Hello, my name is Monica and I am a MSW candidate at HKU, as well as a Vision First intern. Over the past months we have organized a well-attended programs for VF ladies to come together for support, solidarity and a little fun – something sorely missing in their current lives. Last Wednesday, a group of refugee women, together with their children, had a great time at Deep Water Bay Beach, a place where none of them had been before, despite being a short bus ride from Central. These ladies, coming from different countries, are members of the Vision First “Cooking & Storytelling Group”. There are few things women like better than chatting while sharing cooking tips and stories about their families, countries and experiences. They have happily attended this group weekly for three months already and have formed deep, supporting friendship with one another. It was the first time these ladies left the concrete jungle behind to enjoy sunshine and fresh air in Hong Kong – the best things in life are truly free!
“I really want to thank you for giving us such a beautiful day!” Magda from East Africa said to volunteers at the end of the outing. As a matter of fact, the ladies themselves contribute greatly to the preparation. Some helped to bring members who did not know the location, some brought BBQ materials and carried all the way to the beach, some took care of the children when others were busy broiling the food. To them, cooking and sharing had become a delightful way to fight the anxieties in refugees’ lives and also make new friends. And the sunshine and fresh air on the bay area indeed relieved them from Hong Kong’s merciless city life. On a bright sunny day like this, the ladies could finally wear their beautiful make up, put on their colorful dresses and be who they truly are. As Fatima walked to the beach, she stood in the middle of the ocean water and looked into the far way mountains, she seemed to be embracing her moment of Zen.
The children also had a lot of fun. They quickly became friends and played together. They climbed up near the fence to watch the boats floating on the water; they chased each other through the paths between the BBQ sites; they hide from their moms who were eager to check how much food was left in their mouths. Then they held hands and posed expertly for the camera, as if they were stars on a magazine shoot! After the BBQ, the ladies and children went to the beach to play by the water together. Rashmi with her son and a friend’s little girl went into the bay and had a fun water fight. Their clothes were soaked, but their laughter was like music. The picture of Rashmi gently holding her boy in the middle of the water, became a touching memory to the volunteers. However, nobody would argue that this photo below perfectly captures the wonderful spirit of that sunny afternoon of friendship and hope.
Here is a song composed and sung by our very own Emmanuel Prah, a man with a deep soul. He came to Hong Kong to seek refuge in 2005 and experienced the many ups and downs of this experience - mostly downs actually. A passionate musician, Emmanuel contributes his talent to several churches and finds in music the consolation and hope that reality deprive him of. In a friend’s home studio, he arranges and records songs that witness the unconquered spirit of marginalized souls who enduringly refuse to stay down when trodden upon. In September 2012 his torture claim was predictably rejected. The Notice of Determination explained that, “your country is taking charge of those who are torturing people and now there is no danger there.” Understandably, our friend wasn’t willing to accept HK Government’s assurance on the matter!
What is noteworthy is that Emmanuel is married to a lovely Hong Kong wife and the couple had already applied for a dependent visa. Given these circumstances no consideration, Immigration proceeded to arrest and detain a ‘future citizen’ with the firm intention of removing him from the city. There are many individuals in this position and Vision First regrets Immigration’s lack of consideration towards those married to Hong Kong partners - who will in due process become fellow citizens. It appears to us shortsighted and counterproductive to incarcerate the legitimate spouses, and often parents, of HK citizens for failing to secure international protection against Immigration’s 100% rejection rate. What message are the authorities sending their soon-to-be compatriots? What do children think of a government that removes their parents?
Please click here to listen to Emmanuel’s “Yes we can” … dedicated to the overworked folk at Immigration Department.
Vision First is an organization in Hong Kong that betters the lives of refugees while they are waiting for their papers to be processed. A recent event was held at Benefit Cosmetics in a high end shopping mall in one of their offices where many make up artists were present and ready to welcome the women from Vision First. The women hail from many countries and have been living here for a relatively long period. Benefit hosted this gathering at which the women learned the skills of applying make up correctly and efficiently with the help of many assistants on hand. Everyone was in very good spirits and much was exchanged in terms of culture, expertise, dialogue and finally beauty tips or secrets from around the world. Make up was applied to half the face by the make up artist while I looked in the mirror to memorize each step since I had to apply make up to the other half of my face on my own. Quite a nerve racking process, I must say, since one could end up looking like a clown. Each one of us had our very own assistant! When it was my turn, my biggest mistake as usual was with the mascara which I now know how to correct without frantically rubbing with wet tissue. Phew! I turned around to see how everyone was doing and was astounded at the beauty that surrounded me.
All the members had on wonderful smiles along with deftly applied make up. They all looked absolutely gorgeous including the Benefit Cosmetics’ host and Vision First’s co-founder and center manager Danielle. I guess there must have been an improvement in my usual deathly look sans make up. My mother would have been proud (“You must put on some make up before you leave the house young lady! Wait a minute, who am I calling young?!”). At the end, everyone that was present was enriched by the experience and all the members were given a certificate and pink bag which included perfume and cosmetics. How exciting! When it came time to spill the secrets, all were relaxed and there were many laughs as well as surprises. VF’s Danielle, who is from Australia uses a mixture of lemon and sugar to scrub her hands, elbows and knees. This mixture softens the skin as it is a natural exfoliator. Everyone has heard of Cleopatra, a woman from Egypt talked about Kohl which is used like an eyeliner to define the lines of the eyes to give it an almond shape. Benefit’s host who is from France never leaves home without applying lipstick. Lips, important in France, I guess it makes sense, french kissing. I should move! Like now!
A woman from Somalia applies henna to her hair which has natural restorative and protective powers. Henna has many uses and has gained popularity in the world due to great artistry required in applying henna decoratively to the body. A paste made with a mixture of milk and turmeric powder applied to the face as a mask can reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. This is a common beauty regimen in places like Sri Lanka where one member is from. I shared a secret that has to do with your body being in harmony with nature. In a time when there was no electricity, people would wake up with the sun and sleep a little bit after the sun sets. This helps your body remain alert and after just one week, one will notice a change in energy levels and the health of the skin. A final tip, green tea has been drunk by the Chinese for thousands of years and has been known to fight off anything from a headache to depression. So drink up! Cheers everyone, Kavita
There is a saying, “An idle brain is the devil’s workshop” and I believe the opposite is even more true. As an asylum-seeker, I used to feel disempowered by Immigration Laws that bar employment. Coming from a country where everyone works for a living, I was forced to beg for every single dollar. After a considerable period of idleness, I concluded that in fact I wasn’t as disabled as my situation suggested. It dawned on me that I had to do something about it. I realized that I was very RICH, just not in money, but in knowledge. Following the adage, “the poor ask for more, while the rich ask for better,” I was determined to ask for better in Hong Kong - my prison without walls.
What did I have to offer? I asked myself. I had a story to share … but tell it to whom? Tell it to anybody who cares to listen. Wow!!! There you go, I had something to do. I picked up a pen and jotted down whatever entered my mind. Then I discovered the work I was fleshing out was taking form. A small voice inside me whispered, “Bravo, kept it up!” I burned the candle at both ends and knew it wasn’t fiction, but a true story, a life story – my life! As time passed, I became a veteran asylum-seeker, senior among many, and I was thankfully happy I kept busy. In December 2007 I completed my first booklet and called it: “The Life of an asylum-seekers in Hong Kong“. Writing kept me so busy I hardly kept track of my refugee claim. After the Asia Human Rights Commission published it, I was invited to talk about my experience at several institutions, including Hong Kong International School, Chinese University, Hong Kong University and Baptist University. These were wonderful opportunities to meet students, teachers and many people from all walks of life. It was a two-ways street of learning, I learnt from them, while they learnt from me. Especially meaningful was meeting Prof.Gordon Mathews (Globalization) and Prof. Christophe (Political Violence & Human Rights ) with whom friendship developed.
I never stopped counting my blessings. While writing, I also studied anthropology and improved my English. Moreover, I thought about the poor kids in my homeland who had no school, and therefore no education. Before coming here, I dreamed of founding a school to help the poorest children prepare for the future. In my country, following prolonged civil war, there is a large street community of women and children with no hope for the future. I wanted to help them, so I looked for donations to set up something. I must thank Crossroads International that donated more than what I asked for. They helped fulfill my dream of opening a primary school – thank you Begbies and all their staff!
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“Which part of Africa is it?” I asked. Addea replied, “You see how the people dress, the vegetation, the houses… it is the Southern part of Africa.” Even causally watching a movie at Vision First’s center is a great opportunity for members to share knowledge, expertise and culture. Here I enter a global village – a Georgian, an Iranian, two Somalis, a Togolese and a Liberian watching a South African movie with Bushmen as main characters. Standing next to them is a local Hong Konger – that is me, Kashu, a Master of Social Work student from the University of Hong Kong. A simple, peaceful, causal and relaxing movie time is a luxury for VF members, no matter whether they are here in Hong Kong, or back in their home country. In their home country they encountered conflicts, persecution, torture and blackmailing. In Hong Kong they experienced poverty, isolation, boredom and disorientation. Vision First provides a precious and cozy space for them to socialize and receive what they need, like clothing and food. For me, Vision First provides its members with far more than just tangible services and material goods. Members here can also serve as helpers – they help others while being assisted themselves. They help to bring food upstairs to the office, keep the office clean, and the shelter and office running, like assisting with maintenance. These tasks look simple, but enriched their HK staying with meaning. Members from different nations, coming together at the centre, have a chance to enhance their social network, leading to cultural exchange and knowledge sharing.
I asked “Where do humans come from?” Stephen replied, “They come from bacteria!” I followed up with, “Then where’s did the first bacteria comes from?” and he replied, “From carbon dioxide.” I continued, “Then where’s the first carbon dioxide comes from? …” Vision First is not only a center providing tangible services and a support network, but also a library of knowledge. Here we have lessons almost everyday, most of them are not basic, but advanced courses. Most of our members are well-educated and I have been learning from them. The conversation above is the start of a discussion about the source of life and it soon shifted from biology to philosophy. It gave me a huge inspiration, namely, that social service should break through its traditional barrier. It is more than a mere give-take relationship – volunteers, workers and the organization itself can benefit from this large pool of talents, that initially came for assistance. Contrary to how other NGOs, or even the government perceives them, this group of asylum seekers and refugees is indeed a pool of talent. Considering humanity and morality, their loss is a great loss for both parties, both HK and refugees. It is regrettable how they must live in miserable, sub-divided rooms, with unaffordable rents, barred from employment, wasting their good talents and even labeled “fortune seekers.” As Albert Einstein said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
Recently I have been planning a football training program for the Vision First Team. I can see their passion even when they play recreationally among themselves – they treat it like a competition and will not give up ball control until they score. Football is an international language and, may I say, more international than English. I am a person who does not easily share his feelings, nor have I deeply investigated their traumatic past, however, football has already allowed friendship to grow between me and these Somali players. Speaking of men, although most of refugees are male (female refugees are more vulnerable in physical and biological terms), I believe men are more stereotyped by society, which is cross-cultural. They are expected to be strong and not express their emotions, which could be interpreted as weakness or uselessness. Therefore, men are more likely to refrain from voicing their emotional and psychological needs, which diminishes their chances to get help. This observation motivated me to launch a “Male Support Group” for our members, to give them strength to move on during this forced, long and hard stay in Hong Kong.
I can develop and achieve things I never did before, thanks to Vision First’s working environment and its open attitude towards new ideas. For me, Vision First is more than just a services centre, it is a global village, an international hub, a library of knowledge and culture, and a perfect place to learn and to put into practice what you learn. Thank you very much – Kashu
Refugee status applications to UNHCR offices worldwide declined to 96,800 in 2010, after topping 114,000 in 2009. The decline roughly followed a global trend, with applications to government-run RSD systems also dropping in 2010. UNHCR accounted for around 11 percent of all RSD applications worldwide, down from 13 percent in 2009. But UNHCR continues to be one of the two largest RSD decision-makers.
The largest RSD decision-maker continues to be the government of South Africa, which received 180,637 asylum applicants. The United States had the next largest government RSD system with an estimated 54,300 applicants, far less than UNHCR.
The recognition rate in UNHCR RSD remained high at around 83 percent, compared to less than 35 percent for government-run RSD. UNHCR’s global recognition rate has remained consistently over 75 percent each year since 2005. Every UNHCR office that decided 1000 or more cases in 2010 posted a recognition rate of at least 57 percent. UNHCR offices reached decision in only 57,832 new applications, and faced a global RSD backlog of more than 116,000 cases at year’s end.
“The importance of these procedures cannot be overemphasized.
A wrong decision might cost the person’s life or liberty.”
UNHCR training manual
South China Morning Post – 21 June 2012
In her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo last Saturday, Aung San Suu Kyi imagined a world without refugees and said, “Ultimately our aim should be to create a world free from the displaced, the homeless and the hopeless, a world of which each and every corner is a true sanctuary where the inhabitants will have the freedom and the capacity to live in peace.” She said each and every one of us was capable of making a contribution towards such peace.
The reality is that the world is far adrift from this vision. In 2010 alone, there were 42 million displaced people in the world and 15 million of those sought protection outside their own countries. Hong Kong has an estimated total of just 6,000 asylum seekers and refugees, or less than 0.1 per cent of the population, coming mostly from African and South Asian countries where there is severe political disruption and unrest. You might think then that the city’s contribution towards making this corner of the world “a true sanctuary” for the refugees we already have would be comparatively painless. But far from it.
In fact, refugees are very unwelcome guests and Hong Kong is definitely not a sanctuary. This is starkly illustrated by the case of four long-term refugees whose bona fide status has been well established by the UNHCR and who cannot be resettled elsewhere for various reasons. As a result of government policy not to accept refugees and also to make life difficult for those who are here, they face the prospect of living in the city for the rest of their lives as refugees, not residents. That means they have to sign a permit every few months to remain; have no right to work; live under the threat of deportation; are unable to travel freely to and from Hong Kong; have no right to education for them or their families; no right to health care or welfare; and are only provided with subsistence-level rent allowance and food allocation. This is a miserable and miserly existence.
Despite government concessions to allow easing of some restrictions, they have not been removed. Some might say it is better than being sent back to face persecution or torture in their home countries, but is this really refuge and protection, or just another form of punishment? It is a passive and grudging acceptance at best and downright hostility at worst. The government will argue that it also has the discretion to review particular cases and circumstances to ensure there is no undue hardship and ease suffering where it is proven. While this might seem like a reasonable safety mechanism, remember that it is at the sole discretion of the Director of Immigration who has a much more important stated policy of discouraging asylum seekers from coming to Hong Kong. Doesn’t this sound like a conflict of interest?
Hong Kong has built a very successful, civilised society in less than 70 years from what was largely a poor, marginalised and displaced group. Our heritage is a refugee population. Yet now we seem to lack compassion for other races. We should remember with gratitude our heritage and the help we received by showing compassion to asylum seekers and refugees. We have the chance to make a contribution, however small, to Suu Kyi’s vision and show we are a caring society, whatever government policy might be.
Tony Read is a pastor and justice advocate for The Vine Church in Wan Chai, which has been assisting asylum seekers and refugees for more than seven years
South China Morning Post - Simpson Cheung writes, Jun 20, 2012
The recognition rate of asylum seekers in Hong Kong is unacceptably low compared to Western countries, a local aid group said ahead of World Refugee Day today. The local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said it recognised about 10 per cent of asylum seekers as refugees last year, without giving an exact figure. There were 149 recognised refugees in Hong Kong, and a further 638 awaiting the results of their applications as of last month.
However, Cosmo Beatson, the co-ordinator of Vision First, a local volunteer organisation that provides humanitarian services to UNHCR asylum seekers and refugees in Hong Kong, said the recognition figure was closer to 3%, and his group had pushed the Hong Kong government to sign the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. It would accord refugees in the city rights similar to those of residents while they await resettlement or local integration.
According to the UNHCR, asylum seekers and refugees in Hong Kong have access to government-provided humanitarian assistance including basic accommodation, food, clothing and toiletries, as well as reimbursement of petty cash for travelling expenses. In addition, the UNHCR provides HK$300 a month to each. However, even recognised refugees in Hong Kong are not allowed to work and must rely on charity for many of their needs. Only refugee children under 18 can receive education, at the government’s discretion.
“The figure is about 3% and actually tells us that the system is not doing its job,” Beatson said. “The recognition rate is extremely low, to the point that it is almost a joke.” According to recent official figures, the recognition rates for refugees in Britain and Australia, where the ethnic mix of asylum seekers was similar to that of Hong Kong, were 35 per cent and 38.3 per cent. Asylum seekers in Hong Kong face a long screening process with the UNHCR or Immigration Department, which has only accepted one torture claimant since 2008. If accepted as refugees, they must resettle elsewhere, as the city has no legal obligation to grant them residency.
Beatson said that while it was true some applicants lied to authorities to buy time in Hong Kong for economic reasons, the system also screened out genuine applicants who faced torture or even death back in their home countries. Beatson suggested that Hong Kong follow the UK and most European countries and allow asylum seekers to work if their applications are pending for more than six months. A government spokesman said extending the refugee convention to the city could subject it to abuse, given Hong Kong’s developed economy and liberal visa regime.
Dear supporters of Vision First - Life is an open school where we can learn many meaningful lessons. I am an asylum-seeker from Africa and have been in HK for almost 4 years. Today I would like to share with all my friends, refugees, asylum-seekers, and why not, even HK government, immigration, churches, NGOs across this city. Today I would like to share my thoughts with all of you. In fact , one of the greatest lessons I have learned through my journey is about gratitude. The words THANK YOU are defined as a grateful feeling, an acknowledgment of a benefit or a favor. These words “Thank You” and my more familiar “Merci” in French are very meaningful and contain all the ingredients for a grateful and purposeful existence.
That being said, I would like to openly thank HK government, immigration, churches and NGO for every single help refugees have received from you. I am filled with this heart of gratitude and thanksgiving toward you. Hong Kong is doing for us what our countries did not or could not do. Most of us are living now in a better conditions in HK rather than when we were back home. Yes, we have been rejected, abandoned and disappointed by our leaders back home. So I ask myself: what did our leaders in Africa invest in our lives? Do we need to blame HK government for everything we are not receiving right now? Instead of developing a language of ingratitude, please let’s come back to our senses and have the humility to say a heartfelt and sincere: thank you Hong Kong for everything you have done and continue to do for us refugees !!! - Isware