Falling off a cliff … day after day.

Post Date: Mar 27th, 2011 | Categories: Advocacy | COMMENT

Hello, my name is Goodsend and I’ve been a refugee in Hong Kong since September 2006. Thank you for this great cup of coffee and the opportunity to share with Vision First’s supporters. Sorry, I didn’t sleep till 5am and with only a couple hours sleep every night it’s hard to concentrate. I find it difficult to think because I’m not getting enough sleep and this has been my suffering since I sought asylum in September 2006. I have seen doctors and taken sleeping pills and other psychotropic drugs which help me feel better but they make me dizzy and feeling strange after a while, so I stopped all of that. When you live many months and years as a refugee, you don’t have a clear routine or schedule, no idea where you are going and what you have to do. This continues for a long time so your ability to concentrate reduce as your mind and attention gets weaker and weaker. Sometimes when you need it you don’t have this basic ability that was so strong for me when I was a university student and an active opposition leader before the death threats. Concentration is like exercise, if you don’t use it you lose it, right? To recover this you need a routine, study, work, something clear to keep your mind occupied, but if you don’t have a longterm solution to your problem, how can you further your life? Perhaps for me things are easier than most refugees as I speak good English and have many helpful friends, but how about the other guys? There are many who just sit at home all day, often in a windowless coffin-size room. They have no friends. They just leave the house to collect food, visit Immigration or United Nations for appointments and they don’t even know their district after a year. They have too many awful worries and gradually they get trapped in the shell of their day-to-day existence, trapped in a little room – their life gradually losing perspective. To say the truth, they are going crazy, mad in isolation and inactivity, like trapped zoo animals compared to those struggling with survival. Ultimately to fight and die becomes an enviable destiny compared to rotting in depressed, disheartened inaction.

Preparing to open the Homebase

The biggest problem is that a refugee feels powerless. He believes there is somebody out there that can help him, somebody who can solve his problem. However the institutions that he approaches like Immigration and UNHCR are ignoring his suffering, they don’t want to be responsible for this hassle and this continues for a long time. So refugees can not see light at the end of the tunnel. By himself, a refugee without the right to work, without income, without a support network, he can not plan anything. It’s not legal for him to do anything so he waits passively for others to intervene, not because he is unable to support himself, but because the laws prohibit it. A refugee completely depends on people he sees are not even willing to help him. Even worse than feeble and helpless grandparents who depend on children for food, lodging, clothing, support and even human contact. At least old people depend on family they love and usually love them back. But a refugee depends on institutions who don’t even care about the end result, or at least, when there is no solution, the professionals will step aside with a “Sorry it didn’t work out!” … throwing people off an existential cliff.

A refugee has no option but to beg. He cannot help others even though he has the skills. He might be a chemist, an engineer, a teacher or a journalist, but in this diminished lifestyle he’s just a beggar. Mentally this is a huge burden because we know we are capable human beings stuck in a situation that has no way out. Nobody is telling you when this situation is going to finish. The only thing you can do is PRAY, because you feel now only God can solve this problem. How interesting there are many refugees who are studying the bible, taking theology degrees and enrolling in diverse church courses. There are some who are on the way to become preachers and pastors because they believe that God is the only solution and they have lost hope in what mankind can do for them. Why isn’t anyone studying for a future job, like professional training or self-improvement? In the field of asylum the only option is religion. This is not an issue of escape, since they have already fled, but of religion appearing as the only way forward, the one assurance of sanity, inter-connection and normality. These are intelligent individuals who get so close to losing their mind that religion becomes a bastion against madness. I know an asylum-seeker with Muslim background, who professed being an atheist, recently he converted to Christianity because he found the answer to his existential crisis in that faith.

Allow me take a step backwards. When I first sought asylum here, I only thought about protection, because I was physically scared harm or death would destroy me. After a few months feeling safe, I discover a new condition: I had to adjust; I had to understand what I could do for myself and what was impossible; there was stuff I needed to handle like food and shelter. This is a daunting task and, depending how one adjusts, it’s even tougher for those who arrive here from a third-world village, where customs and habits seem from another era. I came from a Westernized country so it wasn’t too hard, but I know how a Somalian farmer or Ghanaian villager struggle to integrate. After adjusting to refugee life (rather being forced to) because you don’t have a choice, disappointment, sadness and depression soon overcome your mind. These stem from being powerless, being unable to do things the way you hoped. Reality corners you! It’s not that reality is different from your expectations. It’s worse than that. You simply don’t have any options: you are trapped without self-determination or self-actualization. The system puts thousands of asylum seekers in the same ‘box’: you might have been a professor or a fisherman yesterday, yet today everyone is dumped into the same pile. Those who have master degrees or were political leaders are bunched up with the illiterate with no consideration of their potential for society even as willing volunteers. I’m not saying a professor has more human rights than an unskilled villager, but clearly the mental expectations of the two differ greatly.

Since September 2006 I have spent 55 months sitting on my hands, with no chance of moving my life forward. That translates into 1,670 agonizing days trapped in the prison of my mind, counting the hours, hoping for daybreak … and I still don’t know when I will be released from this mental torture. We meet many wonderful people who are interested to know what a refugee’s life is like, but they are only ‘charity tourist’ they come into our life at an NGO, in a park or at McDonald and they want to know more about our anguish. Perhaps for a few weeks they might be interested, might even invite us home for dinner (that doesn’t really happen!) but after a while they are gone. They got their experience, they reflected on our hardship, they took their ‘mental snapshot’, their photo of refugee life and then they are gone. Similarly to tourists travelling to distant lands, who are fascinated by the experienced, reflect on the differences to better appreciate their good fortune and then they are gone. For the charity tourist it’s a matter of curiosity, they want to know a little, but there are barriers in their life too, they can’t see thing properly, deeply. So please, don’t just hover through our life to say that you did it! Everyone can help by committing more, by talking to others, by sharing their impressions and thinking of ways to make a difference, because this life could have been yours …

After 1,670 days of mental imprisonment, how do I feel? Will my ordeal end at 2,000 days? I don’t think so. Maybe at 3,650 days or ten years? I can not ask you to put yourself in my shoes as this experience is horrible. There are lots of barriers in this society. Some successful businessmen only see charities as business. They have stereotypes, they raise protective walls to avoid involvement, so they don’t have to bother with other people’s problems. They believe our troubles are the government’s responsibility, but they don’t know the government is not solving the problem well, or at all. For some of the super-rich in Asia, a pampered lifestyle and self-enjoyment are more important than the good of the society they live in. So they rather turn a blind eye to social justice. This is a true story: through a Chinese friend I met a businessman at a Mongkok restaurant who boasted he lost 20,000,000 HKD gambling in Macao over a year. He was positively proud of such an accomplishment, as if that made him super-cool. I asked him how much he gives to children charity and he said none. He was smug about gambling away a fortune as an indication of his wealth, as if to say those 20 million were just a drop in his treasure bucket -he had so much that those millions meant nothing! I didn’t want to be caustic with him. It wasn’t my place to make a judgment, but I really want to tell him “Wake up! What are you doing?” I was quite upset but now I realize it wasn’t his fault. He patently didn’t have the education to realize how terrible life is for others, both here and abroad. For him gambling away superfluous riches in the face of global suffering was acceptable because he lacked a sense of shared humanity and collective justice. At first I envied his position, then I realized there are people worse off then me … just in a different way. Thank you.