Food for thought

(Continued from Part 1)

You have to understand that being a refugee is not a crime.

It is not something we should be punished for, or a reason to squeeze us or mistreat us or use against us as though we have done something wrong. To deny us our human rights, our joy, our dignity and our freedom… people do not see how that affects us psychologically. I am telling you; being a refugee, you are affected psychologically, physically, emotionally.

I’m volunteering here at Refugee Union. I can’t work, I don’t get a salary here, I can only participate through the Union. It’s a crime for refugees to work – I don’t want to commit a crime. Although, the minute I go outside, I do need money to survive. I do have responsibilities here to the Union but back in my country, I had a family and I was working. I had to leave my children in my home country. I had to leave everything. If you work here, you’re put in jail. I can’t volunteer anywhere [aside from Refugee Union]. This is my life here – it’s not the best. For the people who go out and work everyday, there’s a big difference between their lives and those lived by people who come as refugees. No one forced me to come to Refugee Union as a volunteer – that’s my choice.

That’s because you wanted to give back, to the refugee community here in Hong Kong?

There’s another reason I devote so much time here. Cosmo, the patron of Vision First, he started Refugee Union through his organisation. I joined in 2012.

The day when everything changed, it was when some of the refugees occupied a government contractor’s offices to protest for greater transparency in food pricing. I remember going to the Refugee Union office one day and seeing no one there, they were out occupying these offices.

I would have gone home but I followed the others to see what was happening. I had to see what was going on there. When I arrived, I discovered that the refugees had been locked inside the offices. The workers locked refugees in the offices and did not return for one week.  I found Cosmo, seated outside on the steps. I asked people around what had happened and they told me that people had been locked inside.  That is the time, that is the day, that is the minute, that is the second I realised that I too had to do my best and become part of the Refugee Union effort.

Seeing Cosmo sitting down on the steps, with the door to the offices locked and refugees  locked inside, he was seated outside on the floor – you can imagine, sitting there without anyone to come to him with words or support. Just looking defeated. I thought, if this man can sit down like this and feel for others who are inside, who are refugees, how about me? Who am I? I thought about it twice. I had intended to go see what was going on and then go back home. But instead, I just sat down next to Cosmo. We slept on those steps, we slept seated on the hard floor. In the morning, some other members of the Union came and joined us on the steps.

We were passing up food through the windows to the refugees locked inside and passing them water where we could, they had been locked inside without any food.

The refugees who had been locked in had just gone to these offices asking those officers to show them the price list of the food which had been given by them. Demanding greater transparency in the food distribution process. The officers refused to do this. What these people did instead; they just closed the doors and locked the offices. Those refugees inside also refused to leave until this was issue was resolved so the officers just decided to lock their offices and leave people inside for a week.

A court case was then opened against these refugees and asylum seekers for having occupied the offices, for having trespassed on office premises. Then the ruling of the court was that refugees had to vacate the office until further notice. We of course followed this order. Our intention was to make people aware of what was going on – if we did not take that step, no one would have done anything.

Photo: Tegan Smyth. Behind the scenes preparation of Amanda’s dish, Engege

And the problem before, any food-related donations, were of food that was not fresh?

They were not paying us with food vouchers back then. We were only able to collect expiring food [past consume by date] from shops. Three times a month we would go collect food like this. And of course, with expiring food, we needed to be given a fridge to store it. We were not given fridges. We were not given gas. We were forced to find this out for ourselves. Many people got sick.

Sometimes the food would be expired, sometimes it would be rotten and sometimes the food was just not enough.

For 30 days, they claimed that they were giving us HKD$1,200 worth of food. But when you look at the food, you realise that it was probably more like HKD$700 or $800. So that was the motivation of finding out the true cost of our food allowance and seeking greater transparency.

Do you have any hopes for the future of refugees in Hong Kong? Do you think things might improve in future?

Maybe it can change for the better. I believe there is nothing permanent in this life. I’m not sure, maybe things can change. I don’t know.

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