer day he left his home in Seoul to meet some friends. When he returned he found his home had been destroyed by an artillery bombardment and his parents were dead.

"Id never thought that the breakfast of that morning would be the last moment with my parents," he recalled.

For a nine-year-old orphan in wartime, life was harsh.

"All I tried to do was to survive the daily bombardments and hunger. I had to beg for food from door to door, sometimes eat grass and sometimes drink water in the rice paddy fields."

A few months later, a second tragedy struck when he and his friends found a mortar bomb in a riverside watermelon patch and accidentally detonated it.

"Suddenly I heard a loud explosion and I lost consciousness," he said. When he regained consciousness his sight had gone due to irreversible damage to the retinas. His seven friends, however, had died on the spot.

Kim managed to find his only remaining relative, an aunt living on the northern outskirts of Seoul. But she and her family, he recalled, treated him like a slave and gave him only an outside bed on a bag of hay.

He says his aunt told him: "Oxen can see and work, and so can dogs. But you are worthless and of no use at all."

He adds: "The maltreatment was indescribable," Kim said, showing a scar still visible on his head.

One winter night, he said, he decided to run away after overhearing his aunts family discussing a plot to kill him so they could move south away from the communist troops.

Living the life of a beggar and sleeping out in freezing weather, Kim suffered bad frostbite and narrowly escaped having his legs amputated. He contracted bouts of food poisoning from rotten provisions.

In a small southwestern town he became badly poisoned with lacquer after sleeping in a warehouse, and running sores covered his whole body. Desperate requests for help were ignored.

"I thought I would die," Kim said.

Then an elderly Christian woman took him into her home. "She firmly grasped my hands and prayed for me. She even sucked poison out of each sore after washing my body," he said.

"After I had fully recovered, she told me: Im not rich enough to keep you but I promise to pray for you for the rest of my life. You must be a good Christian priest when you grow up.

"She gave me a warm farewell hug. I cannot forget her love."

Kim moved to an orphanage and schools in Busan and Seoul, learning Braille and studying long into the night.

Helen Keller, the American author, activist and lecturer who was the first deaf and blind person to graduate from college, has been his inspiration since he first read about her as a child, he said. As an honour student at a Seoul high school, Kim set himself the goal of earning three doctorates just like Keller.

But another daunting obstacle had to be overcome. The military-backed government introduced a new education law banning disabled people from taking the state examination required for college or university entrance.

Months before the exam date Kim began daily visits to the education ministry to pester the official in charge of college admissions.

"The first day, the second day ... and the 32nd day passed in vain. The official ignored me. I felt I was hitting a rock with an egg," he said.

On the 33rd day he used a more desperate tactic. "I was really in despair because the date for the college admission test was coming near," Kim said.

"After arguing with the official, I just took out a knife and shouted If I cannot take the test, I will have no more hope. I had better die. You and I should die together."

The incident attracted widespread media attention. Finally, Kim was given the chance to take the exam.

He studied philosophy at Seouls Soongsil University, then got a masters degree in theology from the Presbyterian College and Theological Seminary in Seoul and finally a doctorate from the US-based McCormick Theological Seminary.

Later he received two honorary PhDs in philosophy and theology from Soongsil University and the Presbyterian College.

Kim went on to establish churches for the blind with Braille bibles and hymn books. He raised funds to run a scholarship programme for some 1,000 visually impaired students.

His lifes outstanding work was the founding of the Siloam Eye Hospital, funded by businesses and individual donors, which has helped about 27,000 people recover their vision free of charge.

Some 350,000 others have received treatment, usually at no cost, in the past two decades. The hospital has recently converted a 46-seater bus into a mobile clinic to reach the blind in remote areas.

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