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An open letter to President Obama

Dec 6th, 2010 | Advocacy | Comment

Dear President Obama –

Firstly, I wish to dedicate this OPEN LETTER to all those who fought militants in their country for democracy’s sake and, as a consequence, lost everything: home, family, business, friends and hope.

I am a 59 years old political activist from Pakistan. I was a businessman and an appointed member of a democratic, secular and moderate Pashtun political party [name deleted]. I was a successful trader of food grain in Peshawar for more than three decades and I enjoyed a happy family life. Thanks to my business I traveled extensively to Europe, USA, Japan and Malaysia. Our party strongly condemns the terror policies of the Taliban and those Islamic fundamentalist groups who militarized our region with our government’s secret collaboration. As a newspaper columnist I wrote hundreds of articles condemning my country’s misguided policies, both in local and English papers, in my country and abroad – which lead to several assassination attempts against my family. I was beaten close to death; my home was sprayed with bullets in the middle of the night; my car was shot at as I sped away for my life; I can’t recall how many threatening phone calls I received over the years. As is expected, these attacks cost me my business and profession. I have been in hiding for many months, unable to regain the position I one enjoyed in my community. Finally I escaped a kidnapping – which surely would have ended with my execution – only thanks to the courageous intervention of bystanders, who rallied to save my life at that deadly moment, ending ten years of political activism.

More than 400 activists and family members in my party were murdered in suicide bombings and target killings. Thousands of party workers have gone underground or abroad to save their lives and continue their protest against Pakistan’s military establishment and its conspiracy with the Afghanistan militia and Taliban who cross into our country with impunity. After a devastating attack on my family home, we were forced to leave everything behind and flee into exile. At my old age I have lost everything: my home is gone, my business collapsed and my wife is hiding in the mountains. My children have lost their education and today we all live in terror and fear. I now hide in Hong Kong together with my younger son, with no hope of seeing our family any time soon. The Consul General of the United States of America in Islamabad replied to my plea for help that regrettably he was unable to assist. Similar replies came from the Canadian and Australian Embassies, who suggested I contact the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Finally, I was shocked when the UNHCR mailed a letter to my home – logo and full name on the envelope – which might have cost my life since every postman then knew I was seeking political refuge! Their advice was to flee the country, as I could not seek protection in Pakistan, but had to first escape to another country to seek asylum. This is like telling a man drowning to swim to the other side of the river, if his life is in imminent danger and wants to be rescued by the United Nation!

CIA World Factbook – Pakistan: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/pk.html

Living in a scrap yard container
Living in a scrap yard container (freezing in winter - baking in summer)

Since Pakistan is in the grip of suicide bombings and government killings, our party is losing leaders every week. The same day I flew out of Karachi, a dear friend and member of our provincial assembly was blown up in his cars, together with a score of bodyguards – as was widely reported by BBC and CNN. He paid the ultimate price for speaking up against Pakistan’s terror policies and support of militants in our country and across the boarder in Afghanistan. I have been on the Taliban hit list longer than I care to remember. At last on January 16th, 2010 I was informed by an intelligence official that I would be murdered that very night! I was notified which members of our PF-I Peshawar constituency would be assassinated. Undoubtedly this tip-off saved my life. Seizing this opportunity, I discussed the matter with my family and we decided I would flee to Hong Kong with my younger son, as we happened to hold visas for a trade show. My family then dispersed and still hides with relatives. Tears remind us every night the price we paid for democracy.

After arriving in Hong Kong, we registered with the UNHCR and the Immigration Department, under article 3 of the “United Nation Convention against Torture”, but we do not know what fate awaits us with these two organizations. I still can’t grasp my total losses for supporting the War Against Terror. I lost everything for the sake of democracy, freedom and justice, but I wonder if it was worth it now that I am penniless, homeless and hopeless. Today I am a beggar, when I used to enjoy status and respect in my country. In my old age I am helpless even to support my adult son, who is prohibited from working here. I am entirely reliant on charities like Vision First, which bring a ray of hope into this nightmare existence, which I never expected fleeing to a developed country. I thought that having supported Western forces against terror, my personal sacrifice would be recognized and I would be granted a minimal existence. Instead I am living in a rat-infested tin hut, with inadequate sanitation, which has caused sores on my hands and feet. What about my family? They are suffering for my activism and lost father, husband, home, income, friends, education and hope in the future. They are scared and it breaks my heart to know I have caused their agony.

Therefore, I respectfully request your help on humanitarian grounds, both for me and my family, so that we may spend the remainder of our lives with some respect and dignity. We place great hope in your intervention, because we suffer for supporting the international community in the war against terror, for condemning the militants and their masters. It would be a tragedy if we were sacrificed for having chosen what was right against the forces of terror. If the civilized world fails to help people like us, then the terrorists will win this war and it will be a dreadful defeat for us who lost everything siding with the Western alliance. We wait anxiously for your positive reply. Thank you very much!

(a Vision First beneficiary)

Memories of a recovered alcoholic

Dec 2nd, 2010 | Advocacy | Comment

(Editor’s note: our member was hospitalized for alcoholism and has been sober for almost a year. Today he bravely faces the uncertainties of refugee life with no immediate solution to his many afflictions. Returning to his homeland is out of the question, foras his life is still threatened. His daunting struggle continues.)

It’s 2AM, I look around me and realize everyone’s going to sleep and here I am with no place to go. I search my pockets and count the amount of money I’m remained with “120 bucks, not bad”, I mutter to myself. I debate whether to get a room and get a good sleep but then what about tomorrow? Or rather today daytime – what will I spend on food and drinks. I carefully stand and try to see if I am really drunk or just in the mood. I discover that I need some rest and time is moving fast. I rush to the shop where I get my usual whiskey and buy some ten dollar whiskey takeaway. At least this will keep me going for the time being. I double check my cigarettes and lighter-everything is in check. I slowly make my way around the back staircase of building X. I know my way to where I have stacked my carton boxes, at least I will have a few hours of sleep before daytime. As I make my way to the fifth floor I pass a couple of youngsters smoking some hashish. I know the guys, since we all have similar situations, homeless, jobless and no plans for the immediate future. After greetings one of them gladly passes the “joint” and I smoke it in a hurry peering at every entry and exit as if the police may appear at any moment.

After a few puffs, I give it back and head to my destination. I reach the fifth floor and gather my cartons which are carefully concealed on the left side outside the small window. I place them beneath the upper staircase, here there’s enough space and dark where no one bothers to check apart from cleaning time at ten in the morning. I secure my valuables in my shorts, light a cigarette and lay down for a nice rest. After a few minutes I put out the cigarette butt, turn over and close my eyes. Suddenly I open my eyes, I look out of the window, its still dark, I check the time – its a quarter to six, I have slept for almost three and a half hours not bad feeling fresh, I return the boxes to their places and head out the building, I remove the whiskey and take a big gulp, I light a cigarette and head towards McDonald’s restaurant. Here I look like a regular foreign customers but the only time I visit this place is when I want to use the rest room. I wash my face, fresher up and promise myself I will take a shower later in the day. I walk slowly towards the 711 store, here I am bound to meet fellow drunkards who are always my Saviour.  After a few greetings and jokes they toss me a beer……and for me the day has just began.

On a rainy day

We drink and make fun of the ones who look more drunk than the other. Its already nine in the morning and people are busy going to work or some other activities. Well some of them have nothing to do but just wander around. I mix some whiskey with the beer and this makes it stranger, I like it this way. This time only a few people are remaining as the rest have retired. I take my drink slowly as I know I have almost two hours to kill before the whiskey shop opens. I can feel the rise of hunger in my stomach but I brush the thoughts of food aside and try to focus what today will hold. I remove a small paper from my wallet and see what I’m supposed to do. I discover my UN appointment in two week overdue, dam I need to make another one. I see that I need to sign at MTK immigration next week, and I also have to look for a house seriously otherwise I can’t keep going like this for long. I promise myself I will call friends later for any update. It’s eleven, and I have finished my last sip of drink. I move from the 711 and head towards the backside of building X. Here I’m safe from looking eyes from all corners, I find the whiskey shop open and as it looks I’m not the first customer as other alcoholics have already vibrated or jump started their system as they would call it. I buy some whiskey and drown it in a few seconds. I order the second one and sit on the slaps connected to the shop. People move in and out of the building busy either with trolleys or trying to look for potential customers for anything ranging from drugs to cars. I joke with the idea of selling drugs then it dawns to me that   if I ever get caught, my life will be done, I brush it off immediately and focus on better things.

Its past noon, the sun is shining brightly and here I am, a cup of whiskey and not a care in the world. I know I have an hour to my lunch which is at the church at one p.m. Here is where all the drug addicts and alcoholics gather to pretend they are praising God while in the meantime waiting for the free lunch. I drink my whiskey slowly and borrow the newspaper from the nearby shop to know what is going on locally and internationally. At least I can have new topics to discuss in the evening with fellow friends over a drink. After reading the paper I prepare myself for the church service or rather free lunch on the 4th floor building X. After praising and singing hymns, I finally get my lunch at eat it in a hurry. Since I don’t know when my next meal may come from. When its over I hurry back to the whiskey shop lest have I missed any drama, well all books fine so I continue having more drinks with my belly filled up nothing can stop me now. A few guys who know me pass by and usual they chip in a few coins or notes for keepsake or emergency as I cal it. On a lucky day I could gather around eighty to one hundred and fifty dollars and today is one of those lucky days. I look at my watch, its four p.m. and my body is feeling kinda weak. This is the time for a perfect nap. I buy a ten dollar whiskey and head towards Kowloon park. Here I know I can relax in the smoking area with no disturbance. As I reach, I head towards the end on the smoking area and relax under the tree. I know the shade can help cover me from the sun. I light a cigarette and take my position under the tree. After a few minutes I throw away the cigarette and close my eyes for my afternoon nap. At least its a bit comfortable lying on the grass and using my shoe as a pillow, here I am safe.

I feel the breeze blowing across my face and I know its already night time. I sit up and look at the time, its nine p.m., not bad at least four and a half hours of sleep. I remove the whiskey from my pocket and have a large gulp….now I can open my eyes and relax, another day is almost over. I make my way to the toilet, and on top of the big cistern is where I hide my face towel and soap. I enter in one of the shower cubicles and take a nice cold bath, thank God its summer otherwise I would be freezing. After its all over I make my way towards the backside alley, my base – where I get my cheap whiskey. People have already multiplied and everyone’s having fun. I buy another drink and continue gossiping as I have the latest updates. Others light up cigarettes of course with some hashish in it, but the police aren’t taking their usual rounds so who cares. After my drink I suddenly feel hungry. I go the cheapest restaurant where for ten dollars I can get chapatti and some mixed stew. I eat to my fill and this time it already eleven thirty so I go towards the 711, I know this the right time and place to get fellow alcoholics or hopeless characters like me. I get a few guys and we start chatting about the latest updates and who did what and who did not. I grab my self a beer which I all starter for I surely know after this I will get more from guys, slowly and slowly we talk, laugh and make fun

of women and the people around us. True to their words these guys will always buy beer, rain or shine. I continue drinking and hustling for coins from a few guys and at least I know I have something for tomorrow and you never know when opportunity rises. After conversations about issues that concern us and others that don’t or at least have no relevance, I look at my watch at its already half past one in the morning. I excuse myself as am feeling a little tipsy. I make my way to the back alley and here I drown my last tots of whiskey and of course by the takeaway. As usual the routine is already in my head, I head for the staircase to my humble place where I can rest for a couple of hours. I pass the smokers and have a few puffs of the ‘joint’, then I retire to the fifth floor and arrange my sleeping place as usual. Now that people have gone to rest I can also rest and be fresh later. I lay down and think of what I should do to make my life better….., tomorrow I must change by behavior – I will change my clothes, shave and get a new house, I puff my cigarette slowly and look at the time its already two a.m. in the morning. I smile at my silly promises…..for as far as I know myself, tomorrow or rather today will be the same as yesterday and the day before unless the almighty lord looks down at me and a miracle happens……..

The case for inclusion

Nov 30th, 2010 | Advocacy | Comment

Refugees are not people to pity. The fact that they might have been persecuted in a way or another in their home country does not mean they have to go through it all over again in Hong Kong. The persecution might be different; no one endangers their life here, but they are victimized. They are portrayed by some refugee advocates as helpless, poor and needy people who cannot look after themselves. Some of their friends reach out to government offices to provide them with dignity, so that they won’t need to beg for human rights. While the intent is noble, the result, I believe, further exclude the people who seek asylum in Hong Kong from mainstream society. The refugees among us are not people to feed; they are people to treasure for their skills and experiences. Furthermore, the fact that some of them choose not to work illegally because they fear they would jeopardize their meager chances of being resettled in another country, in my opinion, does not say anything about the genuineness of their case. Lack of sufficient provisions to refugees in HK, their family situation (yes, even refugees have children at home, once dependent on their fathers and mothers who were forced to leave them behind), and the considerable amount of money people borrow to travel make work the only way out.

Work is also a natural condition for human beings. People do not work only for money, but to relieve themselves of their worries and re-construct their soul giving meaning to their existence. Especially for people bearing trauma due to their past circumstances, their need to move on and put closer to those tragedies seems quite apparent. Is that even possible when they are constantly reminded that their life is dependent on the goodwill of charities, churches and the government? Refugees should not be considered a burden; if valued for what they can bring to our community, they can be an invaluable asset. If they were treated inclusively, they wouldn’t need to beg and trouble good-hearten locals. Instead, they would contribute to our international society and economy; something they might have already been doing for a number of years, though informally. Giving these people their dignity is not a matter of human rights. It seems just to be a wise decision, socially and economically. It would certainly help Hong Kong grow as a global city, allowing it to secure skills and labour the city is desperately in need of.
(A concerned VF supporter)


On November 28, 2011 the South China Morning Post published these two interesting articles:

- “Loopholes mean genuine asylum seekers suffer”
- “Denied the right to work”

Corporate Social Responsibility

Nov 17th, 2010 | Advocacy | Comment

Refugees and asylum seekers the world over are often perceived in their communities as someone else’s problem. Few people are able to comprehend the trauma experienced by true survivors of torture, war and displacement. The issue of asylum seekers and refugees is one that is removed from our conscience, as we cannot comprehend the possibility of ever being in the same situation. Regardless of these challenges, Vision First is helping the community overcome these differences, encouraging the public to see through the politics and the prejudice, to stare into the eyes of the human face. 

In this era of growing Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) more businesses appreciate the potential of investing in the community and the awareness of CSR’s benefits is growing rapidly in Hong Kong.
The 2009 Oxfam CSR Survey of the Hang Seng Index constituent companies, highlighted the recent growth in CSR awareness of these 42 listed companies. The report states: “The global trend in CSR is progressing on both the voluntary and legislative fronts. Historically, this has been far more established in the United Kingdom, Europe, Australia, North America and South Africa, yet we are increasingly seeing Asian governments moving towards regulating CSR.”

This is good news for Vision First, other NGOs and for the people we serve. Together with our clients, we are wholly grateful to the community network which has developed around us in our first 18 months of operation. Lawyers, doctors, psychologists, educators, architects and artists have contributed to support and create programs for our clients – who are growing in number ever week. As Vision First starts to spread its wings, the Hong Kong asylum seeker and refugee support network will grow to lift more vulnerable people out of their desperate plight.

Please contact us if you and your company would like to jump on board – thank you.

Belinda Flanders
Chairwoman

A poem by Wilson

Nov 10th, 2010 | Advocacy | Comment

SENSE OF ASYLUM

Oh Motherland
Land without thunder
The land without storms and strangers
The home of all.

Where do I come from?
Father and Mother can’t hear me
Where do I come from?
Really where do I come from!?

No Motherland is foreign land
Where do I dwell?
Where is my River of milk and honey?
My stomach never asks no less.

Abundant is the milk of full breasts
No sleep I never cry for
Oh my country land
So far is the foreign land

I open my eyes and see,
Nothing of my own
Black and far is the foreign land
Blind to see no children

No children of the woman
Alone and frighten is me
Oh my brothers and sisters
Have foreign lands eaten you?

My voice is loud for you.
Oh my sweet Home!
How I miss you sweet home
I sleep awake

The eyes close no more
Oh Refugee!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Trapped in my First World

Nov 6th, 2010 | Advocacy | Comment

It two in the morning and finally, everyone in the room is asleep. They are so quiet that the only sound I can hear is the public buses roaring along the street. I am alone; since I went to bed I have not slept. I feel so tired even my muscles are aching as if I walked around all day. My head is heavy and exhausted. I have been thinking hard all these hours, but I can’t understand my thoughts—they are all illusions of paradise. I am trapped in a “pipe-dream world”. I have been in this world many times and now I am addicted to it. It is like my home, and there is no way I can escape from it. Every day I am engulfed in this torture of the mind. I start thinking of a good life full of comfort and riches, shared with a beautiful wife and children. Then I see our home and our life there. I am in the sitting room, reading my newspaper, while my wife watches an opera film, and the children play on the floor. The children are laughing happily with their mommy smiling at me. Every day I go through these fantasies for several hours, round and round. To me they are real and as clear as crystal water – I call this my FIRST WORLD. But I am only an asylum-seeker here in Hong Kong, and this world, no matter how real it seems, remains only a dream.


My First World

In January 2007 I arrived here, knowing nobody and nothing about this place. The tall buildings and streets of Hong Kong were my only friends. Being an asylum seeker you are a social misfit. Immediately once you claim this identity, even if you are from the most civilized, modern society, you are considered untouchable. Laying in my bed, I am still imagining my future family, when, without warning, the unthinkable happens. I find myself in another world as if I have changed identity – I have slipped from one dream to another. No longer imagining the future, I am wading through the hell of my past. The events of this world take place in a script —each around five minutes long and independent from each other. I dream mostly of  my youth; about my brothers and my mother when we were young. When I am dreaming, I can see I am not in the physical world, but I always fail to convince myself of this. Though you know it is a dream, you are a part of it. You play the game together — if somebody is chasing you, you don’t say “it is just a dream”, you run away from them. Often I dream of horrible death. I dream of my own death, my home surrounded with graves. When I am dreaming it is as if I am at war with evil spirits. I feel tired, very weak and my heart beat increases, pounding in my chest painfully. This takes me a few hours and though the others sharing my room call it a nice sleep, I call it hell!

Our room has no hot water, some windows are smashed, the floor broken. Bedbugs are common and it is our duty to make sure we kill them when we come across them. We are their neighbors and also their prey. I sometimes wonder whether the people who sent us here really consider us to be human.  But remember, this is our paradise compared to what we left behind. Finally it is morning. My brothers are up, as usual, preparing seek assistance from churches and NGOs. I wake up in the prison of my bed – I am now in the physical world, which I call my Third World. Here I challenge the two worlds I have traveled through during the night. Now I am combining the three worlds together, asking myself whether I am Dead or Alive. I walk weakly toward the toilet, as if I am sick or drunk. I quickly take a cold shower, thinking nothing, for we are programmed. I am must hurry to find some breakfast as hunger sets in. I also need a few dollars for my mobile phone in case Immigration or the UNHCR call me. This is Asia where poverty helps us to masters pain and suffering.

This flat has no lift so I must run down the stairs as if I am walking through the tunnel of tombs. Heading to TST I walk for over an hour depending on the timing of the traffic lights. With me along the pavement are the citizens of Hong Kong, who always tell us they don’t need us here. They say things like, “You need to go back to your country! We don’t need you here! You cannot work here!” On the bus or MTR, if there are three empty seats and you sit down, people will rather stand than sit down next to you. Recently some Africans from my church went to a Catholic church nearby—that priest called our pastor to say “Don’t send black people to our church!” In the real world, I can still sense some forces from my dreams. I don’t know whether I am going crazy, but the voice is very clear. It’s the voice is of my mother, calling me by my native name. The voice is coming from behind me, as if it is a deep vibration in my nerves. This is the second time I have experienced it. I haven’t  phoned my parents for nearly three years. I know they miss me but I don’t want to think about them, because I really get a panic attack wondering if I will ever see them again. I see this panic in my friends’ dry eyes, an empty look of somebody who has lost hope. But if you lose hope, then what do you have left to make you human? My eyes remain locked on the floor as I shuffle my feet like a robot, wondering why were we born to suffer …

It’s now nearly noon – time to go to for lunch at a church, where I sense pointless hypocrisy.  Even these charities who help us are “in business” and they  call us “clients”. After sitting there for the forced Bible service (no preaching = no meal!) we get lunch, usually boiled rice and chicken wings. From here I go see  my other friends; they have already gone crazy, forced into idleness by a society that doesn’t care, gossiping the whole day. I call them friends, but truly they are competitors—we are all competing for survival here, for the limited assistance we get from NGOs or churches. I don’t trust them, but they are the only people I talk to, as I don’t have anybody else. If you don’t talk to people you will lose your mind, you go insane without even knowing it, because isolation kills your sense of reality and community.  At 6pm, it is getting dark. I head through the streets toward my tiny room to complete the asylum seekers circuit. I have been doing this since I arrived and  God forbid that I will stay here any longer. But what are the odds? What are my options? Slowly I shuffle toward my bed. I’m not going to cover myself because it’s very hot. I lay flat on my bed; then, as if I was praying, I cross my hands over my chest.  There’s only one comfort now, the comfort of fantasies. That’s what I enjoy most, that’s what makes me happy. My First World …  I make it real, so real, that it makes me happy and sometimes I find myself laughing out loud. But it’s eating me up like cancer. I know this, but I don’t want to leave, as it’s the only place that makes me happy. Still I know only my spirit can live here where I see the unseen. I know I’m awake, trapped, struggling in a parallel reality where there is no soul contact. I’m alone – suffering an anxiety so deep that nobody should endure it!
(
By Nyanbega)

[Editor's note: If you read this far, you will be interested to know Mr. Nyanbega fled ethnic cleansing, masked by the evil of religious persecution. He was was brutally tortured, tied up and forced to witness his own brother and sister being burnt alive by their captors. Weeks later he managed to escape and tell his story.]

Teaching children about charity

Oct 26th, 2010 | Advocacy | Comment

Teaching our children about charity is a key part of their social formation. It’s important that from a very young age they are exposed to the needs of others and shown how their own family reaches out to the disadvantaged, who very often include kids their same age. This helps children appreciate that not every child enjoys three meals a day, has clean clothes or even parents caring for them – these are all significant lessons in life. Many studies have shown that young kids relate easily with other children their age, who face hardship in daily life, with their health or education. Children appreciate the difference between those who are doing well and those who are hurting for reasons beyond their control, reasons parents can’t do much about, except rely on charity. These early experiences help children form a sense of social responsibility and commitment, which will bear fruits in the decades ahead.

Please come and support the CHILDREN CHARITY CARNIVAL, organized with three goals:
-         to introduce children charities to the community;
-         to present suffering kids’ need to visiting kids;
-         to allow visiting kids to participate in and learn from charitable activities.
The carnival will be an outdoor, open-market party, with booths, games, gifts, entertainment, music band, competitions and of course … it’s Halloween!

The details are:
Children Charities Carnival 2010
Date: 31 October 2010
Time: 11am till 5pm
Venue: The Podium, L4, Cyberport 2, 100 Cyberport Road, Hong Kong

Please click here for the event flyer

The participating charities are:
1. Bring Me A Book Hong Kong – 書伴我行(香港)基金會
2. Changing Young Lives Foundation – 成長希望基金會
3. Chi Heng Foundation – 智行基金會
4. Half the Sky Foundation – 半邊天基金會
5. Hong Kong Juvenile Diabetes Association – 香港兒童糖尿協會
6. Hong Kong Society for the Protection of children – 香港保護兒童會
7. Kids4Kids
8. Playright Children‘s Play Association – 智樂兒童遊樂協會
9. Save the Children – 救助兒童會
10. Watchdog – 監護者早期教育中心
11. Vision First – “Refugee Children Program”

Click here to see Vision First’s flyer

Click here to see Vision First’s brochure

A shattered life

Oct 25th, 2010 | Advocacy | Comment

Seeking asylum in Hong Kong is like trying to pass through the proverbial Eye of the Needle. There are over 6600 asylum seekers – whose lives are suspended without hope – and I am but one who fled persecution after political activism shattered my life. My opinions are molded by the harsh circumstances I experienced and want to share with you. People unfortunately flee their countries for many different reasons. However, for a case to be recognized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), it must satisfy these five criteria:

1.   the claimant must be outside his/her country of origin;
2.   there must be objective, well-founded fears of persecution;
3.   the persecution must be for race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion;
4.   the claimant must be unable to avail himself of his country’s protection;
5.   owing to such fear, the claimant must be unwilling to return to his country.

Of all the UNHCR + CAT applicants, roughly 75% are from South East Asia, while the remaining come from Africa, with just a handful from other countries. Since the number has grown in recent years, I wonder what is the breakdown between “genuine cases” and “bogus cases” as the system is open to abuse by those fooled by the smugglers’ promise of high-paying jobs. The problem is this: while it’s easy to be smuggled into the city, getting out is a risky process which can land you in jail. Let’s face it, the UNHCR and the government struggle to distinguish between genuine and economic asylum seekers – a delicate process indeed as mistakes can cost the deportees’ lives.

Shattered life

I have been stuck in HK for over four years. My case was rejected by the UNHCR after an anguishing process that convinced me their Refugee Status Determination process (or RSD) lacks transparency and fails the high standards of fairness they advocate. I heard many call their case-officers “baby lawyers”: fresh from graduation, with no practical experience, background knowledge and, worst of all, no humility! They fail to empathize with our tragedies and circumstances, traumatizing more than helping us.
I personally felt my case-officer was out to fault whatever I said, rather than try to understand. I believe if the tables turned, I would have handled the process more competently. Some of the questions he asked were downright irritating and upsetting. It seemed as if he had a personal vendetta and was more preoccupied with discrediting me, than grasping the complexity of my case. He never offer a kind word, despite me opened my heart to narrate the nightmare that shattered my life. Humility ought to be a paramount quality in this field – yet sadly it’s lacking. How can you assess personal tragedy, if you fail to step into people’s shoes? Just ask: what would life be like if I were this person, born where he was born, suffering what he suffered? What if my life, my family were on the line? Somebody should teach these officers that RSD work is not police interrogation, but the international community rescuing those who suffered grave injustices. It’s no surprise we find more comfort and understanding from churches and charities, than from those in an actual position of power. There is more, but best to leave the rest unsaid.

Asylum seekers live like a big family and share confidentialities amongst themselves, which is the reason we ask “What?? … Why?? …” after each case is decided, as we know much more than the UNHCR about what’s happening in our countries. The UNHCR today is so detached from reality, they even seem proud to notify rejections and no court of law or human rights lawyer can do anything about it! They are totally untouchable – if their office were audited, the world would be shocked by what’s discovered. It appears as if cases are randomly decided by lots, as recognition is quick for certain nationalities given blanket approval. This might be good for the UNHCR as it simplifies their work, but makes their results less credible. Many applicants, who don’t come from such countries, joke that even physical appearance and clothing play a part. The experience lawyers at the Hong Kong Refugee Advice Center are trying to address the inequalities of this process, but it’s a steep mountain to climb and they can only accept the most obvious cases.

Also, there are too many “economic asylum seekers” who confuse the process by swelling numbers and harming our genuine cases. I realize it’s hard for the UNHCR to distinguish between these, yet it shouldn’t take years to figure out who-is-who, as justice delayed is justice betrayed! Taking unnecessarily time to handle cases, not only destroys our future, but also that of our family left behind. What if your spouse and children were forced into hiding for years as you sought refuge abroad? My case was rejected by the UNHCR with a bafflingly dismissive reason: LACK OF CREDIBILITY! Needless to say, I told the truth about my shattered life, but my evidence and testimonies were rejected. If they call me a liar, why don’t I open my case to the public and let others decide whether I told the truth? This might be pointless for me, but it could help to improve the RSD process for those who follow. Ultimately it’s a matter of justice: either my story was credible, or I was dishonest. Since the United Nations was established for peace and gave the UNHCR it’s mandate 50 years ago, isn’t it time transparency underpinned their credibility?
(by a Concerned Appellant)

Reflections of a veteran

Oct 18th, 2010 | Advocacy | Comment

Life has been extremely difficult since I arrived in Hong Kong six years ago – in my country I was physically tortured, here I’m tortured psychologically every single day. It’s like beating a child, while forcing him to stop crying for the pain. I survive in dreadful circumstances with no improvement in legal status, profession or education. Although people talk about progress, giving food to a hungry man, is not an improvement; forcing him to finding shelter without money, is not improvement. After six years living like a beggar, I have two suggestions:  a) it is better to allow a person to earn his food, than offer him handouts; 2) it is better to teach a person to build, than to confine him to a dilapidated shelter. Sadly I’m one of the refugee veterans who suffered through the awful years around 2004, when the government left us fending for ourselves, living off our guts. People might ask: “With the services offered by ISS today, you are still complaining about your suffering?” But allow me to reply: “My culture says that a man must always sweat before he eats. But the situation I find myself in now shows that I am a woman. Why am I forced to stare helpless at my daily needs like at a woman at a dressing mirror? I should be respected for being a man capable of taking care of himself – instead of begging through life. 

Memories of the atrocities I fled have tortured me for years, yet nothing has changed. I escaped to Hong Kong, but my hardship worsened. Back home my life was endangered by fanatics, here it is endangered by poverty. I live in misery and I know I have no civil rights, no economic rights, no future, no hope! When we were released by Immigration, we were thrown into the streets without assistance from the UNHCR, Caritas or any charity. We were expected to survive by ourselves in a foreign city, yet prohibited from working to earn a living. The hardship we endured was so shocking, it’s etched in my mind forever. Even bus drivers were extraordinarily rude to us and got away with abuse it pains me to recall – speak of kicking a man when he’s down! Sometimes we had only 2$ for the ferry to Wanchai, so we had to walk the whole way from Meifoo to TST and then home again, just to sign a weekly Immigration report. Those years were so humiliating and harsh they made me wonder if death at home would have been less of a curse!

Today I’m profoundly frustrated. I don’t know when and how my life will continue. The situation is dragging on forever! There’s no option even after a successful torture claim, as it only guarantees we won’t be deported, without permitting work to lift ourselves out of grinding poverty. We have friends who would assist us with employment or education, but without legal permission – which is impossible to get – these opportunities remain a rainbow. At least if we could further our education [I’m a university graduate and was a teacher in my country] we would be ready to face the future. Why deny us even education? We can’t work. We can’t study. We can’t volunteer. Why does the government want to trap us? Months and years are fleeting by and I feel my life is rolling backwards faster and faster. I’m getting older. I’m losing touch. I’m forgetting my skills and knowledge. I’m losing confidence I’ll ever manage to escape this vortex of abandonment which is sucking me deeper into an abyss of despair. I feel a prison is expanding from within, incarcerating my brain as well as my hope. If I could be granted one single wish, it would be that the Hong Kong government reflect on our plight and show us some understanding and kindness, so that we might remember this city fondly when we manage to rebuild someplace, sometime, a life full of meaning.
(By Sed-Dash)

Refugee veteran

Volunteering with refugees

Oct 9th, 2010 | Advocacy | Comment

My experience volunteering with Vision First Now refugees has been really inspiring. Tiffany, who was involved in setting up Vision First, talked me through all the legalities of refugees and the services they receive from different refugee organisations and charities in Hong Kong – which are very limited.  Throughout my life I have worked for many charities in fundraising and marketing and also sat on the fundraising committee for Refugee Advice Centre, so I did understand the general workings of the charity world and had an understanding of the issues refugees faced.  However, this meeting focusing on the social and practical issues rather than the fundraising and marketing really opened my eyes to the world of refugees in Hong Kong.  For a change I wanted to do some work directly with them, so I did make it clear that for the purpose of volunteering, that was my goal.  Tiffany talked to me about a few families from Somalia and Pakistan that could benefit from some support.  The plan was to start teaching them English and help with orientation and settling issues.
I turned up at Cheung Sha Wan MTR not knowing what to expect and with just a notebook and pencil. I was a little apprehensive, but when I met the Somalian mother, I was relieved by her warm and friendly personality and also her enthusiasm to learn. It was hard to know what to teach her first, so I started with tentatively finding out about her family and sharing a little about mine as we were both mothers of a boy and a girl.  I also tried to help her learn more on transport around Hong Kong and the geography of Hong Kong as I remember how overwhelming this was when I first moved to Hong Kong, even as an English speaker. On the third week I decided to ask her how she thought I was doing and if she was finding the lessons OK?  I mainly asked to see what areas I could improve on. I felt very happy when she told me she wished to bring her friends along too. The following week a Pakistani lady and her happy young son also joined us.
It has been extremely rewarding teaching such warm, bright people who are so receptive to learning.  They have shared a little with me about the tragedy of the lives they left but because of the English level it is hard to be able to understand too much. However, when someone says to you the words: “All the young girls in the whole town raped … guns … everyone dead … shooting” – then it is pretty clear. The depth of the tragedy is revealed in their eyes, but it is hard to know what to say to counsel someone who has left her whole family behind, besides “Keep working on your English and life will get easier. I’m so proud of how brave you are to travel this hard journey to safety.”
Sometimes it amazes me these women can stay optimistic when they have been through so much.  I learnt more about some of the refugee experiences at a refugee conference organised by Vision First, where many of the refugees spoke about the years of waiting for an application to be heard, living their life in limbo. Certainly the experience humbles you.
Heidi

My experience volunteering with Vision First refugees has been really inspiring. Tiffany, who was involved in setting up Vision First, talked me through all the legalities of refugees and the services they receive from different refugee organisations and charities in Hong Kong – which are very limited.  Throughout my life I have worked for many charities in fundraising and marketing and also sat on the fundraising committee for Refugee Advice Centre, so I did understand the general workings of the charity world and had an understanding of the issues refugees faced.  However, this meeting focusing on the social and practical issues, rather than the fundraising and marketing really opened my eyes to the world of refugees in Hong Kong.  For a change I wanted to do some work directly with them, so I did make it clear that for the purpose of volunteering, that was my goal. Tiffany talked to me about a few families from Somalia and Pakistan that could benefit from some support. The plan was to start teaching them English and help with orientation and settling issues.

I turned up at Cheung Sha Wan MTR not knowing what to expect and with just a notebook and pencil. I was a little apprehensive, but when I met the Somalian mother, I was relieved by her warm and friendly personality and also her enthusiasm to learn. It was hard to know what to teach her first, so I started with tentatively finding out about her family and sharing a little about mine as we are both mothers of a boy and a girl.  I also tried to help her learn more about the geography and transport around the city, as I remember how overwhelming it was when I first moved here – even as an English speaker. On the third week I decided to ask her how she thought I was doing and if she was finding the lessons OK?  I mainly asked to see what areas I could improve on. I was very happy when she told me she wished to bring her friends along too. The following week a Pakistani lady and her happy young son also joined us.

It has been extremely rewarding teaching such warm, bright people who are so receptive to learning. They have shared a little with me about the tragedy of the lives they left behind, but because of the English level it is hard to understand much. However, when someone says to you the words: “All the young girls in the whole town raped … guns … everyone dead … shooting!” – then it is pretty clear. The depth of the tragedy is revealed in their eyes, but it is hard to know what to say to counsel someone who has left her whole family behind, besides “Keep working on your English and life will get easier. I’m so proud of how brave you are to travel this hard journey to safety.” (Her first husband was killed in 2005 – her second husband was shot this year!) Sometimes it amazes me these women can stay optimistic when they have been through so much.  I learnt more about some of the refugee experiences at a refugee conference organised by Vision First, where many of them spoke about the years of waiting for an application to be heard, living their life in limbo. Certainly the experience humbles you.
(by
Heidi)

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