Chuncheon, South Korea – On a hot, hazy Sunday afternoon, Abdoulaye Assan sits slouched in a chair in his manager’s office, listening to a pep talk. It is different from the kinds of encouraging speeches most boxers get from their managers because Assan is fighting for more than glory in the ring.
Assan’s manager, Lee Kyoung-hoon, a 54-year-old former boxer with a receding hairline and fraying ponytail, raises his voice as he implores Assan to train his hardest. “Assan, you have to be a fantastic boxer,” he bellows across his desk, his voice echoing through the otherwise empty gym.
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“You have to make the Korean people love you, then the Korean government will want to take you for our country, to make you our own.”
You have to make the Korean people love you, then the Korean government will want to take you for our country, to make you our own
He hopes that victories in the ring will build him an international profile and help persuade the South Korean government to grant him the right to live here permanently.
As Lee speaks, Assan shows no reaction beyond rhythmically nodding his head. It isn’t clear if he understands what Lee is saying, as Assan speaks only rudimentary English and Lee knows no French, Assan’s native tongue. But the language barrier notwithstanding, both men are aware of the urgency of Assan’s situation, and both hope that boxing can offer a way out of it.
Assan first came to South Korea to compete as a boxer in the 2015 Military World Games, an athletic competition for soldiers. It was his first time outside of Cameroon, and he was determined never to go back.
Assan says he lost contact with his parents in childhood, left school at around the age of 12, and joined the military at 21. There, he began competitive boxing, and when he wasn’t in the ring, he says he was made to work for little money, with little time off or freedom of movement. “I was treated like a slave,” Assan says.
Experts have documented the harsh conditions faced by Cameroonian soldiers. “The Cameroonian military and its related cadres are one of the only sources of salaried employment for poor young and middle-aged men in Cameroon. However, wages are often still extremely low, and the work is extremely demanding,” said Charlotte Walker-Said, a historian of modern Africa and assistant professor of Africana studies at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.
‘I just wanted a life that is a bit more free’
Assan saw his trip to South Korea as a way out. One night, without informing his commanding officer or his fellow soldiers, he fled from the stadium that was hosting the competition, took a taxi to the nearest bus terminal, then caught the next bus to the South Korean capital Seoul. He checked into a motel with around $60 in his pocket and plans to apply for refugee status.
When he thinks back to that night, his leap into an unfamiliar land and uncertain future, he smiles ruefully. “I didn’t even know the difference between North and South Korea when I came here,” he says. “I’d heard that Korea was a dangerous place run by a dictator, but then quickly learned that South Korea is a nice, peaceful place.”
“At that time, and still today, I just wanted a life that is a bit more free,” Assan explains.
He knows he is not in the clear yet. His first application for refugee status was rejected by the South Korean government; he appealed that decision and is in limbo waiting to hear the verdict on his second attempt.
South Korea doesn’t have a track record of being generous with refugees. Government statistics show that between 2012 and 2015, South Korea received 11,324 applications for refugee status, and that status was only granted in 316 of those cases.
South Korea is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of Refugees, but there’s no binding pressure on the government to adhere to the convention’s dictates.
“In evaluating refugee cases, the South Korean government applies a very narrow interpretation of the law, and often demands extensive evidence of persecution that many applicants are not able to provide, which ends up meaning that few applicants have their status recognised,” says Lee Il, a lawyer specialising in refugee law with APIL (Advocate for Public Interest Law).
Reached by phone, an official from South Korea’s Ministry of Justice confirms that Assan’s application is pending, and says it is not known when a decision will be rendered. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, citing department rules.
“I’m really scared,” Assan says when asked about his fate. “I don’t know what the future holds for me.”
Assan is subdued and calm in conversation, but intense when he gets in front of the punching bag. He squints slightly as he sets the bag shaking with intricate combinations of jabs and hooks, seemingly guided by muscle memory.
Between the two of them, Lee has the more animated personality, and, true to his vocation as a boxing manager and promoter, is a loquacious storyteller.
He relates the time he first spotted Assan during a sparring match at another gym and was impressed by his punching power and coordination, which Lee thought, could take him far in matches against South Korean fighters.
“He could win most of his fights without even training,” Lee says.
‘Boxing is not a big ticket sport in South Korea’
Despite his athletic prowess, Assan has several factors working against him. At 33, he is old for a boxer, already past his physical prime. Lee says promoters and agents are often reluctant to work with Assan, due to his uncertain status in South Korea. “No one wants to invest money or effort in him because they worry he could be deported any day,” Lee explains.
For now, I can only think about my next fight
Assan is also fighting poverty. His lack of Korean-language ability limits the type of jobs he can get. He earns some money providing boxing lessons to local amateurs and works part time as a dishwasher in a restaurant owned by a friend of Lee’s.
His lack of money means he often doesn’t get the kind of high-calorie, protein-rich diet recommended for a training boxer. And if his lack of Korean and English fluency weren’t enough to inhibit Assan’s ability to integrate in South Korea, his Muslim faith means that he doesn’t eat pork or drink alcohol, which can make things awkward in a country where men often socialise by drinking liquor and eating grilled pork belly.
Assan’s public profile received a significant boost in late May when he won a bout to become South Korean super welterweight champion. His story was carried by many local media outlets. Still, Assan is more notorious than famous. He lives in a mid-sized city called Chuncheon, in a mountainous province northeast of Seoul, where he is one of very few Africans. Standing around six-feet-tall (1.8 metres), with an unconventional hairstyle, Assan says he draws stares nearly everywhere he goes.
Boxing is not a big ticket sport in South Korea. The first bout in which Assan defends his title will be free for spectators, and will be fought in late July in the parking lot of a barbecue chicken restaurant in Chuncheon.
Lee’s strategy, for now, is to organise regular fights for Assan around South Korea, and thereby run up his tally of victories, with few or no defeats. Then, Lee hopes, Assan will qualify for higher profile fights outside of the country, and challenge for the Asian championship.
Assan says he manages the stress of not knowing whether he will be allowed to remain in South Korea or deported by focussing on his training. Still slightly keeled over in his chair, Assan scrolls through videos of boxing highlights on his smartphone and says: “For now, I can only think about my next fight.”