Taste of home and creating a life after trauma: two refugees tell their stories

As told to Mhairi McLaughlin and Sophie Hines. Translation by Tegan Smyth.

Laura and Maria*, are from Madagascar. They arrived in Hong Kong around a year ago, after fleeing forced marriages to men in Mainland China. This is their story (Part 1 of 2). Content warning for sexual assault. 


Could you tell me a bit about the dish you made today? How did you learn to make it?

Maria: Since I was ten years old, I’ve been learning how to cook. It was my mother who taught me this dish. Poisson coco – fish in coconut sauce – was one of her favourites, and is one of my favourites too.

Maria, stirring the poisson coco (fish in coconut sauce). Photo: Vlad Popov.

So she cooked “poisson sauce” and “poisson coco” a lot, then?

M: Yeah.


Is that a very special dish that you like to cook? Or just something you like?

M: Well I like cooking with fish a lot. There is also a dish that I like, a similar Malagasy dish called “ravitout” in French and ravitoto in Malagasy. It has meat and cassava, which we also cook in coconut milk. You can also cook pork and beef like this.


So coconut milk is a common ingredient in Malagasy dishes then?

M: Yes. And poisson coco is a dish we cook all the time. But you could also eat it for special occasions too.


Can you tell me how long you have been living in Hong Kong for?

M: A year, come April.

L: Around a year for me too.

photo - ian wong
Poisson coco, served with rice. Photo: Ian Wong.

And can you tell me a bit about yourself? Do you have family here?

L&M: We don’t have family here. We are here by ourselves.


How did you two meet each other?

M: We were both in China, at the same place. We met because there aren’t many foreigners, just a lot of other Madagascan girls in this village.


How long were you there for?

M: Well there were some people back home, in Madagascar, who told us to come to China for work.

L: We were promised jobs here in China.

M: But when we arrived, this wasn’t the case. They sold us instead.


Oh god.

M: They sold us as brides to older Chinese men. Forced marriage, I guess you would call it. Once we got to China, the Chinese agents involved took our passports. A woman was selling these girls like us, two or three at a time, with men coming to inspect them. To inspect them, and to see if they liked the look of the girls or not. If they liked you, these old men would buy the girl. These men were in their 40s, 50s, 60s.

L: The agent received 70,000 RMB for her, and 85,000 RMB for me.


How did this happen, how were you taken there? Were you caught by someone in Madagascar?

M: Yes. There was a woman in Madagascar who was behind this too. She promised that there would be work for us in China. She didn’t accompany us all the way, just to the airport. Then one of their associates here came to pick us up. This woman took us to a place called Fuzhou and a smaller village after that.

We were voiceless – you cannot speak the language. They told us we would be married off soon. We were not allowed to return to Guangzhou as these traffickers had taken all our passports. The visa that was inside our passports was only valid for 4 months. They told us around this point that we would not be allowed to return home.


And Laura, was it the same for you?

L: I had done one year of college in Madagascar. So, it was actually my sister and an agent who got my ticket to China and who forced me to get married to a man here.


Your sister?

L: Yes. My female cousins are also in China, trapped in these forced marriages.


This is terrible. And what happened next?

M: I broke down. I cried. I realised I was stuck and I wouldn’t be able to see my family. I was then sold to a man twice my age. I remember when he came by and looked at the girls being sold. I was taken to the countryside. It was like prison. They don’t care if you love the man you are marrying or not. It is a forced marriage. I was raped many times by different people.

The way they settled this, he paid for me when he saw me and I was taken to where he lived. In a way, I am lucky that I managed to escape before being made to marry him. Once you are married, the agents destroy your passport.


[To be continued in Part 2 of this interview]

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