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.
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.
My name is Seed and I come from West Africa. I was a livestock trader before political and tribal violence drove me off ancestral land in 2001, and eventually to a city I knew little about and never imagined I would come to. In 2004 I applied for political asylum with the UNHCR. I faced a long wait for a response to my claim and have been barred from working since I arrived. It was a long time before I heard from the UNHCR. Finally, I was called in and they just handed me a letter stating my application for refugee status had been rejected without a reason. They informed me I had two weeks to appeal the decision. So I did. It took them many months to reply, then they notified me my file had been permanently closed. I asked them why? And I answered to myself it would be easier were I born in East Africa or Somalia, but since I’m West African it’s hopeless to be accepted as a refugee in Hong Kong. There is no transparency at the UNHCR in Hong Kong and that was the worst year I ever experienced in my life!
The UN office processes asylum applications here without coordination with the government to address the time lag between a typical claim and the length of a valid visa, meaning many are forced to overstay their visa and end up in jail. I went to Immigration to organize my situation regarding my UNHCR application. But they didn’t give me a chance, so I had to become an over-stayer. I slept outside, at the Star Ferry pier for three long years, dodging police raids and sheltering in cardboard boxes. Life in Hong Kong is very difficult because I am alone, I don’t know anybody. I can’t work. I don’t have any civil rights or freedom. I’m like a prisoners, just that my prison is outside in the streets. I continued like this until 2007 when a social worker told me that, following demonstrations against the jailing without cause of asylum-seekers, the government had stopped this harsh practice. They confirmed that anyone with proper asylum seeking documents would only be kept in detention for a short period of time. Therefor I surrendered with my passport and files. For two weeks I was detained, but because I entered Hong Kong legally, they could not hold me too long. When I was released the immigration officers told me to see a social welfare officer. I went to ISS (International Social Services) and filled out the forms for some rent assistance – the same 1000 HKD a month since 2005!
Still now every month I must go to sign at Immigration and I don’t imagine I will ever get CAT refugee status, because of the problems with the UNHCR. If only there were a chance the government offered me a future - by guaranteeing me legal status to start my life – that is all I desire. I came here to seek protection from the tragedies I escaped and I’m not dreaming to be resettled in the States or Canada. After six years struggling, haven’t I earned the right to rebuild my life? Why rob me of the rest?
(Photo courtesy of SoCo)
My name is El and I would like to share these reflections with you. My son and I support Vision First because this organization advocates and puts in to real daily practice their principles of “Humanity without Borders”; and we are absolutely certain that 100% of our sponsorship goes to those most in need. I had already read and heard about – and my son had witness as a volunteer – how very desperate VF clients’ situation is. Knowing the Asylum Seeker and Refugee Forum would be a good opportunity to discover more, I took the afternoon off work to attend. It turned out to be both a humbling and memorable experience from the start. I had taken the MTR and found the venue in good time. But many, including mothers with very young children, arrived late. I then reminded myself that most would have walked miles from home in order to participate, simply because public transport is not a luxury they can afford. 4:30pm came and the forum panel was introduced. Both the policy and service briefings were highly informative. The questions from the asylum seekers and refugees were direct and impassioned. The answers by the guest speakers (human rights lawyers Massie & Clement, Yip & Liu, HKRAC; activists from SOCO, Pathfinders; service provider ISS) were honest and constructive. I was impressed by how well the proceedings had been preplanned; and even the odd nervous moment passed surprisingly smoothly. As a result, a thoroughly civilized mood was established which lasted till 7pm, despite most clients wanting to continue. These are a few of the numerous sad facts that have become clearer to me:
- asylum seekers and refugees are basically fellow human beings who had the misfortune to be born in countries suffering under cruel and lawless regimes;
- they are here because legitimate China and HK visas provided the only accessible and expeditious means to escape from unacceptable dangers and persecution – in some cases, even death;
- HK laws dictates that they do not have the right to remain here permanently as asylum seekers or refugees;
- the law also doesn’t allow them to get jobs whilst waiting to be assessed and/or resettled. Therefore, all are genuinely unable to support themselves, though many are educated and definitely willing to do so;
- the refugee determination process can take over 7 years; so because they have no right to work, all they can do is sit about or walk around all day, every day – literally waiting in limbo;
- meanwhile their existence is barely recognized by the local general public; and the available official financial aid is insufficient on its own even to rent the most meager of quarters, let alone provide food and other necessities.
At the end of the forum discussions, the speakers were inundated with requests for contact details – a sure sign their apparent dedication had won hearts. Having been able to voice their concerns and get encouragement openly from the actual agencies that serve them, these refugees headed home that night with renewed hope. Finally, Vision First distributed t-shirts to some of those leaving, to their obvious delight. Everyone still has to wait for their big day, but they could at least smile for the moment.
This program aired on TVB’s “PEARL REPORT” on 29 August 2010. It is a compelling look into pro-bono work offered by the legal community to those who don’t qualify for the Duty Lawyer System (in the lower courts) or for Legal Aid (in the upper courts with claims greater than $50,000.) While this program focuses on the legal profession, we note PRO-BONO is short for the Latin expression “Pro Bono Publico” which means “for the public good” and describes professional work undertaken voluntarily and without remuneration by anyone.
At Vision First there is a team of lawyers, doctors, psychologist, dentists, teachers and others who passionately serve our clients in the name of social justice – which guarantees to all the rights that flow from their dignity as human beings. This dignity we share equally requires all to participate in efforts to reduce social and economic inequalities, leading ultimately to a greater public good.
Check out the report at http://mytv.tvb.com/news/pearlreport/110901/?ref=nf#page-1
I realized my notion of refugees was still equated with the Vietnamese boat-people who fled to Hong Kong over 20 years ago. I hadn’t the slightest idea there are political refugees living in our city. Occasionally I read in newspapers how Christians are abused in remote countries in Africa, then I would sigh and feel bad for a moment, but would forget all about it as I turn to the next page. But these families are real people here. Vision First briefed me on their outreach work and shared stories of their clients’ misery and dangerous flight from their home countries. My heart sank, but at the same time I was touched by what they have done for them. With the funds from donors, they place them in decent homes with basic furniture and supplies, they pay for basic expenses like electricity, water, medicines and transportation. That was only laying the groundwork, as now they worries about the refugee children who are allocated a space in local schools, but don’t have money for transportation, books or lunch. With just the bare minimum to survive each day, it becomes impossible for these parents to send their kids to school.
When I heard Vision First needs sponsors to help with the children’s education, I responded immediately and was assigned to help a Congolese family in Hong Kong with three kids. Though I am not involved with the voluntary work of Vision First, I feel much closer to this charity now that I have learned more about the clients it serves. With a monthly sponsorship of 1000 HKD, I feel good not only that I am helping this family but also I know 100% of my donation is given directly to them. As promised, nothing is deducted and every expense is recorded and signed for. I wish to share with you these feelings and experience, because it might inspire you to also join this program. I couldn’t help but write down my thoughts as the experience of meeting people whose life was threatened because of their belief, has helped me deepen my faith. It is also a great opportunity to plant the seed of compassion in our children, to help them learn from these underprivileged kids who only wish for a safe place to live and study. Because we are blessed with opportunity and choice, we are morally responsible to assist the helpless and, I believe, nobody is going to keep these kids’ life from shining!
We could blog about a rogue cop intimidating a refugee despite his UNHCR certificate …
We could blog about a mother struggling to buy books for her kids in school …
We could blog about the bugs and lice infesting a refugees’ room …
Instead – we’ll share a message received from a volunteer on a different issue:
“A Philippina friend hasn’t been paid by her employer for 15 months. Her contract will end soon. She may need help in representation. She waited so long due to low self-esteem, sense of powerlessness, selling her jewelry to survive and, until recently, a naive belief her employers would one day be fair, if she kept doing enough good for them. The last straw was when they said they wouldn’t pay her long service leave for her ten years service to them. Reason they said: “We need that money for our ten year old son’s future and have no money!” However, they then took a 3-week holiday in Japan, bought a 40-inch TV and a new car. My friend worked hard for them for a decade and continues to. She raised their child and made it possible for them to earn well as managers and go out continually, holiday regularly.Now they treat her like a slave that they own. It disturbs me! She wrote letters to them over the past months asking for her pay, explaining how hard life is for her, but each time they told her they were ‘Unable to help her’ – though what she claims is justly owed to her.”
Vision First has already introduced this lady to an NGO specializing in defending maids’ right and her employer will regret this abuse.Besides assisting the vulnerable, we are committed to raising community consciousness about issues of fairness, equality and social justice – wherever we encounter them – for this is the spirit which drives us. Nothing reflects our vision better than the masterful words Martin Luther King cried out: “No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a might stream!”
Dear Vision First - This is Maahir Quasim from Somalia, now am in Hong Kong about 2 weeks having been released from detention with Immigration document, I approached UNHCR and ISS. I did the registration for both of them but I have to still find a place to spend the night. I mean shelter! which they both couldn’t help me to find out. ISS have promised me to pay 1000 HK dollars for the rent to the landlord, but said we cannot find the room for you because it’s not their job. Moreover we will not pay any deposit for the room even though it’s rare today to find a room for 1000 HK dollars and impossible without deposit payment. I spent 2 week in Kauloon Park, waiting for UNHCR to call me. At night I sleep in little streets where I’m dry from the rain. Only 3 nights I slept in a landlord shop, introdused by the ISS who was supposed to give me a room and then failed in that because i don’t have any more money after selling my watch.
Therefore, I am helpless to find a shelter in Hong Kong being fled home Somalia where war destroyed my life. Even if i wanted to there is no way to go back as i don’t have passport and all my family is killed or scattered over there. I came here with no bersonal belongings so I cant help myself in no way. I am educated teacher, 27 years old guy and i can help your organization for a place to sleep. I got your contact from someone who seemed as a friend of you, he gave me your number and said Vision First can help refugees. I’m waiting to hear from you soon and I would really appreciate if you help me with now. God bless you – Maahir Quasim
A new website has launched, integrating the experiences, opinions, views and even complaints of our very own clients. This is what they have to say:
Seeking Refuge aims to help asylum seekers find refuge by fostering communication and community. We are a community website where asylum seekers in Hong Kong can make their voices heard, and a place where the general public can learn first-hand about the experiences and lives of asylum seekers residing in Hong Kong. In essence, SeekingRefuge.hk is a website that offers a ground level perspective on the very pertinent issue of asylum seeking. We follow this ideal strictly: all of the blogs on this website are written by asylum seekers. Seeking Refuge has a twofold objective:
a) provide a platform where asylum seekers may inform the general public about the current treatment and situation of asylum seekers in Hong Kong.
b) encourage the Hong Kong government, UNHCR and other relevant administrative bodies to take greater action in redressing the livelihood and future of asylum seekers in Hong Kong.
Here you go … click to check out what they have to say: www.seekingrefuge.hk