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Arguing, Learning, Waiting

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

Professor Gordon Mathews in the New York Time

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/28/opinion/asylum-seekers-wait-and-learn-in-hong-kong.html?_r=1

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.

 

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.

UNHCR launches flagship publication on State of the World’s Refugees

May 31st, 2012 | Advocacy, Media | Comment

NEW YORK, United States, 31 May 2012

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres warned on Thursday that factors causing mass population flight are growing and over the coming decade more people on the move will become refugees or displaced within their own country. In comments marking the launch in New York of “The State of the World’s Refugees: In Search of Solidarity” (PDF edition) Guterres said displacement from conflict was becoming compounded by a combination of causes, including climate change, population growth, urbanization, food insecurity, water scarcity and resource competition. All these factors are interacting with each other, increasing instability and conflict and forcing people to move. In a world that is becoming smaller and smaller, finding solutions, he said, would need determined international political will. “The world is creating displacement faster than it is producing solutions,” said Guterres. “And this means one thing only: more people trapped in exile over many years, unable to return home, to settle locally, or to move elsewhere. Global displacement is an inherently international problem and, as such, needs international solutions – and by this I mainly mean political solutions.”

Dadaab refugee camp in Northern Kenya

(more…)

Our donation flyer reaches CNN

May 8th, 2012 | Advocacy, Personal Experiences, Refugee Community | Comment

Hi  Cosmo,

A friend forwarded an email from you about how Vision First needs donated clothes and household items. I am doing some Spring Cleaning. Would someone be able to come to my building to pick up some donated items? I can have them ready by this Friday or Saturday. I live on Hong Kong Island — very close to an MTR stop. Is there any need for professional work clothes — like ladies’ business jackets?

Let me know — thank you!
Pauline Chiou
Anchor/Correspondent
CNN International

Here is the flyer that is securing daily donations to our very busy centre – please email it to your friends, thank you! And here is a Press Pack with more information about programs, members and how we grow organically with community support :-)

VF + Community + Refugee power = SUCCESS

Hong Kong University Research Project: “Health practices, problems and needs among African refugees in Hong Kong”

Apr 29th, 2012 | VF updates, programs, events | Comment

Who are we?

Dear VF members. In the coming months you will meet me hanging out at Vision First. My name is Ms. Sealing Cheng. I am part of a research project on asylum-seekers’ health-related issues led by Dr. William Wong of the University of Hong Kong.

What are we researching? 

This project seeks to identify and understand the health practices, problems and needs of refugees from Africa in Hong Kong. We understand that refugees live under very challenging conditions in Hong Kong – with no right to work, volunteer or study (except for children), refugees are dependent on the government and NGOs for housing, healthcare, food and other necessities. The current level of support for Hong Kong refugees is for basic survival. The impact of such conditions on your physical and mental health must be tremendous. How do you cope? How do you optimize your limited resources for your own physical, psychological, and social well-being? How are different kinds of health knowledge, practices, and access utilized – for example, folk medicine, over-the-counter medication, and public healthcare service? What kind of problems do you encounter when accessing the public health care system? These are just some of the questions we have in this project.

Refugees experience being rendered largely invisible in Hong Kong. But the focus of this project is on those from Africa because, unlike the largest group of asylum-seekers in Hong Kong who are from South Asia, those from Africa do not have access to any support and resources made available by a local ethnic community. Furthermore, their appearance also subjects them to greater scrutiny and discrimination in Hong Kong, given society’s very minimal interaction with people from the African continent. This may mean that African refugees experience a distinct set of issues and concerns regarding their physical and mental health.

What are our goals?

- to gain insights into health-related experiences of refugees through their stories and in their own voice. Your personal stories and the survey will provide both depth and breadth to our understanding of the health practices, needs and level of access. These will help identify areas of health problems, patterns of health behavior and risks as well as institutional, social, and cultural obstacles to health-seeking behavior.

- to contribute to developing solutions for some of the health-related problems faced by refugees in Hong Kong. The findings will certainly raise public awareness and hopefully inform future policies concerning this group. Would setting up a refugee clinic be ideal? Or should the focus be on making the public health care system more inclusive?

- this project is hopefully the first step in understanding the much larger refugee community and to building a more appropriate infrastructure to address their health needs. It is our conviction that addressing this aspect of refugee life is a crucial step to treating you with humanity and to assume our obligations to protect the rights of those seeking asylum.

What will we do?

The project will take about one year to complete. It is divided into 2 parts.

Part I - will take place between May and September 2012. This is the part where Sealing will be running around trying to meet and talk with people to explore the range of health attitudes and practices of refugees as well as problems with seeking health care services. It would be great if you could allow Sealing (with her research assistant who speaks French) to hang out with you – from everyday routines to picking up groceries and visiting local hospitals. 30 in-depth interviews will take place in August and September.
Part II - involves a survey that will begin by the end of 2012. Based on the findings from Part I, a questionnaire will be designed to identify patterns of behavior as well as demographic information in the population. Questions may include: places of origin, length of residence in Hong Kong, age, gender, education level, work/ income if any; specific information on family structure and relationships, health attitudes and practices, sexual relationship, smoking habits, alcohol/ drug use, condom use; general health status, access to health care, including sexual and reproductive health service. 320 questionnaires will be administered.

Naturally, the absolute confidentiality of respondents will be guaranteed. Pseudonyms rather than real names will be used for the transcription and archiving of all interviews. All information will be used for the purpose of this research only. No part of the project will be accessible to any government agents.

Mothers and babies find great support at Vision First