Arguing, Learning, Waiting

Jul 15th, 2012 | Media, Personal Experiences | Comment

Professor Gordon Mathews in the New York Time

For the past five years, I’ve been teaching English to African and Pakistani men caught in the asylum-seeking process here. I began teaching the weekly class as a volunteer as part of my research for a book that has since been published. I continue because my students have become my friends. These Muslim and Christian men are in their 20s and 30s, well-educated, well-informed about world affairs and highly vocal. We don’t spend much time on the rules of the English language. Instead, the classes have become discussion sessions about social and global topics. I begin each class by asking a question. “Who is a better friend to Africa, the United States or China?” “What do you think of gay marriage?” “How do you know God is real?” My students then argue passionately with one another and with me for two hours. When class is over, they go back to being asylum seekers. It’s a tough life. Upon entering Hong Kong and declaring to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or to the Hong Kong government that they qualify as asylum seekers under the U.N. Convention Against Torture, they are sent to a detention center for several weeks. When they’re let free, they’re given a pittance of aid — around $270 a month. They are forbidden to work, although some find illegal jobs as dishwashers, delivery men or peddlers.

They wait for years for their cases to be decided. The authorities must determine whether they have been politically, ethnically or religiously persecuted. When their cases are rejected, as most are, they appeal, and wait for many more years. Some get deported back to their home countries. The lucky few who get refugee status are sent to safe countries, typically the United States or Canada. While some have a legitimate case, others might be caught in situations that the authorities won’t recognize — one might, for example, be fleeing a death threat from a business partner. Others come here in hopes of making a better living by gaming the system. The government can’t let economic refugees work legally; to do so would only invite thousands more from Karachi, Nairobi and other places. So it bars them from working and gives them barely enough to live on. They stay in the cheapest, dingiest spaces, and scrounge by on whatever illegal, menial jobs or charity they can find. I’ve heard many stories over the years. One man claimed that he had been kidnapped by a religious cult. He said that after he escaped, his mother gave him a vial of diamonds, whereupon he was kidnapped again and locked in a ship’s hold by several Australians. He said he woke up in Hong Kong with no diamonds and no passport. I told him he’d seen too many bad action movies.

Another student told me an impassioned story about his family being murdered, only to end it with a wry grin, saying, “I have to tell you that everything I told you in the last 20 minutes I made up.” There was another man who said he had fled his central African country because he and his family were supporting a rebel group. He said that when he called home from Hong Kong, the African authorities, who had tapped the family’s phone line, were able to confirm that the family was involved in supporting the rebels. The police there then stormed the house and shot his brother dead. I don’t really care whether an individual’s story is true or not: I’m just a teacher. But I do worry about these guys. They have almost no chance of gaining legal status as refugees and leaving Hong Kong to begin a new life. The best bet for most of my students is to try to marry a Hong Kong girl, which would enable them to reside here legally. Sometimes I offer tips to the clueless, who ask questions like: “I want to meet a girl, but how?” or “I am Muslim, can I go to a bar and drink only orange juice?” or “I met a girl but she doesn’t know I’m an asylum seeker. Can you lend me some money?” Sometimes I offer small financial help. Meanwhile, my students and I argue in class, then go our separate ways: I live my life, and they wait to live theirs.


More than just a service centre

Jul 8th, 2012 | Personal Experiences, Refugee Community, VF updates, programs, events | Comment

“Which part of Africa is it?” I asked. Addea replied, “You see how the people dress, the vegetation, the houses… it is the Southern part of Africa.” Even causally watching a movie at Vision First’s center is a great opportunity for members to share knowledge, expertise and culture. Here I enter a global village – a Georgian, an Iranian, two Somalis, a Togolese and a Liberian watching a South African movie with Bushmen as main characters. Standing next to them is a local Hong Konger – that is me, Kashu, a Master of Social Work student from the University of Hong Kong. A simple, peaceful, causal and relaxing movie time is a luxury for VF members, no matter whether they are here in Hong Kong, or back in their home country. In their home country they encountered conflicts, persecution, torture and blackmailing. In Hong Kong they experienced poverty, isolation, boredom and disorientation. Vision First provides a precious and cozy space for them to socialize and receive what they need, like clothing and food. For me, Vision First provides its members with far more than just tangible services and material goods. Members here can also serve as helpers – they help others while being assisted themselves. They help to bring food upstairs to the office, keep the office clean, and the shelter and office running, like assisting with maintenance. These tasks look simple, but enriched their HK staying with meaning. Members from different nations, coming together at the centre, have a chance to enhance their social network, leading to cultural exchange and knowledge sharing.

I asked “Where do humans come from?” Stephen replied, “They come from bacteria!” I followed up with, “Then where’s did the first bacteria comes from?” and he replied, “From carbon dioxide.” I continued, “Then where’s the first carbon dioxide comes from? …” Vision First is not only a center providing tangible services and a support network, but also a library of knowledge. Here we have lessons almost everyday, most of them are not basic, but advanced courses. Most of our members are well-educated and I have been learning from them. The conversation above is the start of a discussion about the source of life and it soon shifted from biology to philosophy. It gave me a huge inspiration, namely, that social service should break through its traditional barrier. It is more than a mere give-take relationship – volunteers, workers and the organization itself can benefit from this large pool of talents, that initially came for assistance. Contrary to how other NGOs, or even the government perceives them, this group of asylum seekers and refugees is indeed a pool of talent. Considering humanity and morality, their loss is a great loss for both parties, both HK and refugees. It is regrettable how they must live in miserable, sub-divided rooms, with unaffordable rents, barred from employment, wasting their good talents and even labeled “fortune seekers.” As Albert Einstein said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Recently I have been planning a football training program for the Vision First Team. I can see their passion even when they play recreationally among themselves – they treat it like a competition and will not give up ball control until they score. Football is an international language and, may I say, more international than English. I am a person who does not easily share his feelings, nor have I deeply investigated their traumatic past, however, football has already allowed friendship to grow between me and these Somali players. Speaking of men, although most of refugees are male (female refugees are more vulnerable in physical and biological terms), I believe men are more stereotyped by society, which is cross-cultural. They are expected to be strong and not express their emotions, which could be interpreted as weakness or uselessness. Therefore, men are more likely to refrain from voicing their emotional and psychological needs, which diminishes their chances to get help. This observation motivated me to launch a “Male Support Group” for our members, to give them strength to move on during this forced, long and hard stay in Hong Kong.

I can develop and achieve things I never did before, thanks to Vision First’s working environment and its open attitude towards new ideas. For me, Vision First is more than just a services centre, it is a global village, an international hub, a library of knowledge and culture, and a perfect place to learn and to put into practice what you learn. Thank you very much – Kashu


One Love Beach Party – 21/22 July 2012

Jul 2nd, 2012 | VF updates, programs, events | Comment

UNHCR global recognition rate = 83%

Jun 27th, 2012 | Media, Refugee Community | Comment

Refugee status applications to UNHCR offices worldwide declined to 96,800 in 2010, after topping 114,000 in 2009. The decline roughly followed a global trend, with applications to government-run RSD systems also dropping in 2010. UNHCR accounted for around 11 percent of all RSD applications worldwide, down from 13 percent in 2009. But UNHCR continues to be one of the two largest RSD decision-makers.

The largest RSD decision-maker continues to be the government of South Africa, which received 180,637 asylum applicants. The United States had the next largest government RSD system with an estimated 54,300 applicants, far less than UNHCR.

The recognition rate in UNHCR RSD remained high at around 83 percent, compared to less than 35 percent for government-run RSD. UNHCR’s global recognition rate has remained consistently over 75 percent each year since 2005. Every UNHCR office that decided 1000 or more cases in 2010 posted a recognition rate of at least 57 percent. UNHCR offices reached decision in only 57,832 new applications, and faced a global RSD backlog of more than 116,000 cases at year’s end.

“The importance of these procedures cannot be overemphasized.
A wrong decision might cost the person’s life or liberty.” 

UNHCR training manual

Happy Birthday Vision First!

Jun 26th, 2012 | VF updates, programs, events | Comment

Hundreds of hot dinners, countless educational classes and access to excellent medical and dental services, these are just a few of the vital services that help Vision First transform the lives of refugee in Hong Kong. For three years, volunteers at Vision First have been supporting and empowering refugees and today we joyfully celebrate our 3rd anniversary!

The Vision First Team wishes to take this opportunity to say a heartfelt … Thank you … to everyone who stood behind us!

With the support and passion of the community, we are able to provide many essential services, such as food, shelter and health- care, among many others. Thank you for providing the opportunity, resources and power to support our members. In the last three years, with your dedication and passion, Vision First has developed from a hopeful idea into a major contributor to the refugee community. Finally, we offer a very special Thank you to the wonderful volunteers who gave their time, expertise and LOVE – you are the fuel that flames our fire !!!

Centre Manager

Refugees in Hong Kong deserve better treatment

Jun 21st, 2012 | Media, Refugee Community | Comment

South China Morning Post – 21 June 2012

In her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo last Saturday, Aung San Suu Kyi imagined a world without refugees and said, “Ultimately our aim should be to create a world free from the displaced, the homeless and the hopeless, a world of which each and every corner is a true sanctuary where the inhabitants will have the freedom and the capacity to live in peace.” She said each and every one of us was capable of making a contribution towards such peace.

The reality is that the world is far adrift from this vision. In 2010 alone, there were 42 million displaced people in the world and 15 million of those sought protection outside their own countries. Hong Kong has an estimated total of just 6,000 asylum seekers and refugees, or less than 0.1 per cent of the population, coming mostly from African and South Asian countries where there is severe political disruption and unrest. You might think then that the city’s contribution towards making this corner of the world “a true sanctuary” for the refugees we already have would be comparatively painless. But far from it.

In fact, refugees are very unwelcome guests and Hong Kong is definitely not a sanctuary. This is starkly illustrated by the case of four long-term refugees whose bona fide status has been well established by the UNHCR and who cannot be resettled elsewhere for various reasons. As a result of government policy not to accept refugees and also to make life difficult for those who are here, they face the prospect of living in the city for the rest of their lives as refugees, not residents. That means they have to sign a permit every few months to remain; have no right to work; live under the threat of deportation; are unable to travel freely to and from Hong Kong; have no right to education for them or their families; no right to health care or welfare; and are only provided with subsistence-level rent allowance and food allocation. This is a miserable and miserly existence.

Despite government concessions to allow easing of some restrictions, they have not been removed. Some might say it is better than being sent back to face persecution or torture in their home countries, but is this really refuge and protection, or just another form of punishment? It is a passive and grudging acceptance at best and downright hostility at worst. The government will argue that it also has the discretion to review particular cases and circumstances to ensure there is no undue hardship and ease suffering where it is proven. While this might seem like a reasonable safety mechanism, remember that it is at the sole discretion of the Director of Immigration who has a much more important stated policy of discouraging asylum seekers from coming to Hong Kong. Doesn’t this sound like a conflict of interest?

Hong Kong has built a very successful, civilised society in less than 70 years from what was largely a poor, marginalised and displaced group. Our heritage is a refugee population. Yet now we seem to lack compassion for other races. We should remember with gratitude our heritage and the help we received by showing compassion to asylum seekers and refugees. We have the chance to make a contribution, however small, to Suu Kyi’s vision and show we are a caring society, whatever government policy might be.

Tony Read is a pastor and justice advocate for The Vine Church in Wan Chai, which has been assisting asylum seekers and refugees for more than seven years

HK a ‘hard place’ for asylum seekers

Jun 20th, 2012 | Media, Refugee Community | Comment

South China Morning Post - Simpson Cheung writes, Jun 20, 2012

The recognition rate of asylum seekers in Hong Kong is unacceptably low compared to Western countries, a local aid group said ahead of World Refugee Day today. The local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said it recognised about 10 per cent of asylum seekers as refugees last year, without giving an exact figure. There were 149 recognised refugees in Hong Kong, and a further 638 awaiting the results of their applications as of last month.

However, Cosmo Beatson, the co-ordinator of Vision First, a local volunteer organisation that provides humanitarian services to UNHCR asylum seekers and refugees in Hong Kong, said the recognition figure was closer to 3%, and his group had pushed the Hong Kong government to sign the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. It would accord refugees in the city rights similar to those of residents while they await resettlement or local integration.

According to the UNHCR, asylum seekers and refugees in Hong Kong have access to government-provided humanitarian assistance including basic accommodation, food, clothing and toiletries, as well as reimbursement of petty cash for travelling expenses. In addition, the UNHCR provides HK$300 a month to each. However, even recognised refugees in Hong Kong are not allowed to work and must rely on charity for many of their needs. Only refugee children under 18 can receive education, at the government’s discretion.

“The figure is about 3% and actually tells us that the system is not doing its job,” Beatson said. “The recognition rate is extremely low, to the point that it is almost a joke.” According to recent official figures, the recognition rates for refugees in Britain and Australia, where the ethnic mix of asylum seekers was similar to that of Hong Kong, were 35 per cent and 38.3 per cent. Asylum seekers in Hong Kong face a long screening process with the UNHCR or Immigration Department, which has only accepted one torture claimant since 2008. If accepted as refugees, they must resettle elsewhere, as the city has no legal obligation to grant them residency.

Beatson said that while it was true some applicants lied to authorities to buy time in Hong Kong for economic reasons, the system also screened out genuine applicants who faced torture or even death back in their home countries. Beatson suggested that Hong Kong follow the UK and most European countries and allow asylum seekers to work if their applications are pending for more than six months. A government spokesman said extending the refugee convention to the city could subject it to abuse, given Hong Kong’s developed economy and liberal visa regime.

Vision First runs Hong Kong’s only refugee shelter

Thank you Hong Kong

Jun 17th, 2012 | Personal Experiences, Refugee Community | Comment

Dear supporters of Vision First - Life is an open school where we can learn many meaningful lessons. I am an asylum-seeker from Africa and have been in HK for almost 4 years. Today I would like to share with all my friends, refugees, asylum-seekers, and why not, even HK government, immigration, churches, NGOs across this city. Today I would like to share my thoughts with all of you. In fact , one of the greatest lessons I have learned through my journey is about gratitude. The words THANK YOU are defined as a grateful feeling, an acknowledgment of a benefit or a favor. These words “Thank You” and my more familiar “Merci” in French are very meaningful and contain all the ingredients for a grateful and purposeful existence.

That being said, I would like to openly thank HK government, immigration, churches and NGO for every single help refugees have received from you. I am filled with this heart of gratitude and thanksgiving toward you. Hong Kong is doing for us what our countries did not or could not do. Most of us are living now in a better conditions in HK rather than when we were back home. Yes, we have been rejected, abandoned and disappointed by our leaders back home. So I ask myself: what did our leaders in Africa invest in our lives? Do we need to blame HK government for everything we are not receiving right now? Instead of developing a language of ingratitude, please let’s come back to our senses and have the humility to say a heartfelt and sincere: thank you Hong Kong for everything you have done and continue to do for us refugees !!! - Isware

These are the most beautifully packed donations we ever received - Thank you!

Health services documentary

Jun 16th, 2012 | VF updates, programs, events | Comment

Shooting a documentary on the humanitarian work of Dr. Fan Ning (MSFHK president)

Gathering a great harvest

Jun 16th, 2012 | Personal Experiences | Comment

My name is Sophia and I am a HKU master student in social work. Vision First is really a perfect opportunity for me to work with a group of passionate people and provide the best possible support to their refugee members. I have worked at Vision First for just one week and I have to say, it has been one of the most special experiences in my life. I really enjoy helping others, and Vision First brings me a new understanding of personal relationships and value. Besides, I deeply feel an urgent need to help this group of people without a country. Nowadays, there are around 6000 asylum seekers in Hong Kong. Asylum seekers are not allowed to work and the procedure to claim refugee takes three years or more – so it is very difficult for them to survive. In a high-consumption society like Hong Kong, most refugees are living in a very hard and adverse environment. They can only get very limited support for food and housing from the government and some NGO organizations, far from satisfy their daily needs. In addition, due to persecution faced in their countries and the difficulty they have in Hong Kong, many are suffering from psychological problems, such as PTSD and depression.

Vision First is a warm family, consisting of volunteers and refugees from all around the world. The agency strives to provide assistance to our members, such as financial support, medical support, counseling and education service. The mission statement of the agency is the following: “To empower and assist refugees through a caring and giving society; to meet their needs, eventually to become skilled, happy and prepared for resettlement and future integration”. Every day I am impressed by various people and stories, or by the enthusiastic volunteers, who come here to teach English, Cantonese, computer training and other skills, not getting paid, but devoting their best effort to this task. Our generous donors bring a lot of life necessities to the agency and helped to arrange all kind of good from clothes and shoes, to towels and plates. Some of them even come here with their young children. I believe this will definitely become the best education for their kids as it teaches them how to be kind and helpful when they grow up. Finally, of course our members who are resilient, determined and brave. They never give up hope to achieve a dignified life in a safe country.

Since all the people working here are nice and passionate, I never had to break the ice and started work on the first day very soon. Based on my university knowledge and personal preferences, my future job will focus on children and women support. Especially after I went to a Srilankan refugee home and tutored a nine years old girl, I realize how important education is for these children. I was touched by this little girl’s eagerness to learn, her innocence and her lovely smile. I believe that education can certainly help them to change their fate in the future. Clearly, compared to men, women have always been particularly vulnerable. According to research, an unknown number of female refugees have been threatened or suffered sexual assaults or rape. Especially for women from certain cultures these can be profoundly traumatic experiences. Furthermore, women always take the main responsibility to take care of their children. The experience taught from old mother to young mother and the advice from professionals can help reducing the parenting stress for women. As a consequence the support for women is very crucial. Finally, Vision First’s genuinely friendly and caring atmosphere motivates my work and provides a great opportunity to put knowledge and ideas into practice. What’s more, I learnt a lot from these inspiring volunteers and this will be helpful for my future study and work. I do believe I will gather a great harvest of experience during the rest of my summer at Vision First.

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