Hong Kong is a thriving society built by immigrants – including refugees – from almost all the countries in the world. Our community has always welcomed asylum seekers, providing them with temporary protection and emergency assistance, in spite of inadequate refugee legislation. Vision First is an NGO assisting those forced to flee their countries to escape persecution, violence and torture. These are desperate victims often unable to return to their home country for many years, if ever. In our second year of operation, we have established our volunteer organization as a caring, actively engaged and responsive service for over 200 clients. We have set up a dozen homes, run a year-long food program and provide advocacy and outreach services to our clients scattered throughout the territory from Hung Hom to Yung Long. Vision First takes pride in offering rapid solutions to daily life crises, as well as addressing protracted challenges of the medical, legal and educational kind. Through our continuous interactions, we are reminded that refugees have fled unimaginable horrors, sometimes suffering agonizing years before reaching safety. Most are victims of trauma or torture and all arrived with no personal belongings, after their families were attacked and assets plundered.
Forced against their will to embark on an exile for which they made no preparation, refugee families suddenly find themselves in a foreign community, without the means or connections to integrate. Since they are not allowed to work, despite being legal residents, they survive in a frustrating state of powerlessness. Once their meager savings are depleted, they seek support from our community, with the distressing realization that they are ineligible for social security assistance (CSSA) as non-permanent residents. Excluded from a familiar support network, they become prey to poverty and despair. This is especially so for those with children. Within a few months their dignity and self-worth are crushed with a devastating and enduring effect on their children, who are unable to cope with the social and economic void around them. Without sufficient means to support themselves these educated people live in substandard lodging and on the street. They rely on donations to meet their families’ basic needs.
Vision First is particularly concerned about the families with young children. These families need immediate financial assistance to protect them from further perils such as malnutrition, sickness and isolation. We have identified a number of families teetering on the edge of despair and – as a caring community – we must do whatever we can to stop their suffering. Seeking ongoing support for these children and parents, Vision First is launching the REFUGEE CHILD SPONSORSHIP program to directly link donor families with refugee families. This will enable our commitment to support these children so they can look towards the future with some optimism. To learn more about this special initiative and how you can make a tangible difference, please read the information below.
The aim of this program: Refugee Child Sponsorship APPEAL
How you can help: Refugee Child Sponsorship FORM
[From TIME magazine's article, published July 5th, 2010]
Kaienat, the daughter of Sayed and Sayeeda, may have come into this world as a refugee. Haweeya, a 20-year-old woman from Mogadishu, Somalia, left the world as one. On a late-January morning in central Jakarta, a group of Somali men stood around her freshly dug grave in Karet Bivak cemetery, molding clumps of red earth to make a pillow for her head. A few women hung back and watched them lift her body, swathed in white, off a metal gurney. Three years ago, Haweeya, whose name has been changed for privacy reasons, fled Somalia’s chronic internecine warfare and ended up in Indonesia, where she was granted refugee status by the small Jakarta office of the UNHCR. A childhood bout of polio had left her frail and on crutches. Her condition worsened in early January, and she was admitted to hospital. Before her doctors could figure out what was wrong, Haweeya died. The waiting place became, for her, the final resting place.
For millions of refugees and asylum seekers, surviving the crushing isolation of that wait is a daily feat. Before her roommate Haweeya was buried, 19-year-old Haboou Abdilahi sat outside the hospital morgue in a long black dress and headscarf. Abdilahi, who also has UNHCR refugee status, held her friend’s U.N. refugee card and paperwork in her lap, trying at the same time to pay respects while not looking at Haweeya’s corpse on a metal table six feet away, thin chin and shoulders jutting up from under the cotton shroud. When asked where in Jakarta she lived, Abdilahi replied, “Me and Haweeya live together.” A moment of confusion passed over her face and she shook her head. And then, “I live alone.”
9 July 2010 – British photojournalist Alixandra Fazzina has been named the winner of the Nansen Refugee Award given annually since 1954 by Geneva-based UNHRC (UN High Commissioner for Refugees) to an individual “for outstanding work on behalf of refugees.”
Fazzina began her photojournalism career following the British Army in Bosnia for two years, after which she began to record the lives of refugees.
She spent two years in Somalia chronicling the exodus of migrants and refugees from Somalia to the Arabian Peninsula and the smuggling business in the Gulf of Aden. The book which came out of this work will be published in September 2010, A Million Shillings, Escape from Somalia.
UNHCR, on announcing the award, noted that: Over the last ten years Alixandra Fazzina has tirelessly documented the plight of the uprooted through distinctive and moving photo reportages. Alixandra Fazzina’s work has taken her to Eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia to cover
Saturday 26 June, 2010 – Vision First has marked the 2010 United Nations International Day for the Support of Victims of Torture with a panel discussion on the Protection of the Rights of Torture Victims in Asia and Hong Kong.
In partnership with Asian Human Rights Commission, hosted by the University of Hong Kong and streamed live on the internet by the Professional Commons via Community TV, the five panelists delivered their perspectives on human rights violations of citizens, asylum seekers and refugees in Asia.
Panelists were Mr Mark Daly – Human Rights Lawyer at Barnes and Daly Solicitors, Mr Brian Barbour – Chief Executive of Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre (HKRAC), Mr Richard Tsoi – Community Organiser, Society for Community Organisation (SoCO), Mr Bijo Francis – Program Officer (India), Asian Human Rights Commission and Mr Baseer Naweed – Program Officer (Pakistan), Asian Human Rights Commission.
The panel outlined Hong Kong’s mechanisms for handling torture and asylum
claims, detention facilities and the treatment of refugees by the authorities, and Hong Kong’s political position and responsibilities having not signed the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention.
The panel also outlined the situation in India and Pakistan where harsh and unlawful police and military forces routinely torture citizens to extract information and enact revenge against opponents.
Video interviews and documentaries of torture survivors illustrated the severity of the inhumane treatment of vulnerable citizens across Asia. Cases from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Pakistan highlighted the crucial need to reform political systems to protect the human rights of all.
Q&A sessions engaged the panel in discussions from various perspectives including asylum seekers, international lawyers, law students and Hong Kong NGOs. A tragic personal story of torture reminded all those present with the reality of the situation, reminding us all of the gravity of human suffering. As hard as it is to speak about, and as hard as it is to hear, the sharing of personal experiences from Mr Naweed, as well as from those interviewed on film, stirs in listeners the motivation and sense of urgency to do whatever we can to help stop the use of torture.
Vision First is currently planning similar forums to promote the welfare and protection of rights for asylum seekers, refugees and torture claimants in Hong Kong.
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