Why do things always fall apart in Africa?

Jan 12th, 2011 | Advocacy | Comment

In light of the international dramas unfolding in Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Niger (etc.) it’s is doubtless helpful to examine why the entire continent of Africa continues to force hundreds of REFUGEES to flee their homelands for the uncertainty of self-imposed EXILE in Hong Kong. It bears emphasizing the numbers reaching Hong Kong are tiny – compared to the odyssey at Europe’s besieged borders – however our community is less informed about the socio-economic and political background behind this human tide, than people in other world cities. The article below offers a broad picture of how Vampire States force the exodus of what an Ivorian friend described as, “the little people who chose to live another day rather than be killed!” Ultimately it is always GREED and HATRED that undergird this plight and we realize there is no easy solution for either. Vision First believes it is our social responsibility to not only provide material assistance to our members, but especially to advocate for their rights and share what we learn with the community. Today we join our hopes and wishes with all the Sudanese, who suffered through twenty years of persecution, on the dawn of Southern Sudan – may your suffering and struggle finally usher in your Independence Day!

Click to read Professor Mariam’s article published in The Huffington Post.

“Africa is the only continent to have grown poorer over the last three decades” while other developing countries and regions have grown. Africa was better off at the end of colonialism than it is today. According to the U.N., life expectancy in Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Sierra Leone, Zambia, Mozambique and Swaziland for the period 2005-2010 is less than 44 years, the worst in the world. The average annual income in Zimbabwe at independence in 1980 was USD $950. In 2009, 100 trillion Zimbabwean dollars (with a “T”) was worth about USD $300. In the same year, a loaf of bread in Zimbabwe cost 300 billion Zimbabwean dollars (with a “B”). The tens of billions in foreign aid money has done very little to improve the lives of Africans. The reason for things falling apart in Africa is statism (the state as the principal change agent) and central planning, according to Guest. The bottom line is that the masses of Africans today are denied basic political and economic freedoms while the privileged few live the sweet life of luxury, not entirely unlike the “good old” colonial times.

Guest concludes that “Africans are poor because they are poorly governed.” The answer to Africa’s problems lies in upholding the rule of law, enforcing contracts, safeguarding property rights and putting more stock in freedom than in force. Much of Africa today is under the control of “Vampire states“. As the noted African economist George Ayittey explains, the “vampire African states” are “governments which have been hijacked by a phalanx of bandits and crooks who would use the instruments of the state machinery to enrich themselves and their cronies and their tribesmen and exclude everybody else.” (“Hyena States” would be a fitting alternative in the African landscape.) Africa is ruled by thugs in designer suits who buy votes and loyalties with cash handouts.

Things have fallen apart in Africa for a long time because of colonialism, capitalism, socialism, Marxism, communism, tribalism, ethnic chauvinism… neoliberalism, globalism and what have you. Things are in total free fall in Africa today because Africa has become a collection of vampiric states ruled by kleptocrats who have sucked it dry of its natural and human resources. It is easy to blame the white man and his colonialism, capitalism and all the other “isms” for Africa’s ailments, but as Cassius said to Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” The fault is not in the African people, the African landscape or skyscape. Africa is rich and blessed with natural and human resources. The fault is in the African brutes and their vampiric regimes.

A room for two refugees in Shamshuipo: bunkbed, chair, storage and kitchen.
A room for two refugees in Shamshuipo: bunkbed, chair, storage and kitchen.

Refugees denied the right to work

Jan 7th, 2011 | Advocacy | Comment

Refugees are the most resilient people: their very determination to survive against all adversity is testament to their tenacity and endurance. When stranded in Hong Kong, our beneficiaries’ most painful realization is they are POWERLESS to do anything to better their life, besides sitting and waiting, begging and praying. The consequence of stranding so many helpless and impoverished people on the street is depressing for an affluent, progressive, open-minded society. Because refugees lived productive and active lives in their countries, with jobs, careers and good prospects, they now find perpetual idleness exceedingly disheartening. We are often told that “lack of work” is the one most painful reality they can never get used to, compared to their previous life, in a metropolis famous for its workaholic mentality. There really is only so much time anyone can sit on a park bench without going crazy! Yesterday’s court order has made their waiting even harder, their future even more impenetrable. By denying refugees the opportunity to support themselves, the HKSAR is condemning them to poverty and exposing them to the social ills stemming from such a coerced existence.

The Court of First Instance ruled that the Director of Immigration has the right to decide on a case-by-case basic if refugees can work and we all know the answer is always negative. This verdict is most traumatic for refugees without resettlement options, condemned to remain stateless in Hong Kong, with their families and young children needy of everything. Yesterday we delivered 50 nappies to a mother who gave birth before Christmas. She was at her wits ends to solve her infant’s pressing requirements. She whispered in despair “What can I do? Do I have to steal food and nappies for my baby? I can’t just sit here in the cold and do nothing while my baby gets sick. What will the police say when I explain that I had no other choice?” Fortunately we were there, but there are a hundred more moms beyond our reach. Let’s be clear, the court didn’t deliberate on the 6600 asylum seekers, but only for the 105 Mandate Refugees, recognized as deserving international protection, who would hardly put a dent in the local work force, if ever they got a job. Today they learn that a two year court battle was lost and an appeal is as remote as unlikely. The judge spoke about not giving a ‘ray of hope’ to illegal immigrants, but he’s confusing his apples and oranges: illegal immigrants are here by choice and have an option to return home – refugees arrived by duress and have nowhere else to go. In our opinion, political and economic concerns trumped humanitarian decency and for Hong Kong refugees the descent into grief accelerates.

South China Morning Post – “Refugees denied right to work” by Chris Ip, Jan 07, 2011

The Court of First Instance ruled yesterday that the government had no obligation to allow certified refugees to work in Hong Kong, even if they suffer mental illnesses as a result of not being able to gain employment. The judgment dismissed the claims of five mandated refugees and successful torture claimants who have been in Hong Kong for up to nine years but have failed to find a host country to resettle them. The decision means they will remain here in limbo – dependent on social services and with no path to citizenship in Hong Kong. Two have been diagnosed with depression and another with post traumatic stress disorder, owing to their inability to work and provide for themselves and their families. Mr Justice Andrew Cheung Kui-nung acknowledged that refusing to allow someone to work could amount to “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” and thus violate a basic human right. Nevertheless, he said the director of immigration had full discretion to grant the right to work on a case-by-case basis. Immigration had never given permission to work in this situation, the judge said in November. He said yesterday: “It is for the decision maker, but not the court, to make the decision. The court must not usurp the role of the director.” Cheung said that the Bill of Rights – which enshrines human rights in Hong Kong – does not apply to the applicants because they do not have the legal right to enter and remain in the city; they are allowed here temporarily. Human rights lawyer Mark Daly, solicitor for the applicants, said the ruling showed the judiciary was becoming increasingly unreceptive to human rights arguments. He noted recent High Court decisions to deny transsexuals the right to marry, and to allow the deportation of Edward Wilson Ubamaka to Nigeria where he could be prosecuted for a crime for which he has already served jail time. “Without the judiciary breathing life into the Basic Law and these human rights instruments, government power will remain basically unchecked,” Daly said. “I think it leads to bad – or no – policies because effectively they’re given carte blanche to do whatever they want to do.” The government had argued that granting work rights to refugees, even those whose claims of persecution and torture had been validated, would attract more people with questionable claims to take a chance on coming to Hong Kong. Cheung said the director of immigration was entitled to think that any sign of relaxation in the government’s attitude would be a “ray of hope” for illegal immigrants.

A VF Member happily resettled
A VF Member happily resettled

2010 Year End Report

Dec 31st, 2010 | Advocacy | Comment

Dearest Supporters –

A bittersweet feeling permeates our heart as we compose this year-end report. On the one hand, there are great accomplishments to announce, but on the other hand, celebration is unjustified whilst many beneficiaries face the L.O.C. dead-end in the asylum process, more on this later.

Thanks to your generous support, in 2010 Vision First expanded its reach beyond expectations. By engaging the community and developing partnerships, our tailor-made programs are currently assisting 235 beneficiaries. Our board of directors was reorganized in September, welcoming new professional talent to inspire and guide us to new heights next year. Besides running 13 home-shelters and a successful Sunday Food Program, we placed many children in primary, secondary and special needs schools, ensuring their generation isn’t jeopardize by their family’s misfortune. What makes VF shine is outreach that includes the ONLY Financial Assistance Program in the asylum field. The rational behind this effort is simple: everything cost money in the city and leave your wallet at home if in doubt. The power behind this program is YOUR donations that rose from 10,000 HKD in January to 50,000 HKD in monthly auto-payments! This is remarkable and undoubtedly makes a tangible difference in our grateful beneficiaries’ hardship. We guarantee that “what we receive is what we donate” and our honorary auditors ensure we are 100% volunteer-driven – without administrative or salary burdens. We wondered how to limit office rental, when a Benefactor rescued us with a rent-free CENTRE for Spring 2011. Finally, we report that thousands of fieldwork hours went to researching the asylum situation in shantytowns across the territory, where marginalized exiles struggle in neglect, outside public view. It pains us to limit our assistance to a 5% minority, but we are confident our influence will grow over the years.

In 2010 a dozen refugees were resettled to third countries (official UNHCR figures are unavailable), however desperation runs deep for hundreds of individuals. Out of 800+ UNHCR applicants, about 20 (2.5%) were recognized refugees. Out of 6600+ Torture Convention claimants, no one was yet accepted, though 40+ were deported. The remainder is in limbo, suspended in forced idleness and prohibited from working, leaving, even volunteering to assist others. Add hunger, destitution homelessness and depression to unequivocally remove economic migrants, who shun an existence devoid of employment. The Lack Of Credibility (LOC) stamp, marks UNHCR’s rejection of cases that don’t meet their criteria, to the bewilderment of those who believes that, despite objective evidence, humanitarian considerations succumbed to geopolitical directives. Granted these are complex issues and UNHCR faces an arduous task, we lament their 0% appeal rate, in sharp disaccord with the Court of Appeal’s international average of 30%. This is not only a remarkable statistic, but also a life sentence to those denied refuge. On the ground, we witness the devastating impact these decisions have, by plunging into despair those whose hopes are dashed, hardship guaranteed and statelessness endorsed. This is not as it should be! We believe cases are closed that must be recognized and, powerless before the outcome, we recognize Vision First must develop ‘durable solutions’ for our beneficiaries, otherwise condemned to permanent Hong Kong exile.

Were our eyes but sharp enough, we would appreciate how little we accomplished before the magnitude of our task. However, we strive day-by-day, while vigorously advocating for the HKSAR to administer the asylum process, so we might be proud of our society. As a refugee lamented, “Displacement is like death, one thinks it only happens to others”, and it could be anyone since only a tenth of the global population enjoys the rule of law. Our DREAM for a world that takes responsibility for those who suffer human-rights abuses and are forced into exile, starts with the material difference we make TOGETHER for the 235 exiles welcomed at Vision First.

Our promotional table at the Children Charity Carnival
Our promotional table at the Children Charity Carnival

Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network – Bangkok 2010

Dec 30th, 2010 | Advocacy | Comment

During these past twelve months, Vision First has expanded its services, the number of people assisted, including the number of countries of origin represented, its scope, dedication and international commitment to the just cause of refugees seeking asylum in ‘safe’ countries. As part of our development, and to put refugee protection in Hong Kong in a wider regional context, in November, Vision First participated in the third Asia Pacific Consultation on Refugee Rights, organized in Bangkok by APRRN ( This is a network of non-governmental organizations, refugee advocates and researchers concerned with the inadequacy of refugee rights and services provided to refugees in Asia-Pacific.

APRRN3 was attended 117 participants from 22 countries! The wide and diverse representation of members, who gathered in Bangkok for the 3-day conference, is in itself a sign of the increasingly common problems that regional countries face in regard to asylum. To this extent, discussions and debates focused on building regional networks and sharing best practices to ensure and enhance protection and collaboration with UN agencies involved with refugees. This is especially important in urban environments, where people seeking asylum are often left alone in precarious conditions at the margin of mainstream society. Four principal issues were recognized as regional reason of concern:
- persistent use of immigration detention as a mechanism to deter arrivals;
- lack of adequate conditions for refugees in Asia, including access to health-care and education;
- lack of gender sensitive policies and practices;
- urgent need for free legal assistance to refugees.

Toward this end, the contributions of the Southern Refugee Legal Aid Network – directed by Dr. Barbara Harrell-Bond – and the newly launched Asian Refugee Legal Aid Network were both fundamental. Vision First is grateful for the opportunity to participate and learnt from other organizations working in the field. As part of our commitment to understand regional dynamics of movement and asylum, in order to develop into a better service provider in Hong Kong, Vision First will advocate for and further contribute towards regional engagement. We will also continue to tackle inefficiencies in the present system and advocate for feasible changes in all areas of operation. Finally, in the best interest of both Hong Kong and refugees, we will contribute to widen options for durable solutions in Hong Kong and abroad. While at the moment these might just sound like New Year resolutions, Vision First remains firmly convinced of their importance and practicality, and we will tirelessly work towards their realization.

Group photo of the delegates in Bangkok

2011 Center and Shelters

Dec 25th, 2010 | Advocacy | Comment

Dearest Friends -

Due to family obligations, I’m visiting a country thousands of refugees attempt to reach on a perilous journey that claims lives weekly – mostly unidentified, unrecorded and thus removed from global awareness. Here it is hard to comprehend the reality behind Vision First’s mission: that Asylum Seekers are the people who suffer the most vicious events mankind inflicts, yet courageously believe that, despite its horrors, life is still worth living. You have taught me that nobody chooses to be a refugee. Through loss of country, family, support and time, your exile is a terrible experience: disjointing, bewildering, disheartening and utterly lonely. Yours is an existence both geographically alien and mentally hostile, a constant morning for relatives abandoned, family you couldn’t save and children missed desperately – through no fault of your own!

While words always fail, a noted psychiatrist explained it this way: “Imagine being a child in a loving, happy family. Your mother loves you, feeds you, smiles at you, hugs you. But you wake up one morning to find that she no longer appears to know who you are. She doesn’t smile. She doesn’t even look at you. You cry, you laugh, you make noises. She remains withdrawn and silent. All that was familiar and safe has gone.” What that child experiences is how you feel day and night: a fracture, a haunting, a shattering you are forced to endure because there simply is no other option.

I have ‘accompanied’ you for two years and, believe me, your welfare and future are my concerns every waking hour. Thank you for the TRUST you have shown. Thank you for SHARING your suffering, worries and hopes. Thank you for the INSPIRATION and purpose you give my life. We have only started this journey together, but I promise to work assiduously to improve your life in Hong Kong and, maybe, even facilitate your transition to a secure future elsewhere. This year was essential in building our relationships, deepening friendships and deciding which programs are most urgent. Together we have engaged the community, gaining essential support which will grow exponentially in 2011, when we open our FIRST OFFICE and shelters after Chinese New Year. Thanks to a benefactor’s invaluable gift, we will have a homebase to meet, brainstorm and develop our services. Vision First is yours! Our center is yours! Our programs, efforts and donations will better your lives and, hopefully, rectify some injustices suffered. We need your dedication to make our foudation a greater success, to jointly expand our humanitarian reach and put more lives on a tollerable footing.

It is Christmas today, but this is not a Christmas message. It’s a poignant opportunity to reflect on a remarkable year and realize Christmas is not a date, but a state-of-mind – it can be everyday for some or never for others. Christmas is realizing anyone’s suffering diminishes our collective dignity, as society will also be judged by how generously it supports the exiles it welcomes.

VF Center
102 First Street, Sai Ying Poon ... soon to be made famous!

Social work studies

Dec 21st, 2010 | Advocacy | Comment

My name is Mr. Doulle from East Africa (Horn of Africa.) I have been living in Hong Kong for two years. The obstacles I have faced in my twenty-four years are too tragic and awful to share with you in this letter. Anyone in the Developed World would find it hard to believe, if they don’t work with refugees from war-torn countries, where the insanity of the powerful thinks nothing of the weak. My ambition is to become a social worker and I believe that with some help this dream will come true. I remember when I was a child and my mother sent me to shop at the market, I met many vulnerable people, some sick, some old, some desperately poor and I often helped them with a little money my mother gave me for shopping, as I knew they were at the outer edge of despair.

When I grew up I witnessed such a flood of people, entering my region from Somalia’s capital city devastated by war, that I hardly recognized any dignity and humanity left in them. But what fault did these refugees have but to be caught between the guns of two bloodthirsty enemies? Unfortunately I could not support anyone as I didn’t have money or power to help and the wave of victims was too huge to be counted, let alone feed or assist. However, when I came to know some of these families I grew fond of them. I was deeply disappointed I couldn’t find them homes or meals, though many were women, children and elderly. I realized my government was powerless to intervene and it troubled me that my community was not mobilizing to prevent the prolonged suffering of these refugees.

I started asking myself this question more and more often: there are many citizens who are helping these people on their own, because they care, so why don’t I assist? These community volunteers are not from the government, they are not social workers, so why can’t I do it too? You don’t have to be trained to help suffering people. You just have to have the heart and courage to stand up and make a difference. Maybe the government doesn’t care. Maybe most citizens don’t care, but some do and I want to be like them. I told myself: either I am one who helps – or I am not? The reality is that when I help somebody I feel so joyful. If I see somebody in need and do nothing about it, it affects me all night. I even can’t sleep because I failed to do what I could have done. For example, yesterday I passed an old man on Cheung Sha Wan Road who was carrying a box too heavy for his old age. I didn’t know how to offer my help in Chinese. I was afraid of scaring him or annoying him, so I walked on. I should have done something, because all night this man was bothering me in my sleep and I realized I missed the chance. My mind kept challenging me: why didn’t you help? What’s all these excuses? You should have helped!

Doulle social worker

I’m a UNHCR asylum-seeker in Hong Kong. The Immigration Department forced me to sign a paper when I was released from detention. It threatens me with “THREE YEARS IN PRISON AND HKD 50,000 FINE IF I DO ANY WORK, PAID OR UNPAID”, so I’m scared I will be caught helping somebody and jailed for “working unpaid.” You cant appreciate what this means unless you personally know for sure you will be tortured and executed if deported back to your country. You don’t want this to happen and the fear paralizes your actions. I’d rather waste years in depressing idleness, than run the risk. There are too many obstacles surrounding a refugee’s life and it’s impossible for me to pursue my dreams of becoming a social worker. I don’t have money, I don’t have a work permit. I don’t have friends or family to pay for the studies. I can’t even get a loan. I became homeless when I fled my village; I became stateless when I escaped my country; I became rightless when released from detention and now I am hopeless – allowed only to eat, to sleep and to walk pointlessly these foreign streets. What’s happened to my life? How can I live like this?

Now I believe I must study to become a social work, to help those who have lost hope and live in misery, isolation and rejection. I have the passion to help others, but I don’t have the money, power or education. I went to a charity NGO called Christian Action to presented my social work talent and I highly appreciate them for assisting me to attend a class once a week. I also wish to thank Vision First who gives me encouragement and support, as they look for an opportunity to turn my dreams into reality. Dear readers, I speak from my heart when I promise I can make a difference in the community, if you kindly support my social work studies. I believe it is essential for human beings to assist each other and meet the basic needs of the vulnerable among us, with particular attention to the most needy, those oppressed by poverty and hardship. My personal experience growing up in a conflict zone, encountering violence, torture, hunger, despair and death, gives me a unique insight into the needs of the refugees I will assist in future. Many have the education to do this work, but few have the understanding of a witness who survived these horrors himself. Thank you very much for reading my letter.

Human cargo

Dec 12th, 2010 | Advocacy | Comment

When the war in Sri Lanka dispossessed the Tamil minority villages, I had no choice but flee my homeland to seek refuge in another country. I left in 2006 and eventually reached China 18 months ago and worked in a kitchen outside Shenzhen, until a twist of fate brought me to Hong Kong. One Sunday afternoon I was sitting on a bench by the Shangri-la Hotel when a Punjabi Indian talking to me in English. “Do you want to go Hong Kong?” he asked to my surprise, then explained that even without a passport he could arrange it for RMB 5,000. “You don’t believe?!” he asked realizing I didn’t take him seriously, having lost trust in these bogus agents. Then he called over a Pakistani and two Indian men, who told me they would cross the boarder in two nights and would call to confirm it was for real. Two years ago I lost HKD 75,000 my relatives collected, when a deal to reach Canada turned out too-good-to-be-true, despite the rip-off.

Now I know the 852 call could have been made from China, but then I believed the country code was proof the three had successfully been smuggled to Hong Kong. That was enough to convince me to take the risk. But where could I borrow the RMB 5,000 fee? I shared my frustration on the Tamil chat website KALAPAM and an online friend I’d chatted with for two years, agreed to wire it via Western Union. We’d only met on the internet, yet sometimes help comes from the most unexpected places! A week later I paid the fee to Punjabi Mr. Sing over a chapatti meal I was too nervous to enjoy, worrying what trouble I was getting into. Human smuggling is always risky business for the ‘cargo’: if things go wrong, the Snake-heads will do anything to avoid jail and the cargo’s wellbeing is their last concern, since payments are made upfront. I was lead to the six floor of a building near the Shangri-la, where I learnt Mr. Sing was just a broker, the first link paid to find targets, collect fees and pass them on to the smuggling ring. My heart pounded like it would explode, as a fake taxi drove around town picking up more ‘human cargo’ from other safe houses. We drove around for three hours, the taxi meter running into the hundreds of dollars, which nobody paid. I imagined they were taking their time to be safe. Maybe there were police problems. I feared we would be stopped and in such dubious company who knows what the police would think, besides the fact my renewed visa expired a year earlier.

Nighttime outreach in Lam Tei
Nighttime outreach in Lam Tei

Around 1am the taxi switched its lights off and drove down a steep hill, while we were commanded to keep silent. We were told to change into our best clothes, clean pants and shirt which wouldn’t attract attention in Hong Kong. We couldn’t bring anything but a backpack. We waited in an abandoned building by the shore, until suddenly orders were barked “Come! Come! Come fast!” We were directed onboard a small, wooden fishing boat, about 12 meters. The driver stashed the four of us cargo in the engine compartment, right next to the deafening diesel engine. We could fee the heat coming off the engine and were afraid of burns touching it. The engine hatch was locked tight and I got very scared. There was hardly enough air and I could only see a sliver of night through a crack between the old, rough boards. I thought I’d made a mistake. I feared I would never breath fresh air again. We were all very scared and I thought the old boat would sink in the swells. The fishing boat ventured across rough sea for a couple hours, slowly, dangerously, until it stopped at 4am at the pier of an old building, in a small, dark bay. At long last, the driver opened the hatch and commanded us onto a smaller speedboat, with two enormous outboard engines. The second driven was a young boy who hardly said a word. Probably too young to do any serious jail time if caught. He sped across the dark sea like a veteran seaman, while we keep low below the transom, as the salty sea splashed over us. Hope was rising in me, when abruptly there was absolute panic. The boy yelled over the roaring engines “Police! … Police! … Jump!” motioning frantically for us to jump into the sea. A helicopter swooped with a blinding searchlight over head. The noise of the chopper, the blast from the rotors added to the panic. We could see dark land a short distance away, but still the fear of jumping into the black sea was horrifying. For fear of being caught I plunged into the water and … thank God, my feet struck the bottom with my neck above water. The speedboat darted away into the night with the police in hot areal pursuit, but I doubt they could arrest the boy before he vanished into Mainland waters.

Early we’d been given simple instructions “See big mountain, you walk round, you walk round to road. On road, van waiting for you!” The helicopter never returned, it must have become somebody else’s problem. Expecting a police launch to appear and tracker dogs hunting us on land, we staggered to shore with water-log backpacks, without even feeling the cold November waters. There was no police boat. There wasn’t any patrol either. The peaceful beach was the first moment of tranquility since home that morning. With all that commotion, we figured we’d made it to Hong Kong and that surly that country park felt like a different world to Shenzhen. Soaked to the bones, mobile phones dead, we skirted the mountain to the road and – surprise! – there was a man smoking by a white van! As orange flares lit the bay behind us, the driver shoved us into the van and slammed the door shut. He hadn’t driven five minutes up the road, that a police cruiser came dashing down in the opposite direction, never bothering to stop us. Definitely they were looking for us, but we’d slipped through. Twenty minutes later we pulled up by the 7-Eleven in Yung Long, the door slid open, a simple “Bye-bye” was exchanged and this time the human cargo got its money’s worth. One of the guys called a friend who offered us a floor to crash on in Kam Tin. I still had HKD 100 in my wet wallet. In the morning I took a bus to Kowloon and found my way to the UNHCR where my registration was accepted and my case is still open today. When you are certain there is no more hope, that’s when God opens a door for you!

(a VF beneficiary)

Take Action Now!

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:

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”

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