One of my first memories, when I arrived in Hong Kong a few years ago, is about a 65 year old man from South-East Asian who, on his second day here, approached me seeking help on his next steps. It often happens that people arriving in Hong Kong do not know much about asylum or protection and even less about this city. He said: ‘I was managing a hotel back in my country. I was the Director. I used to welcome important people, many foreigners, even prime ministers and heads of state in official visit. And now… now I am here seeking asylum.’ Tears flowed down his face and suddenly he stopped talking. With pride, as if connecting to a past that wasn’t his any longer, he gave me his business card. I took it and, with uneasy embarrassment, I exchanged it for mine. Fate is sometimes cruel: a person spends a lifetime building a career, having a family, sacrificing everything and then, quite suddenly, unexpected and unacceptable disaster strikes. The ensuing trauma is deep and unexplainable. This old man, a little bent forward, tearful eyes glistening on his weathered dark skin, gave me a deep sense of tenderness. A few months later he decided to gamble with his life by moving back to his country. Refugee life here was simply too harsh for him to bear. He was one of the first refugees I met in Hong Kong.
Having spent several years away, my return to Hong Kong wasn’t welcomed by many improvements. Sure, new skyscrapers were built, subway lines increased in number and convenience, but refugees are still here, still unable to accept their past and still powerless to move forward. I recall that old man and wonder whether he is still alive, whether his courageous return home enabled him to reclaim that fundamental role of every father: to love and support wife and children. It just makes you wonder. Refugees escape for the most diverse reasons, but when that occurs, what happens to their families? They simply shatter! Some people succeed to arrive with their closest family members, but most others do not. Increasingly restrictive immigration control measures, enforced by countries in the globalized Northern hemisphere, have resulted in extremely harsh and expensive journeys for refugees in search of safety. Their movement is characterized by countless obstacles, risks, uncertainty and even death. Fathers leave their loved ones behind thinking it isn’t safe to travel together, however they always hope to reunite their family when their application for asylum is processed and are granted the right to family reunion. In Hong Kong, this is simply an illusion.
Once they enter the asylum system, very few people can do anything about their future and in fact, they lose the right to travel. Their life becomes the continuous duplication of the same tedious day, repeated over and over again for years – hopelessly. Waiting is the only activity for thousands of men, women and children who will probably never be able to see their families again. They are now inertly waiting for someone to decide their refugee status, for someone to provide for their daily needs, for someone to fix their broken lives, which this very asylum system conspired to tear apart.
[An anonymous friend]
What’s the difference between an illegal immigrant and a genuine refugee?
An illegal immigrant said: “It’s difficult to live at home. I must look for better opportunities …”
A refugee said: “It’s impossible to survive at home. I might be killed tonight …”
But how do refugees reach the breaking point? It happens when justice fails, when persecutors bring down blows, when tormentors drag them inches from death, beyond care and consequence. They prepare themselves for death, because what they were was all they had. Now family, friends and community all turned to horror. In jail there are beatings and torture. Executions are the enemy’s final tactic – effective terror in a life beyond ransom. Fear and rage, tears and despair are all there is left. They feel driven mad and wish for death as a welcome release. Terrible things happen. Everything is going to hell, they feel it in their bones. The enemy’s hands are dipped in your family’s blood. Life has lost meaning. There is no mercy, no justice, no rules – just fury and hatred. More killings and executions … you are next … but suddenly you escape!
Through self-imposed odyssey, refugees remain tied to their country, their family, their culture while struggling to adapt and move on. Hong Kong is nothing but a transit point, a temporary shelter offering no residence, no work, no durable solution. A letter they sign on release from detention reminds them of this reality. Eventually they are expelled from a facility where they got meals, shelter and medicines. They must fend for themselves from the No. 52X bus-stop, without coins for the fair. They walk to Kowloon … hoping to encounter a Good Samaritan … because courage brought them this far. It’s a hard life. Time moves in jerks. Life is swallowed by fear, depression and humiliation. They came because they needed to escape, they had no choice. Nobody chooses to be a refuge to better their fortune. They carry the double burden of loss and hopelessness, of a life wasted away in a recurring nightmare, beyond help. They fend off grinding poverty, hunger, homelessness. On top of these there is abuse and discrimination, the public failing to distinguish illegal immigrants from refugees. Food, water, shelter all cost money. They beg for help from anyone who’ll listen. Crime is absent despite their dreadful circumstances. They walk up to restaurants and ask for bread … they ask random people for help … they eat when they get a break, they shower when they get lucky. They pray for meal, a park bench, an empty pew, a caring stranger. How much tougher it is if you are still a youth! The bane of humanity is indeed ignorance and want.
Refugees are a shadow of the life they used to be. In our city they enjoy freedom of movement without the means to survive; the right to walk and breath, but not a chance to cook and wash. It’s as if the walls of prison expanded to encompass the city; yet walls they remain and their life is doomed to poverty, with no hope beyond today. Our authorities condemn them to an existence with few resources – prohibiting work paid or unpaid, including volunteering – to live like frogs trapped in a well, from where they can see a patch of sky they’ll never reach. We can only appreciate their plight in a friend-to-friend conversation, with trust and empathy. There are only two certainties: shame and suffering. There is nobody else for them, no family, no community. They are forced out on the street like beggars. Violence, insecurity, despair, life on the edge, lost in gloom and bitterness, doing anything to survive, even sell their body … These are our invisible citizens, wondering faces lost in well-known streets, including children deprived of a future by accident of birth. Their wounds are old and nothing can be done to prevent them … however, the scarring can be healed and that’s our social responsibility.
Click here to read more:www.unhcr.org/4c16241e6.html
I come from a country where 5% of the population is so powerful even unarmed they can slap a policeman who’ll run away scared clutching an AK47. Instead 80% of people live close to the ground in wretched poverty and in the middle is an middle class, close to power yet always a target of the wealthy who will kill to possess the little they don’t own. In my case it was the land my grandpa left me – a blessing which became a curse. I planned to develop it when I finished university, but a militia boss close to presidential power had the same desire. These guys are ruthless, evil, won’t stop at anything: I was arrested twice and beaten so badly I thought I would die. In the cells next-door it was worse, the screaming unspeakable, shots were fired and bodies dragged out … I got lucky. Weeks later I was released in another country, no passport, no money, but free to run away. How powerful these people are if they can arrest without charge, torture at will and dump opponents across borders?
Before I came to HK I didn’t know you could be so hungry you don’t know what to do. After being released from Immigration I spent the toughest two months of my life, homeless, hungry and helpless, yet my mother said: “That place is heaven. Don’t come home. If you come back they will kill you!” I must be honest, I ate from dumpsters every day: rice and sandwich bits outside 7/11, fruits and chapatti outside Wellcome. Hong Kong people are rich, they throw so much stuff away. I cried as I wasn’t sure I would get a meal, I had no money for my phone and I didn’t know where to wash. Daytime I slept in Kowloon Park or under the arches of the Cultural Centre. It’s too scary to sleep in the streets at night; in our country somebody might slit your throat to take your clothes. Better to sleep in the morning: when the park opened I lay on a bench by the two cannons, wore two jackets to keep warm and slept a few hours before the guards told me to sit up. The police never came, nobody disturbed me, I clutched my backpack and hoped dreams would be better than the nightmare I lived. Once dark I left the park as I didn’t feel safe; I went to a guesthouse in Mirador Mansions, where the African boss didn’t mind me sitting in the reception watching TV with the tourists.
Eventually the owner allowed me to shower and every three days, seeing I was hungry, a guest had pity and offered his leftovers – nobody bought me a meal. Again I could catch some sleep but when the place closed I had to move out; I spent half hour pacing each floor, avoided the 7/11 as there is fighting at night. I sat by the mosque and then little by little walked to Star Ferry and along the waterfront to Hung Hom, looking at the water, imagining I would drown quickly carrying my bag. Just keep walking, if you sit the ground becomes too hard and time stops flowing. Just keep moving, you suffer less, looking at stuff time passes faster and when you’re tired you sleep better daytime. “Hell Time” is 2 till 5am when minutes feel like hours! It’s weird: clocks are in slow-motion, the darkness so thick that dawn cannot pierce it. But once daylight breaks, the city comes to life, your heart rejoices seeing people around as they make you feel normal again. I walked up Chatham road to the Rosary Church for mass every single day at 6am. It felt good to pray, I loved the music and the singing as it gave me hope and I could sleep at the back afterwards. When a boy called me “Rastaman” as I didn’t have a razor to cut my hair and beard, I took out a photo from a wedding at home and couldn’t believe what a shocking change I’d made.
My first break came walking around Chung King Mansion at lunchtime. I heard guitars and singing inside, I entered an open door and the most amazing thing happened – I was offered a hot meal, the first in two months! Expecting they would ask me for money, I said NO repeatedly, but Pastor Sam insisted and I realized it really was for me. After eating out of dumpsters for months, that was a miracle. It was unreal: the first hot meal since I left Immigration detention. I fought back tears of joy. Things go better. They asked about my situation, invited me to return anytime and offered a bed-space in their Hung Hom shelter. I stayed there for four months until I received ISS rent assistance to move into this $1200 room in Cheung Sha Wan – problem is I must come up with $200 each month or Mr. Wang goes mad, but that’s tomorrow’s problem and for now … Welcome to my castle, my friend!
Gharib 26, Central Africa
“Left home at the age of seven – one year later I’m carryin’ an AK-47!”
For hip hop artist Emmanuel Jal, a former child soldier in Sudan’s brutal civil war, these lyrics are hardly empty posturing. They are the bitter reality of a young man who was “forced to sin” but determined to “never give up and never give in.” Today, wounded but still hopeful, Emmanuel Jal fights a new battle: bringing peace to his beloved Sudan and building schools in Africa. This time, his weapon is a microphone. See why audiences from New York to Berlin to London rave about the award-winning film – WAR CHILD – and have embraced the hip-hop artist with a terrifying past and a gentle soul. Interspersing original interviews, live concerts, and rare footage of Emmanuel Jal as a seven year-old boy, War Child will make viewers cry, laugh, dance, and celebrate the power of hope. To see how much he has changed and how he donates his time and resources is very powerful and above all inspires other refugees to hold onto their dreams. Above all Emmanuel has such peace and love about him despite all the troubles he suffered.
I couldn’t believe what I saw that night – they came down the river and suddenly emerging from the bush, shouting wildly, they attacked and chopped us as if knives did cut, as if people weren’t made of flesh. It was a butchery. Worst than a pack of dogs gone wild in a meal stall. Despite the heavy rain, the next day there were flies and blood everywhere: those bodies (…) scattered as proof of such mad horror. How do I explain it to my children? How can I explain this to others? Who cares WHY we are here? Can I ever overcome my past?
What angers me most is the prejudice we suffer in a modern city like Hong Kong. Last week at a church in Kwun Tong a madam chatted happily with me for ten minutes, then she asked “What work do you do?” surely expecting I was engaged in some business. When I answered “I am an asylum-seeker”, her tongue froze with her thoughts. I could see the disgust in her shocked eyes … she didn’t want to say what she was thinking … she stared at me speechless like I’d suddenly become a ghost and we hadn’t been talking friendly before. She glanced across the room for an excuse, hastily said “Excuse me!” and walked off. She never looked at me again because I offended how she wanted her safe and comfortable life to be. I cried inside. If only she knew the fate that brought me here. How could she treat me like that? One moment she wanted to make friends, the next she wished she’d never spoken to me. Her behaviour made me sink into the floor, made me wish I’d stayed home that day. People can be more cruel with their attitude than they are with weapons. If only I could show her the rotting bodies in the heat of my village – family and friends gone forever – then I’m sure she would understand the evil we escaped. In my country we are nothing to our enemies, there is no place for weakness: either you fight and kill or you will be defeated and killed. Running away is the only option if you don’t want the blood of murder on your hands. Every day I’m crushed by this desolation, this helplessness. I never sleep more than three hours and worries take me constantly to places where I don’t want to be … looking for the meaning my life has lost … looking for the hope I will never have …
Faraj 33, East Africa
I appreciate why our clients complain about rushed and inattentive care at public hospitals. When I was young I used to work there myself and young doctors, overworked and stressed out, must adjust to the fast mentality and working ethics of: “Just get the work done!” Once you enter private practice, with less workload more experience and maturity, you see a patient as a person not “work” so you empathize with them.Just by doing so already helps them feel better, which is the first step towards recovery.
These refugees are generally young, tough guys who experienced terrible situations in their countries. When people like this seek medical treatment they are indeed in physical pain and in great need. If they complain about something, I know their symptoms are real because tough guys don’t complain easily. Every complaint needs to be taken seriously, though the underlying illness might not be what the initial symptoms point to. For example: one might complain of chest pain but it’s a bowel infection; another might complain of stomach and bowel symptoms, loss of appetite, progressive weight loss, however he’s diagnose with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, resulting from torture suffered in his country, coupled with the depression caused by separation from his family (i.e., an emotional disorder requiring treatment.) Medicine is like solving puzzles and detecting crime every single time; I consider each case like a chess game where the opponent is the underlying disease and the patient’s body and mind are the chess board!
Historically and in all cultures, being a doctor is inherently an endeavour in humanity, material reward is never assumed. This sense of duty is deeply ingrained in every doctor’s mentality. I believe this is true for all doctors, all over the world. Being able to help clients seeking Vision First’s help, is naturally a rewarding experience in itself. However, this doesn’t mean I look forward to being in this position forever. I and everyone at Vision First, sincerely wish that all asylum-seekers in HK are granted refugee status soon, so they may lead a normal, rewarding life in a welcoming and safe country. Ultimately, I wish a fulminating pandemic of peace, democracy and prosperity will break out everywhere, and asylum-seeker and refugee will become a reality of the past. I look forward to the day when Vision First ceased to have reason to exist or will move on to new missions.