Street sleeping is illegal, however, every refugee is forced to break this law at some point. To mark World Refugee Day, Vision First’s staff went homeless for one night with five members who slept rough for months – two of them through the winter! Their friendly manners and tidy clothes neatly disguise a vagrancy we didn’t fully appreciate until dawn. This experience requires psychological preparation. It is one thing to hear their stories and quite another to break through the embarrassment these urban outcasts conceal to the casual observer. It’s a sobering fact that almost all VF members endured this fate at various times: running out of cash upon arrival, abandoned by smuggling agents, before meeting compatriots, before obtaining ISS support, evicted by landlords and, most frequently, when released from CIC (Castle Peak Bay Immigration Centre).
In the overly bright lights of Peking Road McDonald’s, it became apparent this wouldn’t be a walk in the park. There was new ice that needed to be broken. Hardly a word was spoken over dinner by guys who always chat amicably, which made us realize we were pushing the outreach envelop into awkward territory. We wondered what prompted this uncomfortable silence. Perhaps they wanted to pull out. Maybe they had second thoughts about showing exactly where and how they slept in the open, which was quite understandable. These are proud young people who haven’t been humiliated by sleeping in the streets before seeking sanctuary in HK. One thing for sure, the first months are the toughest for any refugee, presumably worldwide, as they crush relentless even their lowest expectations. The adjustment to be made is huge.
At 10pm Koffi, a Togolese political activist, led our single file to Kowloon Park. We meandered along dark paths towards the leafy Pagoda in the Chinese Garden. Here they demonstrated how to dodge the night guards’ lackadaisical patrols before midnight closure. By avoiding their torches, refugees can secure coveted sleeping spots where they remain undisturbed until the 5am opening. Rarely do they get caught napping by kicks to their shoes. However, as long as you shift when asked, the police are never called. Compared to the rest of Kowloon, this secluded corner is quiet, undisturbed and sheltered from both rain and prying eyes. With time to kill, we sat in the moonlight and an agitated conversation about reaching Europe ensued. Many hopeful plans were proposed and swiftly discarded acknowledging those borders have become hostile in the wake of the Arab Spring. Even those with relatives in France and Belgium are resigned that visas are no longer issued. Besides, with a CAT claim (UN Convention against Torture) the only flight HK Immigration allows is back to one’s homeland. Then an insight was offered: when two friends sleep during the day, one keeps watch while the other naps, “because it’s not good for two men to sleep on a bench.”
Shuffling out of Kowloon Park, a Tanzanian victim of rising rents, poured out his frustration at a refugee system that offers safety, but no respectable life. “How are we expected to pay for home deposit and rent when we aren’t allowed to work? Do you think I would struggle like this for three years if I could return home. This is no a life!” Everyone pitched in. It was a free-for-all complaint and what emerged is that idleness is the harmful spirit killer. How long can an able youth be tormented before going crazy? It is true they seek asylum and safety foremost, but what price do they pay for this basic human right? Some even say death would be less cruel. As the night thickened their mood swings intensified with weariness: one moment laughter crackled at their predicament, another moment frustration crushed them helplessly. We cannot deny being weighed down by their worries as we shared these emotions together with this long, sleepless night. Life is indeed more frightening without a roof over your head!
At the Star Ferry waterfront, the Fragrant Harbour mesmerized in the dazzling full moon, but we were not there for the sights. We skirted phalanxes of tourist snapping the sights. We passed several homeless citizens already tucked inside their carton boxes. There is a big difference between these denizens of the night and our members: the former deploy boxes, while refugees don’t for fear of arrest. Some have been taken away for questioning. Now they know it’s better to lean uncomfortably against a wall, ready to pronounce the pardonable apology, “Sorry officer, I didn’t mean to fall asleep. Let me move on now!” When you come from Africa you dread policemen despite assurances to the contrary, as those African uniforms are a license for brutality. Another major difference with HK homeless is summed up by their blackened soles. When the local lie down in summer, their darken feet broadcast their deprivation. Quite to the contrary, refugees make a huge effort to keep clean, even by splash washing in public restrooms with a lookout at the door. They are, but won’t appear homeless!
After 11pm we skirted the Cultural Central, its staircase and Starbuck’s to reach a secluded area between a fountain and a wheelchair ramp. This was it. We all sat down, awkwardly claimed a spot. Backpacks to lean against, sneakers turned into headrests. As the tourists dwindling, slouching prevailed and eventually we lay down on the hard tiles. That’s when I recalled my wife’s suggestion when I refused to take her yoga mat, “Make sure you get plenty of boxes” What boxes! This was not camping. Refugees’ homelessness is deprived of every comfort and the rivets in our jeans reminded us that nobody chooses to be a refugee. I swear I caught them smiling at us. They surely had a private giggle in their dialects at our woeful plight, as we tried to see the upside. Have you ever admired the night sky with high-flying planes like fireflies zooming passed a full moon? How could we sleep like that? We weren’t even tired. We talked for hours, negotiating an impossible truce with unsympathetic tiles. Hearing complaints about the swarming mosquitoes – I counted 48 bites later – Mr. Ampofo dismissed our laments with a chuckling, “Hey man, don’t worry! There’s no malaria in Hong Kong!” Too bad Justin’s watch was set to beep the hours, because I swear I heard them all … beep 1am … needles in my eyes, beep 2am … an insomniac’s stupor, beep 3am. It wasn’t till later that Nigerien Bernard’s warning made sense. We were abruptly shocked by a BMX gang: their deafening airhorns punched our ears as they swooped liked bats out of hell inches away from our exposed feet. Crazy, that could really injure somebody! They taunted and abused us before vanishing into the darkness from which they had devilishly emerged.
It took us ages to doze off again. Meanwhile the genial moon had vanished and clouds swept in. A harmless drizzle turned rapidly into a threatening squall that flooded our bed-spaces as we grabbed our bags and hopped onto the benches. We hadn’t chosen them earlier as a false move would surely deliver you into stagnant waters. A loud chirping announced dawn that was still hours away; these pitiable city birds as confused as human by 24-hour brightness. Drunks moved closer to ‘our camp’ to find shelter and I learnt how strategically eyes are located in the skull, at just the right angle for a convenient perimeter check. I remembered trying to sleep as a child with one eye open, like cowboys did in western movies. Finally exhaustion prevailed and I doubt I got more than an hour’s sleep. Little past 5am the night was over. At the first hint of daybreak our friends were stirring awake, unwilling to be seen as vagrants. They washed their face with water from their bottles, brushing their teeth with fingers. These lightly packed urban nomads had left their bags with friends and had the bare minimum to pull through the night. Imagine doing this in the winter. Imagine getting sick and still not having shelter. If ever we had doubts about their plight, this sleepless night opened our eyes to more than their duress: homeless refugees deserve our compassion through this abandonment where at times even dignity is clearly absent. On a brighter note, Vision First is proud to open Hong Kong’s only REFUGEE SHELTER this July. We’re going to need all the support we can get, so please contact us if you have any suggestion or assistance to offer – Thank you.