I am an organizer of the Refugee Union. Two weeks ago my phone rang late in the evening. I was startled as it was a bit late at night. Normally after 8 pm my phone is rather quiet, except for the WhatsApp group chats that streams in busily through out the evening into the late night.
It was our member David, “Brother please help! I am with a family that is homeless and has nowhere to sleep. It includes three small children and four adults. It’s winter, brother! The landlord threw them out in the street, but it’s very cold outside! Can I send them to the Refugee Union?”
“What?” I remarked incredulous. David pressed on persuasively, “Can the Union help them stay in our shelter just for a few days as they look for a home? I am concerned because of the young children.” I didn’t hesitate, “Yes. Sure … We can accommodate them for a few days as they sort things out.”
As the message sank into my mind the matter brought me face to face with a reality that members of the refugee community go through in their day to day life in Hong Kong. The only difference is that today it was a different group of people , these are Hong Kong residents. I was deeply touched by that conversation: here are refugees extending a helping hand to residents!
It was almost midnight and a large homeless family was coming over. I imagined that the young children were cold and desperate for a warm and safe environment to sleep. The family was in a McDonald’s restaurant where they sought shelter after they were thrown out into the cold night by their landlord. The parents didn’t have many options as social services are quiet slow to say the least.
That night, David had gone to a McDonald’s for a late night snack as it was too late to cook. As he enjoyed a burger, he overheard one of the kids asking his mum when they could return home, because they were uncomfortable sleeping on plastic benches. He paid attention to the unfolding scene as the kids pressed the parents to go home.
After carefully listening to the conversation, it dawned on David that he was witnessing a desperate situation. It was a conversation that any parent would dread to have with their children. And David has two young ones of his own. On inquiry, the mother explained that they had been thrown into the streets the previous night. She went on to say that without money for rent, they had slept at McDonald’s, where they hoped not to be turned away.
When they arrived at our office, I gave them the access code to the shelter and showed them our modest facilities. The following morning they were very happy and grateful that the Union had offered them a place to sleep. They were surprised and shocked that refugees could help other people – even Hong Kong residents!
For them David was god-sent as they had hit rock bottom. It has now been two weeks since we sheltered them. They have settled down very comfortably. However, they lack privacy and space as large family. This is because our members actively frequent the office throughout the day and late at night. But the family doesn’t mind. They feel welcome by our community.
During our Christmas Party we celebrated together as one family. We shared gifts, food and drinks as one people struggling to survive in Hong Kong. They shared the daily donations we receive from our generous supporters. At the Refugee Union there is always extra food and warmth for people struggling, irrespective of social or immigration status. Hardship sometimes draws people closer than blood.
A month ago Refugee Union celebrated its first anniversary as a registered society. It was a great moment of as members celebrate a union that has given them identity and a sense of belonging in a society that has generally turned its back on us.
Since its formation, the RU had one ambitious mandate: to safeguard the rights of the refugees. Armed with this mission it set sail despite considerable odds to achieve its objective: to empower members to selflessly assist each other and actively participate in all matters relating to the life of refugees and the development of the asylum sphere in Hong Kong according to the highest standards of human rights. We certainly had our work cut out.
One year down the line the first score card is out and we believe it is a positive one. We offered the refugee community a platform to fearlessly tackle the problems they face. The RU has engaged with the various government and societal bodies, including many universities and schools. RU has given numerous interviews to students who have taken a keen interest in our distressed lives. At our office new collaborations and partnerships have been established for the benefit of our community.
We have since received a surprising number of requests from schools, colleges and universities seeking to engage and partner with the refugee community. Individuals as well as organizations both local and international have shown considerable interest in our cause. These partnerships has translated into much needed support that has made us feel part and parcel of broader Hong Kong community.
In our first year, we have enjoyed an upward trajectory of support and acceptance, particularly in the aftermaths of the European refugee crisis. This festive season we have been honored by generous invitations to grace Christmas parties where food, drinks, gifts and cheer were in abundance. Our children enjoyed receiving many presents from various NGOs and schools who ensured they did not miss out on the festivity.
We sincerely thank all those who made us smile through way of donations, gifts as well as best wishes – THANK YOU.
Although refugees remain deeply marginalized and discriminated against we still soldier on with the hope that the authorities will adopt more thoughtful and considerate policies in managing the challenge of asylum with due consideration of the international instrument that are binding on Hong Kong SAR.
As we continue to wait for change, the Refugee Union will strengthen its struggle for respect and dignity for all persons in a refugee-like situation.
In March 2014, my sister invited me to support the Refugee Union in one of their protests in Wanchai: “Occupy SWD Against Corruption”. After the demonstration, I knew more about the suffering situation of such a long-neglected disadvantaged group. Then, I did more research on the Refugee Union, which is a registered society for protecting asylum seekers in Hong Kong with the aim of safeguarding refugee rights and improving the protection, wellbeing and future prospect of all refugees.
Many refugees and asylum seekers are still being held up indefinitely and they might even lose hopes in life. I felt that I could offer my support especially to the young kids who are very vulnerable to their surroundings, yet it is not their choices. The children do not know what is going on around them. In order to better develop their potential and help them to better integrate into the society, I offered my time and efforts in preparing a weekly free Cantonese class every Saturday afternoon. Apart from helping them to deal with the difficulties in homework, I would also prepare and conduct tailor-made supplementary Cantonese notes for them, such as the written art work, poems, songs and various innovative games for them to practice the local language.
Throughout a year of voluntary teaching, I encountered difficulties in designing the teaching materials. Since learning diversity exists between those studying kindergarten and the others studying primary school 2 or 3, I had to adjust the level of the content. Also, I recruited some helpers to assist those young children with poorer Chinese levels. In addition, I was challenged to plan innovative and creative learning activities. Fortunately, I received much good advice from my school teachers, helpers from other universities and friends.
This opportunity inspired me to take related courses, research and read books regarding teaching Chinese to non-Chinese students. I am more confident in arranging Chinese learning activities which will motivate young kids. I think they will learn something from my class and be more capable in breaking down the language barriers. I would like to give thanks to the parents of the refugee kids since they help a lot to manage the class discipline.
I am glad that I have been growing up with the children of the Refugee Union for a year. Having Cantonese class with them is very enjoyable and meaningful since they are eager to learn and often bring happiness to me. Moreover, I have met many refugees who have travelled a long way to Hong Kong, and I admire their extraordinary resilience and tenacity. Through teaching these energetic and enthusiastic youngsters, I strive to assist them in integrating into the society, so they may have equal opportunities to fully contribute their potential. I am also confident that my students will share my dedication to help the needy in society.