Hyun Sook Han, adoption trailblazer who helped connect Korean adoptees and families, dies at 83

Remebering Hyun Sook Han

A Korean social worker who dedicated her life to helping build families through international adoption has died at 83.

What happened: Hyun Sook Han, affectionately known by friends and family as Mrs. Han, passed away from kidney cancer in her home in St. Paul, Minnesota, on Nov. 5, according to The New York Times. Her funeral was attended by a crowd of adoptees and parents whom she helped during her service to her community.

  • So many people came up to me at the funeral to express the same thing,” Mrs. Han’s daughter, Shinhee, said. “They wanted to tell me, ‘Your mother shaped and created my family.’ I heard people say that over and over again.”
  • My life was changed because Mrs. Han cared deeply about children,” Children’s Home Society of Minnesota (Children’s Home) President Heidi Wiste — one of the people Mrs. Han helped — said in a statement. “I am forever grateful for the opportunity to have worked at Children’s Home at the same time as the social worker who assisted my family through their adoption process. Mrs. Han’s dedication leaves a lasting impression as we honor her commitment to helping children join adoptive families.”

A lasting impact: Mrs. Han was born in Seoul on June 15, 1938, during the Japanese occupation of Korea. She was the eldest of 10 siblings and fled her home by foot with her family at the age of 12 during the Korean War.

  • All those children crying. I could not look into their eyes and acknowledge such sorrow. Instead, I whispered to them: ‘I will come back and help you,’” Mrs. Han wrote in her 2004 memoir “Many Lives Intertwined,” recalling how she witnessed parents abandoning their children on the road as they fled the war.
  • Mrs. Han did not become a lawyer, which her family had hoped for her. Instead, she pursued a degree in social work at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. After graduating in 1962, she helped orphaned children find families in Korea.
  • Mrs. Han then met her future husband Young Han, a businessman and an adoptee from North Korea. He supported his wife’s goal of emigrating to the United States following her participation in a Minnesota social work exchange program, believing that the move could help him find his biological parents in North Korea after he became an American citizen.
  • Mr. and Mrs. Han then adopted their son, Mike, and Mrs. Han later started her career at the Children’s Home leading the organization’s first international adoption initiative, Star Tribune reported.
  • In addition to the initiative, Mrs. Han set up post-adoption efforts for Korean adoptees, whom she would often cook Korean dishes for and help keep in touch with their culture through a Korean culture camp.
  • I think she helped continue to keep Korean adoptees connected to their culture … and to know the importance of being Korean in an adopted family,” Wiste said.
  • Mrs. Han’s retirement in 2004 did not stop her from helping other families and her community. She reportedly traveled to India to volunteer in orphanages and became involved in missionary work.
  • Mrs. Han also offered to help adoptees find their birth parents in Korea.
  • Over the years, I have helped many adoptees find their birth families and unraveled many sad stories,” she wrote in her memoir. “Most times I cried with them. Still, I believed in adoption.”

Awards and legacy: Mrs. Han received many awards during her service to her community, including the Civil Merit Award in 1986 for her contribution to child welfare, according to her obituary. The award was given to Mrs. Han by former South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan.

  • In 1989, former Minnesota Gov. Rudy Perpich proclaimed May 7 as Hyun Sook Han Day. Mrs. Han also received the Friend of Children Award in 2003 and the Congressional Angels in Adoption Medal in 2007.
  • Mrs. Han will be remembered for the impact she made to so many thousands of families and our Minnesota community,” the board chair of Children’s Home, Lance Novak, said in a statement. “Her passion for helping children born in Korea find forever families included ensuring those children, families, and communities knew their Korean heritage. Her legacy includes a forever changed face of Minnesota.”
  • Mrs. Han is survived by her daughter, her son, four grandchildren and five siblings. Her husband passed away in 1995.

Featured Image via @chlssadoption

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