#HelpForHyon: Internet rallies behind Air Force vet’s search for dying mother’s family in South Korea
Air Force veteran Isabelle Hyon DuCharme knew it would be a long shot.
The Salt Lake City, Utah, resident had spent several years attempting to reconnect her mother, Hyon Chu DuCharme, with the sister and two brothers she left behind in South Korea.
Hyon Chu had maintained regular contact with her siblings since immigrating to the United States in 1989, speaking to them often over the phone. However, when the DuCharmes’ home was foreclosed upon in the early 2010s, the family lost not only their phone number, but many of their possessions — including the address book containing the contact information of Hyon Chu’s relatives.
Since then, Isabelle has been determined to track down her mother’s siblings. She’d found some promising leads early last year, but the coronavirus pandemic derailed that progress once her contacts in South Korea could no longer help with the search.
Then, on Christmas Day, tragedy struck.
While driving to a family gathering, Hyon Chu was in a serious car accident, suffering multiple broken bones and ruptured organs. While in the hospital, she tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. By Dec. 29, she was intubated and on a ventilator.
Since then, Hyon Chu’s condition has declined rapidly. Doctors have told the family it may be time to discuss end-of-life options. Faced with the possibility of losing her mother, Isabelle decided to go public with her search Thursday afternoon, sharing her family’s story on social media.
“I need help finding my mom’s family in South Korea,” she posted on Twitter, attaching several photos of Hyon Chu and her family. “She’s on life support and doesn’t have much time. Please share this and help me find them.”
Isabelle told Stars and Stripes by email Friday that she always hoped to reunite her mother with her siblings.
“She was always so close to them and was absolutely devastated when we lost contact,” she said. “If we can connect with them before my mom passes away, we can pass along any last messages they may have so they can have maybe even an ounce of closure.”
At the time of her initial post Thursday, Isabelle didn’t have many Twitter followers. The chances of her message reaching a wider audience were slim. But, as of early Friday morning, her message garnered thousands of responses and was retweeted nearly 36,000 times, including by the commander of U.S. Forces Korea, Gen. Robert Abrams. By Friday evening, that number had risen to over 51,000.
Korean-speaking fans of the wildly popular K-Pop group BTS translated Isabelle’s tweet into Korean, while others reposted the message on a variety of social networks popular throughout Asia. Isabelle’s plea has also spawned its own hashtag: #HelpForHyon.
“Seeing the overwhelming response on social media of total strangers wanting and working so hard to help has been profoundly beautiful,” Isabelle said. “I have never felt a pain deeper or sharper than being on the brink of losing my mom, but the warmth of everyone's love and support reminds me that there is so much good in this world.”
Although Hyon Chu struggled with mental health issues throughout her life, the mother of five was, according to Isabelle, fiercely devoted to her children. Hyon Chu loved to crochet and could cook a wide variety of traditional Korean dishes from memory. Isabelle recalls that her mother especially enjoyed sneaking table scraps to the family dogs “every chance she could get.”
“She always tried her best to show us, her kids, how much she loves and cherishes us,” said Isabelle. “I think her journeys through dark times made her really cherish the good days she had with us.”
Hyon Chu met her husband, Isabelle’s father, in the fall of 1987 when he was stationed at Suwon Air Base. He extended his tour of duty twice to be able to stay with Hyon Chu in South Korea, Isabelle said, before the couple married and relocated in 1989 to the now decommissioned Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois.
When Hyon Chu left South Korea, her mother, who is now deceased, owned and operated a café called Chungha Dabang in the city of Chuncheon, in the northern province of Gangwon. While Isabelle isn’t sure whether her mother’s siblings still reside in Chuncheon, she believes her aunt may have owned a Japanese restaurant in Uijeongbu.
She’s hoping that someone in the region might remember Hyon Chu and her family through her maiden name, Hyon Chu Hwang.
“My mother has spoken with the embassy in the past about finding her family,” Isabelle said. “But it's hard to find resources that can help with this kind of search.”
As Isabelle’s post continues its spread across social media, the former senior airman, who said she left the service last year as an airborne linguist at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., says the attention the Internet has brought to her mother’s story is bittersweet.
“It's absolutely heartbreaking that it has taken these circumstances to get the public momentum we've needed for so long,” she said. “It's completely and utterly agonizing to even think of this world without my mom in it, but I hope that being reunited with her family can help us all through these incredibly dark times.”