HomeBad Ass AsiansProfessor & Doctor Jeung Live Amid Homelessness & Crime

Professor & Doctor Jeung Live Amid Homelessness & Crime

By Bethany Ao
Photos by Joyce Huang

For over two decades, Russell and Joan Jeung have lived in East Oakland to fulfill their calling to serve the community. The neighborhood they reside in is filled with refugees from Southeast Asia, most of them struggling to make ends meet financially.

Living among the people the couple wished to help has allowed the Jeungs to work in a very hands-on manner with their neighbors on issues such as housing, sex trafficking and homelessness.

“I understand the work better from the inside because I’m confronted with these issues daily,” Professor Russell Jeung, who teaches Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University, said. “When you have to deal with prostitutes every day and see homeless people on a regular basis, it makes you more sensitive,aware and concerned.”

Professor Jeung said the trust that his family has developed with their neighbors helps them do their work more effectively. With their church, they help organize monthly peace walks in an attempt to stop sex trafficking and run a volunteer-staffed tutoring program out of their house. In the past, they have held literacy classes for immigrant parents and organized lobbying efforts to challenge welfare reform. They have also set up meetings with police officials when they say their neighbors’ children were racially profiled by officers and organized a landmark housing lawsuit when living conditions were substandard.

“We did a lot of grassroots work to meet the needs and requests of our neighbors,” he said. “Whatever our neighbors are dealing with, we try to get involved. It’s really difficult for newcomers to adapt, especially when they move into a low-income community. We have foster daughters from Burma, and as they were English-learners, we saw them going through this process.”

Dr. Joan Jeung works as a pediatrician at Asian Health Services, a federally qualified health center serving mostly immigrants and refugees about two miles from their home. She advocates for emerging and smaller communities to have access to health care by providing interpretation and education in the languages of the refugees and immigrants.

“I helped organize health fairs where the uninsured or low income could get free screenings and flu shots, and where we gathered data to demonstrate the need for improved primary care access in our communities,” she said.

Not only that, Dr.. Jeung also launched new programs at her clinic, including one that improves primary care access for refugees from Burma and another to provide help and support for new immigrant mothers.

Kwee Say, who has worked with Dr. Jeung at Asian Health Services to improve health care access for residents of the community, said working with the Jeungs has truly been a blessing.

“Their tireless dedication to our undeserving community has been unforgettable. Their tireless efforts have improved the life of many refugees from Burma in the Bay Area,” she said. “Our community and I are forever grateful to them for their love, kindness, compassion and dedication.”


Although Professor. Jeung, a U.C. Berkeley graduate, had the chance to live elsewhere with his family, he said that his commitment to the Christian faith led him to settle down in East Oakland.

“I was working with the founders of the church here and I was seeking to develop my faith and know Jesus better,” he said. “Our church that’s based here works in the community a lot to transform it.”

Dr. Jeung said she was motivated by similar reasons.

“I felt called by God to move into an urban area and make it my home, not to come serve as an outsider but to live in the neighborhood, learn from my neighbors, and follow Jesus’ example of laying down his rights/privilege in order to bring God’s love into the world,” she said. “Also, I found a community of like-minded Christians who had very similar values. So the calling brought me here, and the community kept me.”

Professor. Jeung also said he wanted to honor his family’s working class roots and better understand the struggles of people who live there.

“The more we understand the issues other deal with, the more compassionate and justice-seeking we become,” he said.

Dr. Jeung said her immediate neighborhood is low-income and the housing was cheap when she first moved in. Many of the Southeast Asian refugees have limited government benefits but then must find work. There are also many Latinos and people from Guatemala living there as well.

“It’s inexpensive for the Bay Area, but it’s beginning to be too expensive for people on low income and low wage jobs,” Dr. Jeung said. “It’s gentrifying quickly.”

Professor Jeung moved to East Oakland between 1991 and 1992. He grew up in a more middle class environment in San Francisco that was upwardly mobile and progressive. However, he said that he had always been concerned about issues of justice and poverty.

“Even in high school, I was sensitive to issues of justice. I saw how hard people struggled,” Jeung said. “I wanted to help people out.”

Living among the people he wishes to help doesn’t come without its consequences. Jeung and his wife have a son, whose educational opportunities concern them. Dr.. Jeung said she had heard of local middle schoolers getting coloring pages for school assignments. Their son, now 11, attended a school two miles from their house instead of one within walking distance.

“There’s also a lot of wanton violence,” Jeung said. “Our youth minister got killed in a hit-and-run. We’ve been robbed a couple of times and it’s not a safe environment.”

Mrs. Jeung said they’ve also found two bullet holes through their front windows and that a woman’s dead body was found in a dumpster less than a block away when their son was still a toddler.

“A young man was shot almost directly in front of our home not long after that,” she said.

However, the violence has not deterred the Jeungs from East Oakland. They plan on moving to Boston temporarily where Mrs. Jeung will be getting her Masters in Public Health at Harvard University as part of a health policy fellowship.

“I hope to return in a year better equipped to improve primary health care quality for underserved communities,” she said.

Despite the violence, Professor Jeung believes that the lessons his kids are learning about diversity and social awareness from living in East Oakland are invaluable.

“My son is old enough to understand the needs and the struggles face,” Jeung said. “98 to 99 percent of the world are struggling to live, and I want my kids to relate to most of the world, not just the top 2 percent.”


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