Legal Limbo, Mental Health & Faith: Intersections

As told to Shama Mashroor

When discussing the lives of refugees, mental health is a factor that is often overlooked by policy-makers and individual citizens alike. What does it feel like to leave your home behind in search of a better one so that you can provide for your family, while also struggling with an undiagnosed psychological disorder? Ordinary people barely make it through the tough immigration system in this city. Enduring legal limbo with type-two bipolar disorder is an almost superhuman feat. Ibnul* is from Bangladesh. Two years ago, he left his wife and his baby girl behind to search for a better job and life here in Hong Kong for himself and his family. This is a story about how faith and the kindness of strangers in the city saved one man’s life.


Why did you choose to make this beef bhuna dish for us?

I have actually cooked this dish many times. And I was admired (by others).


Do you cook a lot at home here?

Um, yeah home… because you know I eat less spicy food at home. That’s why I used to cook the vegetables myself at home. By home, I mean back in the home I used to live in with my parents and my wife and my child in Bangladesh. They tend to cook really spicy food so more often than not, I cooked a few dishes on my own.

Photo: Denis Tsoi

Which city in Bangladesh are you from?

I was in Dhaka for about three years for work and I lived alone so I used to cook for myself. And it used to be pretty much the same as we are seeing here today—this beef dish, some vegetables.


How do you find food in Hong Kong? Have you tried eating at any of the restaurants here?

We are not that lucky to enjoy eating outside because we can’t afford it. But when I first came here, I actually came from China. In China, I really loved the way that they cooked spinach and the people who came with me told me, “What is going on? Have you been to China before? Did you live here before? How are you eating this kind of food?”

But that’s probably because they had just been released from prison [there] and couldn’t stand the vegetables served there. But because I used to cook similarly back home in Bangladesh, I find the bak choi here superb. Because it’s less salty and spicy, almost no spice right? So now at home here, I try to cook food in the Chinese-style when I can. I love every single food item in Hong Kong.

I was in Dhaka for about three years for work and I lived alone so I used to cook for myself. And it used to be pretty much the same as we are seeing here today–this beef dish, some vegetables.

Photo: Denis Tsoi

How do you find Hong Kong as a city? Maybe if you compare it to Dhaka?

Woah, no. I won’t compare it to Hong Kong at all. I’m so lucky I’m here. And I think that every city has its own story, and I think this city’s story is super. It’s like this: “everyone, come here. We will welcome you.” I think the city’s people and system is like that. And I think dreams can come true here. I don’t have that many local guys as friends here but still, it’s my perception you know.


You’ve mentioned that you live alone, but are friends with other refugees here right?

That’s a complicated story. I’ll just say that in Bangladesh, I used to be a call centre worker and work long hours so I couldn’t really socialise with anyone. Here, I was with Bangladeshis for the first three months. That’s just hell. Then I moved here at the Refugee Union temporarily and I was in this room for the entire day. Back then, the set-up wasn’t like this. We were three Bangladeshis and two Russians.

It was really difficult and because I was in this room for the entire day, I became really depressed.

Now, it’s different. I live with 25 other guys and am now very good friends with them. I used to be a very remote and unsocial guy but now I have the chance to lead them, you know. I don’t say that I’m the boss in the house—they say that to me! This change is really all due to my counseling and medication. And lately, when I realised that to recover more quickly, I’d have to start doing more spiritual activities, I turned to religion. And now, I have lots of friends in the church.

You know, all of a sudden, some local guy from Christian Action asked me to go visit the church and I did and it was an incredible experience. Back in Bangladesh, I couldn’t really follow any religion. My entire family is Muslim, but I couldn’t follow some of the things in the religion. What I loved the most about the Vine Church is that they play music as worship. You know, I left my baby girl back home in Bangladesh and when I was with her, I used to play the piano and she used to move and dance very happily. Something like this—music—is so heavenly and I realised that when I went to that church. And I really felt at home there. Amazing, it was amazing.


What Bangladeshi food do you miss the most?

[Laughs] I asked myself this question, you know, many times. I actually have this condition, it’s only been diagnosed recently, called BDD—Body Dysmorphic Disorder. I’ve always wanted to get fit, with lean muscles and all that. Like Shah Rukh Khan, yeah. Not like Salman Khan. And I’ve got an eating disorder as well. Binge eating for all emotions. I cope with my emotions by eating unnecessarily. So I don’t really like sweets and anything cooked in oil. So I don’t really miss Bangladeshi food much, and everything I’ve wanted to eat there, I can find here and I think it’s much better here. Two days ago, my wife was telling me, “Do you know, I was eating ‘shutki bhortha’ (a fermented fish dish) today. Oh, it was so good!” I actually quite like shutki bhortha, and I realised that I do miss eating that. But we eat too much of it in Bangladesh.


Do you speak to your wife regularly on the phone?

Yeah, Christian Action provided me with a smartphone this year actually. Before, I used to talk on the phone with them but only for a short while and not that often. But now, I can talk to my family for even longer and even see them with video calls.


How is your kid?

Yes, very well. Do you know, I haven’t seen my daughter’s image in 18 months. And she doesn’t recognise me either because there was no photo of me. But this year, maybe in March after I got the new phone, I saw my daughter for the first time since leaving home, and I was so happy I cannot express it in words

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