In memory of Awil

Post Date: Jul 24th, 2011 | Categories: Advocacy | COMMENT

Born in Somalia 52 years ago, my dear friend Awil Aden Hassan died at the Caritas Medical Centre Friday night – may Allah have mercy on him. I’m thankful his suffering ended and he rests in the peace he couldn’t find alive. Awil arrived in Hong Kong in November 2009 and showed anyone who cared photos of his beloved Mogadishu taken before militiamen destroyed everything he had. He was old enough to remember the good days, decades ago, when our country was thriving and our capital a city to be proud of. He was fond of Somali songs and had several stored on the battered mobile phone he often listened to. We considered him an Old Man as he was double our age and had the wisdom of who’d seen much happen and the patience of who’d survived many hardship he wasn’t keen to talk about.

As months passed, this gentle man gradually lost hope in the refugee system. He was too polite to get upset, too patient to complain, yet he couldn’t understand why the process took so long and nobody could help him with urgent needs. He complained that he visited the UNHCR with pressing questions only to be sent to his lawyers. He went to that office only to be bounced back to the UNHCR. It went on like this for 15 months and each time he struggled to return home on foot. His home wasn’t at all a *home*, rather the last place he could go to. This tiny ninth floor room was his shelter, until an unforgiving landlord cut first water and then electricity because he had no money to pay. He used the public toilet near Fuk Wah street and washed in freezing water throughout winter. Even at night he had to go up and down to the bathroom on his bad legs, stopping to catch his breath as he became sicker and weaker. Without coins for bus fares, he walked for two hours to meet friends at Chung King Mansion and to required appointments. By evening he was usually too tired even to eat. Concerned about his weight loss I encouraged him, but he hardly ate more than a spoonful and often nothing at all as his stomach contracted with anxiety.

I heard him say “Let’s forget about it. If Hongkong doesn’t help me, it’s all over. What is the point of suffering more here than when I was in Mogadishu? I thought I had come to a better world, I imagined a community of support, but the truth is nobody cares about me. Nobody can help me and I’m too weak to survive by myself. I might as well be dead.” Awil woke up to the bitter truth that his hopes of asylum were tormented by a system that cannot handle old, weak people who cannot cope with this harsh life. With little English and no family, he fended for himself and with mounting depression his situation deteriorated fast. After suffering through a horribly cold and lonely winter, he lost hope and became withdrawn. He stopped eating. He was often drunk and nobody realized the depth of his anguish until suddenly, one February night, he turned to his roommate, said “I don’t feel well” and collapsed. He slipped into a coma that lasted five month and wore him down to his death yesterday. I wish I could contact his relatives in Somalia, but sadly I have no number and hope somebody will read this website and inform them.

Awil left us with the questions he couldn’t answer. Allah took him because his suffering was too much to bear, but even doctors couldn’t explain why he slipped into a coma in the first place. There was no disease, no brain damage, no heart issues. While he had a weak liver and was malnourished, he had nothing severe enough to switch his body off, except the dire conditions of his life. The hospital did more tests, but found nothing. The doctors concluded that through severe depression and anxiety he lost his will to live. Awil gradually lost hope and thus his will to survive. I was told that if his family could visit and care for his withering body, perhaps he wouldn’t have become skin and bones. I will be forever haunted by his comatose, glazed eyes that peered right through me as if examining my soul and the suffering we share. Awil wasn’t recognized a UNHCR refugee because he died before the long process completed. Had he been respected as a vulnerable senior and screened quicker, maybe he would still be with us. This we will never know, but his death highlights every refugee’s distress struggling with a system that treats us as less-than-human. Ultimately, we all bear responsibility for this tragedy and those who could have done more, bear more.

Truly only to Allah we belong and truly, to Him we shall return.

Awil in his Shamshuipo room
Awil in his Shamshuipo room

email from Mr. Kyran Stutterd:

Dear Vision First – I have just read your tragic article about Awil. His story is one of isolation, hopelessness and abandonment by a system that is bereft of compassion and, at worst, lacks even a basic understanding of human needs. One cannot help but feel the loneliness and despair Awil had to endure to remain in HK, to retain his sanity while given the run-a-round by an inadequate system – he ultimately was lost in an ocean of bureaucracy. His story is one of the strength of the human spirit, the will  to survive and escape the ravages of war in his homeland, the destruction of his traditional way of life and the loss of family. His was a human spirit that was allowed to wither and die in the shadow of government policy. Many asylum seekers in search of a new life – particularly if they are on their own without family support – become emotionally vulnerable in an alien environment. In their search for a better and more secure life, they create an utopian vision, a dream they hope will arisen from the suffering they endured. Unfortunately in most cases their dreams are not realized. Their reality frequently turns into a living nightmare that engulfs them in loneliness and despair. The absence of family members heightens their anguish, as in this foreign country they lack the community/tribal counselling they grew up with and is an integral part of their culture. In many cases asylum seekers wish to return home, to a way of life which is familiar to them, even though they will put their lives at risk doing so.