Arguing, Learning, Waiting

Post Date: Jul 15th, 2012 | Categories: 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.