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 the last few months the Hong Kong society has been treated to a charade of drama by the Government. The level of propaganda has gone a notch higher as they work hard to deflect attention from the real issues affecting us refugees in Hong Kong.
After the mass exodus of refugees from Middle East to Europe, and the crisis that resulted from this movement, there came an outpouring of overwhelming support for the refugees from all over the world. This peaked with news of the young Syrian boy who drowned while his family attempted to reach Europe by sea. The solidarity expressed to the refugees who were seeking safe haven, running away from death and torture, is commendable.
The dramatic scenes that greeted our TV screens and also the horror stories that we read from the media were both encouraging and touching, while often equally terrifying. In Germany for example some groups of citizens welcomed the refugees to their homes. In Norway and other Nordic countries some Government officials offered their official residences to those seeking sanctuary. The sharing and compassion was at its highest in European countries. The citizen initiatives put immense political pressure on governments who made dramatic U-turns from earlier hardline stances. The governments agreed to take in thousands of refugees and offer them the protection they so desperately needed.
The Western countries leadership felt challenged and had to up their game to meet citizens’ demands. True to their calling, Western leaders showed and demonstrated their people’s compassion and values by offering leadership during this historic time of need. Angela Merkel was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize due to her perceived humanitarian offer and was nominated Time Magazine Person of the Year. Her declaration that Germany stand and be counted made the whole world revisit and reevaluate immigration policies. She set a momentous precedent that others struggled to emulate. The rest is history.
Here in Hong Kong, society reacted with similar compassion. Many stepped forward in solidarity with refugees worldwide. However, the political leadership did not heed their call but activated propaganda to deflect attention from the issues affecting the refugee community. As the locals came forward to help refugees, the Government threw the spanners in the works by branding us illegal immigrants who should be deported. Further, refugees were referred to as abusers of the Immigration policy and targeted for taking up work. This hate-filled profiling was carried out through a selective prism of the law. We have been portrayed as thieves, economic migrants and undesirable group of people who should not be here.
The objective of the Government is to fuel the fire of hate and discrimination by creating a picture of unwanted persons who deserves no compassion and support from locals. Thankfully this has yet to take root. The Government was afraid of the solidarity movement that was spreading across the world. It did not want the people of Hong Kong to demand answers and accountability on how refugees have been mistreated for over two decades.
Taking a cue from the world at large the people of Hong Kong have come forward to assist the refugee community more than ever before. More and more students are flocking to the Refugee Union office seeking to learn more about the refugees and their way of life. Many however are shocked and taken aback by our moving stories. After listening to us they cannot understand how we have managed to survive this far.
Supporters soon appreciate that the hardships that we go through in our daily lives here in Hong Kong is unbelievable. For most of the Hong Kong people it is nothing short of a nightmare. From inadequate welfare assistance to a hostile immigration policy and a ban from working, for refugees its survival of the fittest in a hostile environment. To live a life in a limbo with not enough to eat, no source of income, and no suitable accommodation has reduced us into beggars who live at the margins of society without hope for a better tomorrow.
However, our resilience and determination have been overlooked.