In 2007 Arin was seven years old and his brother, Viraj, was five when they left their hometown to seek asylum in Hong Kong because their mother’s life was in danger. They were too young to know why they were leaving the Punjabi city of Amritsar or where they were going. “Maybe for a better future, but I didn’t know why my mother left home when I was little,” Arin says.
Viraj’s first impression of his new home was the lack of noise. “Hong Kong is quieter than Amritsar.” Also, India’s Punjab region is mostly flat, expansive farmland and Hong Kong’s steep hills proved a challenge for the two youngsters. The beginning of their story here sounds like the story of immigrants anywhere. Having no friends initially and struggling with the linguistic and cultural differences, they remember that teachers were nice to them at school and they felt welcome. As they became more fluent in Cantonese (and eventually mastered a total of six languages) they were able to make friends and associate with the local culture through music, television, and social media. “We had seven or eight good friends from Form 1 and we had Chinese friends and others from different cultures,” remembers Arin.
Growing up, Viraj played football with his school friends while, over the years, they became used to climbing the hills of the city together to get to school. They have come to see themselves as children of Hong Kong. Things seemed normal and school life was good, but “outside school we faced many difficulties,” says Arin. “We didn’t have enough money to eat. We usually asked other people for money. In the past, we received $2000 each month. It was not enough for three of us.”
“It was hard. Every month we had to report to Immigration and miss school. It’s good that [the government] gives us things, gives us money for rent and food. But it is not enough. We once lived in a ‘cube house.’ That was hard for us. It was a very small place.” The two siblings lived with their mother in a 100-square foot room in a subdivided flat, meaning that there was just enough space for a bed within the plywood walls. They shared a kitchen and bathroom with seven other tenants in their subdivided unit. They rented this “cube” for $4000 a month.
“We are glad that time is over. Now things are better.” The network of refugees and NGO’s in place to assist them has gone some way in meeting the needs of people whose are, as a matter of policy, neglected by the government. “In secondary school, we got some help from other people and had some pocket money to spend each week.” After thirteen years, these young adults in asylum must come to term with their harsh reality compared to the options enjoyed by their former resident classmates.
While the additional aid eases some of the stress of daily life, the legal restrictions of their refugee status define the limits of their aspirations and hopes for the future. Since graduating in January of 2020, they have been spending most of their time at home “because there’s nothing to do.” Today some of their friends are working, others went to university, but the brothers cannot think far ahead in the future. Even if they could afford it, they would not be allowed to work after furthering their studies. Since their mother requested asylum protection in 2007, the brothers are legally defined as illegal immigrants and, thirteen years later, their lives remain frozen in place while time moves forward.
“I want to teach young children someday, like in kindergarten,” Arin says. “Maybe in the future I will continue my studies. But not now. Now I just stay home because there is nothing to do.” Like many young Hong Kongers, he loves online gaming. He stays up until four in the morning on most nights playing Call of Duty or PUBG because he dreads waking up in the morning. Days are long when you have nothing to do, even longer when you cannot study or work like their resident friends. For Arin, Viraj, and other second-generation refugees, each day is a repetition of the one before and any attempt to change this is met with severe consequences. “We are not allowed, but if we tried, we could get a job,” one claims, acknowledging that if arrested it would mean 15 months in prison and a criminal record.
Despite the hardships, it’s remarkable to note that Arin and Viraj have nothing but positive things to say about Hong Kong. “Yes, I like the place. It’s good. The people here are nice and I am really glad that I learned Chinese and made some Chinese friends.” There is even the lingering sense of optimism and gratitude commonly felt by many immigrants: “My mother changed our lives. If we were in India, we would be nothing,” said Arin, affirming that his mother made the right decision for them. They ask only to be allowed the dignity to live and work and the recognition of their basic rights as human beings.
When asked if they want to return to India, Arin said, “of course, I want to go back to India someday to visit my grandparents and my family. But I cannot go until immigration lets us go. They should let us go to our home countries and come back but they only allow us to leave if we never come back.” Hong Kong is their home. If they cannot come back, they will not leave.
(written by Pedro Cortes)
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“Mosul is an ancient city. It was actually called Nineveh before. Have you heard of it?” Alex told me. Most people heard of Nineveh, a Biblical city with a name that echoes across millennia, bubbling with history and myth and revelation and, most recently, a cycle of occupation and violence to match its historic stature. Alex continued, “Before the American occupation in 2003, we could go out with our friends and have picnics outside. It was safe. Some people used to go camping. It was totally safe. It was a good place.”
During 254 days of detention in 2014, Hong Kong Immigration officers at Castle Peak Bay Immigration Centre asked Alex repeatedly why he had left his country. “They suspected that I was a terrorist when they found out I came from Iraq. Then I told them about my past incidents, one with Islamic State, another with the US Army and then another with the Iraqi Forces. I told them life was worse than hell. I think they got scared. Imagine, they don’t know who you are and you have no documents and you’re telling them about life in a war-torn country full of massacres that I witnessed with my own eyes …”
After fleeing from violent conflict in Iraq in April 2010, Alex traveled from Turkey to Cyprus to Malaysia to Indonesia to Singapore to South Korea and finally, in 2014, he reached Hong Kong. Along the way he experienced a series of detainment, interrogations, beatings and the occasional act of kindness. As he described his experiences, he was describing the life of someone outside of the law, someone whose attempts at finding hope and peace are impeded by the structures set up to determine the validity of his claims, structures which deal with him and other refugees primarily as criminals. “What I have faced, what I have suffered, what I have seen … the pain that I’ve felt, it’s really hard to express.”
When a person applies for asylum in Hong Kong, they are administered by the Unified Screening Mechanism (USM), a process designed to determine the validity of their claims. Alex had no passport to prove he was an Iraqi citizen, nor help from an embassy. He explained, “Immigration killed my case. They totally rejected my identity. They said my Iraqi identity is not accepted. They said we can only accept you as an ‘Arabic speaker.’ I mean, does that make sense? I asked them, where am I from?”
So there was Alex, a young man from an ancient city, who had once worked alongside his father installing windowpanes in Mosul’s quiet suburbs, now an undocumented “Arabic speaker” with no recognized history of citizenship or travel due to his decision to leave the very country which makes him a suspect. The choice to flee from violence and to put himself through hardship and uncertainty becomes not admirable and courageous, but suspicious. During his 9-month detention, Alex was humiliated, beaten, and kept in solitary confinement over ten times. He was losing his mind, losing his sense of self and purpose. Alex experienced his lowest points in Hong Kong’s detention system.
“The hardest times I faced were when they kicked me into the solitary confinement cell. That killed me from inside. It made me want to commit suicide. If you look at that cell there’s no window, there’s no one to talk to. It is full of mosquitoes and cockroaches walking on the wall and ceilings everywhere. The lamp in the ceiling was always on hurting my eyes when I tried to sleep. I used to ask the officers to switch it off and they refused. I felt lower than an animal. It felt like they were taking revenge against me for some reason.”
Why is a safe city like Hong Kong so undesirable for those seeking asylum? “In this city I cannot go here and there as I have no money. I mean if I have nothing to do where can I go, what can I do? In Hong Kong refuges are not allowed to work. We are not allowed to have income. We are not allowed to get a bank account, to do any basic things in life.” Then there is the question of hope. More than a decade into exile, Alex is no closer to what he set out to achieve. “I believe anything is possible in this world, but it is hard for me to expect any positive things in Hong Kong. There are a lot of refugees with good skills but there is no encouragement. It seems the government does everything to discourage us and crush our hopes. Basically, they don’t want us to be well.”
Despite this, Alex balances despair with optimism by choosing to face the reality of his situation and his role in managing his physical and mental health. After his release from detention, Alex chose to do for himself what no one could do for him staying positive, keeping healthy and helping those around him. He found a supportive community amongst Hong Kong’s asylum seekers and activists. Through the Refugee Union Alex has met “good people that give me real respect and make me feel like I’m human. There’s no discrimination. There’s no racism. There’s no animosity. There’s no hatred. That’s perhaps what makes me feel that life is still beautiful. Refugee Union has helped me a lot. It’s about how to relieve your stress, how they make sure to create fresh hope in life, not to increase tension, not to make you more depressed, not to make you want to give up. Forget about all your troubles, we’re going to try to help you or at least keep you busy and make you feel that life is still good.”
Even with a community of friends, however, there are limits to how much Alex can allow himself to feel free and at peace. “I really don’t want to focus on my case in Hong Kong any more. I will start to overthink. I will start to worry and get anxious. I mean there are a lot of negative things. It is really better for me just to leave this case aside. Six years in Hong Kong and nothing has moved forward. I lost hope in Hong Kong Government. I really don’t have any hope for another opportunity.”
(written by Pedro Cortes)