As told to Fatima Qureshi
Esther* is from Nigeria. Living in Hong Kong for 3 years now, Esther was a well-renowned cook in her church back home. But with communal violence on the rise, she was forced to leave the hostile environment and talks about how she is trying to reconcile her dreams of opening her own restaurant and willingly cooking for people in Hong Kong.
This is her story.
Can you tell me something about where you’re from and why you left your home country?
I’m from Nigeria. From Ogoja. When I was staying in Ogoja, I left my own place and I was staying with my brother taking care of his little ones. What really brought me to Hong Kong was the fighting. People were having problems with each other. Among Christians and Muslims. When it happened I was in the church helping to cook and distribute the food to churchgoers and other neighbors. Someone told us that militants came to attack our church’s parishioners and I lost some of my people.
So it was a friend that I met over there who I stayed with safe from the sectarian conflicts for a while in Ogoja. My friend and his wife planned to flee the country from the all the violence and war. I wanted to leave as well and that’s when I told them to take me with them. I’ll work for them if I have to. That’s how I managed to come to Hong Kong.
What were your immediate thoughts about Hong Kong when you got here?
I didn’t have anything in mind at the time. I was stranded there and now I’m stranded here. I really just wanted to be safe. I came with my friends over here but I think they left to another place. But me? I’m stuck. I’m stranded here. I don’t remember which street I was roaming on. I was looking for anyone who’s Black or Nigerian. When I asked a Chinese about directions they would just push me away. Luckily I met one pastor and I didn’t know him at all. He said that he’s a pastor from Nigeria. He took me to his church.
From what happened to me in Nigeria and what got me to Hong Kong, I told the pastor everything. I explained my difficulties to him. He understood my helplessness. I’ve been staying with them, sleeping and eating in the church. The pastor then took me to an immigration department to live in Hong Kong legally as a refugee and I thought that’s great news. Now I can work and do something for myself to survive. But immigration officials told me one thing and one thing only, to never work. I thought to myself, how could I survive in Hong Kong?
How do you think you dealt with the issue of unemployment?
I really appreciate ISI giving me vouchers and an apartment later. They pay $1800 and I get a balance of $900 every month. The assistance that I’ve been receiving is great from the church too. I can’t help but feel there’s always something missing though. I haven’t met anyone from my hometown in Ogoja. It’s hard because I never wanted to leave and come here. I feel uncomfortable just talking about the problems.
Fufu (semolina) and Ofe Onogbu (bitterleaf and assorted beef soup) (photo by Bradley Aaron
How do you tackle with homesickness here in Hong Kong? I’m sure it’s hard but have you found a way to integrate with a community?
Cooking brings everyone together. People from some parts of Africa are my friends here and they sometimes ask me to cook for them because they love my cooking. I learned this art from my mom. I go to their places and cook some of my Nigerian favorites and they love it. In the church everyone asks me to prepare a big pot of soup for everyone to feast together. They really love it. But most of all, I love the unity. It reminds me of home.
And what Nigerian special did you make today?
Sometimes I cook fufu with soup which is the best known Nigerian staple mix. Other times I cook it with yellow rice. The soup is called Ofe Onogbu. A lot of people put in all sorts of meat but I know and my mom also knew that beef is the key ingredient. My mom used to run a restaurant there in Ogoja serving these dishes. I miss that. I wish I could do that here in Hong Kong just the same.