Refugees and asylum seekers the world over are often perceived in their communities as someone else’s problem. Few people are able to comprehend the trauma experienced by true survivors of torture, war and displacement. The issue of asylum seekers and refugees is one that is removed from our conscience, as we cannot comprehend the possibility of ever being in the same situation. Regardless of these challenges, Vision First is helping the community overcome these differences, encouraging the public to see through the politics and the prejudice, to stare into the eyes of the human face.
In this era of growing Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) more businesses appreciate the potential of investing in the community and the awareness of CSR’s benefits is growing rapidly in Hong Kong.
The 2009 Oxfam CSR Survey of the Hang Seng Index constituent companies, highlighted the recent growth in CSR awareness of these 42 listed companies. The report states: “The global trend in CSR is progressing on both the voluntary and legislative fronts. Historically, this has been far more established in the United Kingdom, Europe, Australia, North America and South Africa, yet we are increasingly seeing Asian governments moving towards regulating CSR.”
This is good news for Vision First, other NGOs and for the people we serve. Together with our clients, we are wholly grateful to the community network which has developed around us in our first 18 months of operation. Lawyers, doctors, psychologists, educators, architects and artists have contributed to support and create programs for our clients – who are growing in number ever week. As Vision First starts to spread its wings, the Hong Kong asylum seeker and refugee support network will grow to lift more vulnerable people out of their desperate plight.
Please contact us if you and your company would like to jump on board – thank you.
SENSE OF ASYLUM
Land without thunder
The land without storms and strangers
The home of all.
Where do I come from?
Father and Mother can’t hear me
Where do I come from?
Really where do I come from!?
No Motherland is foreign land
Where do I dwell?
Where is my River of milk and honey?
My stomach never asks no less.
Abundant is the milk of full breasts
No sleep I never cry for
Oh my country land
So far is the foreign land
I open my eyes and see,
Nothing of my own
Black and far is the foreign land
Blind to see no children
No children of the woman
Alone and frighten is me
Oh my brothers and sisters
Have foreign lands eaten you?
My voice is loud for you.
Oh my sweet Home!
How I miss you sweet home
I sleep awake
The eyes close no more
It two in the morning and finally, everyone in the room is asleep. They are so quiet that the only sound I can hear is the public buses roaring along the street. I am alone; since I went to bed I have not slept. I feel so tired – even my muscles are aching as if I walked around all day. My head is heavy and exhausted. I have been thinking hard all these hours, but I can’t understand my thoughts—they are all illusions of paradise. I am trapped in a “pipe-dream world”. I have been in this world many times and now I am addicted to it. It is like my home, and there is no way I can escape from it. Every day I am engulfed in this torture of the mind. I start thinking of a good life full of comfort and riches, shared with a beautiful wife and children. Then I see our home and our life there. I am in the sitting room, reading my newspaper, while my wife watches an opera film, and the children play on the floor. The children are laughing happily with their mommy smiling at me. Every day I go through these fantasies for several hours, round and round. To me they are real and as clear as crystal water – I call this my FIRST WORLD. But I am only an asylum-seeker here in Hong Kong, and this world, no matter how real it seems, remains only a dream.
In January 2007 I arrived here, knowing nobody and nothing about this place. The tall buildings and streets of Hong Kong were my only friends. Being an asylum seeker you are a social misfit. Immediately once you claim this identity, even if you are from the most civilized, modern society, you are considered untouchable. Laying in my bed, I am still imagining my future family, when, without warning, the unthinkable happens. I find myself in another world as if I have changed identity – I have slipped from one dream to another. No longer imagining the future, I am wading through the hell of my past. The events of this world take place in a script —each around five minutes long and independent from each other. I dream mostly of my youth; about my brothers and my mother when we were young. When I am dreaming, I can see I am not in the physical world, but I always fail to convince myself of this. Though you know it is a dream, you are a part of it. You play the game together — if somebody is chasing you, you don’t say “it is just a dream”, you run away from them. Often I dream of horrible death. I dream of my own death, my home surrounded with graves. When I am dreaming it is as if I am at war with evil spirits. I feel tired, very weak and my heart beat increases, pounding in my chest painfully. This takes me a few hours and though the others sharing my room call it a nice sleep, I call it hell!
Our room has no hot water, some windows are smashed, the floor broken. Bedbugs are common and it is our duty to make sure we kill them when we come across them. We are their neighbors and also their prey. I sometimes wonder whether the people who sent us here really consider us to be human. But remember, this is our paradise compared to what we left behind. Finally it is morning. My brothers are up, as usual, preparing seek assistance from churches and NGOs. I wake up in the prison of my bed – I am now in the physical world, which I call my Third World. Here I challenge the two worlds I have traveled through during the night. Now I am combining the three worlds together, asking myself whether I am Dead or Alive. I walk weakly toward the toilet, as if I am sick or drunk. I quickly take a cold shower, thinking nothing, for we are programmed. I am must hurry to find some breakfast as hunger sets in. I also need a few dollars for my mobile phone in case Immigration or the UNHCR call me. This is Asia where poverty helps us to masters pain and suffering.
This flat has no lift so I must run down the stairs as if I am walking through the tunnel of tombs. Heading to TST I walk for over an hour depending on the timing of the traffic lights. With me along the pavement are the citizens of Hong Kong, who always tell us they don’t need us here. They say things like, “You need to go back to your country! We don’t need you here! You cannot work here!” On the bus or MTR, if there are three empty seats and you sit down, people will rather stand than sit down next to you. Recently some Africans from my church went to a Catholic church nearby—that priest called our pastor to say “Don’t send black people to our church!” In the real world, I can still sense some forces from my dreams. I don’t know whether I am going crazy, but the voice is very clear. It’s the voice is of my mother, calling me by my native name. The voice is coming from behind me, as if it is a deep vibration in my nerves. This is the second time I have experienced it. I haven’t phoned my parents for nearly three years. I know they miss me but I don’t want to think about them, because I really get a panic attack wondering if I will ever see them again. I see this panic in my friends’ dry eyes, an empty look of somebody who has lost hope. But if you lose hope, then what do you have left to make you human? My eyes remain locked on the floor as I shuffle my feet like a robot, wondering why were we born to suffer …
It’s now nearly noon – time to go to for lunch at a church, where I sense pointless hypocrisy. Even these charities who help us are “in business” and they call us “clients”. After sitting there for the forced Bible service (no preaching = no meal!) we get lunch, usually boiled rice and chicken wings. From here I go see my other friends; they have already gone crazy, forced into idleness by a society that doesn’t care, gossiping the whole day. I call them friends, but truly they are competitors—we are all competing for survival here, for the limited assistance we get from NGOs or churches. I don’t trust them, but they are the only people I talk to, as I don’t have anybody else. If you don’t talk to people you will lose your mind, you go insane without even knowing it, because isolation kills your sense of reality and community. At 6pm, it is getting dark. I head through the streets toward my tiny room to complete the asylum seekers circuit. I have been doing this since I arrived and God forbid that I will stay here any longer. But what are the odds? What are my options? Slowly I shuffle toward my bed. I’m not going to cover myself because it’s very hot. I lay flat on my bed; then, as if I was praying, I cross my hands over my chest. There’s only one comfort now, the comfort of fantasies. That’s what I enjoy most, that’s what makes me happy. My First World … I make it real, so real, that it makes me happy and sometimes I find myself laughing out loud. But it’s eating me up like cancer. I know this, but I don’t want to leave, as it’s the only place that makes me happy. Still I know only my spirit can live here where I see the unseen. I know I’m awake, trapped, struggling in a parallel reality where there is no soul contact. I’m alone – suffering an anxiety so deep that nobody should endure it!
[Editor's note: If you read this far, you will be interested to know Mr. Nyanbega fled ethnic cleansing, masked by the evil of religious persecution. He was was brutally tortured, tied up and forced to witness his own brother and sister being burnt alive by their captors. Weeks later he managed to escape and tell his story.]
Teaching our children about charity is a key part of their social formation. It’s important that from a very young age they are exposed to the needs of others and shown how their own family reaches out to the disadvantaged, who very often include kids their same age. This helps children appreciate that not every child enjoys three meals a day, has clean clothes or even parents caring for them – these are all significant lessons in life. Many studies have shown that young kids relate easily with other children their age, who face hardship in daily life, with their health or education. Children appreciate the difference between those who are doing well and those who are hurting for reasons beyond their control, reasons parents can’t do much about, except rely on charity. These early experiences help children form a sense of social responsibility and commitment, which will bear fruits in the decades ahead.
Please come and support the CHILDREN CHARITY CARNIVAL, organized with three goals:
- to introduce children charities to the community;
- to present suffering kids’ need to visiting kids;
- to allow visiting kids to participate in and learn from charitable activities.
The carnival will be an outdoor, open-market party, with booths, games, gifts, entertainment, music band, competitions and of course … it’s Halloween!
The details are:
Children Charities Carnival 2010
Date: 31 October 2010
Time: 11am till 5pm
Venue: The Podium, L4, Cyberport 2, 100 Cyberport Road, Hong Kong
The participating charities are:
1. Bring Me A Book Hong Kong – 書伴我行(香港)基金會
2. Changing Young Lives Foundation – 成長希望基金會
3. Chi Heng Foundation – 智行基金會
4. Half the Sky Foundation – 半邊天基金會
5. Hong Kong Juvenile Diabetes Association – 香港兒童糖尿協會
6. Hong Kong Society for the Protection of children – 香港保護兒童會
8. Playright Children‘s Play Association – 智樂兒童遊樂協會
9. Save the Children – 救助兒童會
10. Watchdog – 監護者早期教育中心
11. Vision First – “Refugee Children Program”
Seeking asylum in Hong Kong is like trying to pass through the proverbial Eye of the Needle. There are over 6600 asylum seekers – whose lives are suspended without hope – and I am but one who fled persecution after political activism shattered my life. My opinions are molded by the harsh circumstances I experienced and want to share with you. People unfortunately flee their countries for many different reasons. However, for a case to be recognized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), it must satisfy these five criteria:
1. the claimant must be outside his/her country of origin;
2. there must be objective, well-founded fears of persecution;
3. the persecution must be for race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion;
4. the claimant must be unable to avail himself of his country’s protection;
5. owing to such fear, the claimant must be unwilling to return to his country.
Of all the UNHCR + CAT applicants, roughly 75% are from South East Asia, while the remaining come from Africa, with just a handful from other countries. Since the number has grown in recent years, I wonder what is the breakdown between “genuine cases” and “bogus cases” as the system is open to abuse by those fooled by the smugglers’ promise of high-paying jobs. The problem is this: while it’s easy to be smuggled into the city, getting out is a risky process which can land you in jail. Let’s face it, the UNHCR and the government struggle to distinguish between genuine and economic asylum seekers – a delicate process indeed as mistakes can cost the deportees’ lives.
I have been stuck in HK for over four years. My case was rejected by the UNHCR after an anguishing process that convinced me their Refugee Status Determination process (or RSD) lacks transparency and fails the high standards of fairness they advocate. I heard many call their case-officers “baby lawyers”: fresh from graduation, with no practical experience, background knowledge and, worst of all, no humility! They fail to empathize with our tragedies and circumstances, traumatizing more than helping us.
I personally felt my case-officer was out to fault whatever I said, rather than try to understand. I believe if the tables turned, I would have handled the process more competently. Some of the questions he asked were downright irritating and upsetting. It seemed as if he had a personal vendetta and was more preoccupied with discrediting me, than grasping the complexity of my case. He never offer a kind word, despite me opened my heart to narrate the nightmare that shattered my life. Humility ought to be a paramount quality in this field – yet sadly it’s lacking. How can you assess personal tragedy, if you fail to step into people’s shoes? Just ask: what would life be like if I were this person, born where he was born, suffering what he suffered? What if my life, my family were on the line? Somebody should teach these officers that RSD work is not police interrogation, but the international community rescuing those who suffered grave injustices. It’s no surprise we find more comfort and understanding from churches and charities, than from those in an actual position of power. There is more, but best to leave the rest unsaid.
Asylum seekers live like a big family and share confidentialities amongst themselves, which is the reason we ask “What?? … Why?? …” after each case is decided, as we know much more than the UNHCR about what’s happening in our countries. The UNHCR today is so detached from reality, they even seem proud to notify rejections and no court of law or human rights lawyer can do anything about it! They are totally untouchable – if their office were audited, the world would be shocked by what’s discovered. It appears as if cases are randomly decided by lots, as recognition is quick for certain nationalities given blanket approval. This might be good for the UNHCR as it simplifies their work, but makes their results less credible. Many applicants, who don’t come from such countries, joke that even physical appearance and clothing play a part. The experience lawyers at the Hong Kong Refugee Advice Center are trying to address the inequalities of this process, but it’s a steep mountain to climb and they can only accept the most obvious cases.
Also, there are too many “economic asylum seekers” who confuse the process by swelling numbers and harming our genuine cases. I realize it’s hard for the UNHCR to distinguish between these, yet it shouldn’t take years to figure out who-is-who, as justice delayed is justice betrayed! Taking unnecessarily time to handle cases, not only destroys our future, but also that of our family left behind. What if your spouse and children were forced into hiding for years as you sought refuge abroad? My case was rejected by the UNHCR with a bafflingly dismissive reason: LACK OF CREDIBILITY! Needless to say, I told the truth about my shattered life, but my evidence and testimonies were rejected. If they call me a liar, why don’t I open my case to the public and let others decide whether I told the truth? This might be pointless for me, but it could help to improve the RSD process for those who follow. Ultimately it’s a matter of justice: either my story was credible, or I was dishonest. Since the United Nations was established for peace and gave the UNHCR it’s mandate 50 years ago, isn’t it time transparency underpinned their credibility?
(by a Concerned Appellant)
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