Language Barriers & Isolation: Keeping culture and hope alive in Hong Kong

Daud* and Aicha* came to Hong Kong nearly 3 years ago. While preparing several dishes from their country of origin, Chad, they told us about their day to day lives in Hong Kong and the difficulties that stem from not being able to work and having no means to speak to people in a common language.

They left two children behind while fleeing their country for political reasons – they remain hopeful to one day reunite their family.

As told to Tegan Smyth and Yoyo Chan

What have you cooked for us today, do you cook it at home often?

We made hors d’œuvres (a salad with egg, potatoes, onions and beans), gombo avec sauce and beignets (donuts). Gombo uses okra and it’s a popular dish in our home country, we cooked it today with beef but many Chadians enjoy using camel meat as well. Obviously, beef is a lot easier to find here in Hong Kong.

We often eat beignets with tea or coffee in Francophone Africa. These are all dishes that we eat fairly often in our country, we may change the quality of the sauce (spicy stew) or the meat but the recipe stays the same.

What is the experience cooking in Hong Kong, compared with cooking in your home country?

So as being here isn’t like being back home, there are many differences, many ingredients that we don’t have here. The place we cook as well is really different, rooms are much smaller.

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Chopping garlic and red onions for hors d’oeuvres (Photo: Phoebe So)

Do most homes in Chad have a larger space for the kitchen?

Yes definitely, sometimes the rooms are up to 4 square metres across. And of course, okra here is not the same as the one you can get in Chad, ours has a different texture and the seeds inside look very different.

What brought you to Hong Kong?

We had some serious political problems in our home country, I don’t want to speak about the reason itself but it was sudden and at several days’ notice that I made the decision to pack up my life and flee my country. There was barely time to process what was going on. It was fate – not a choice.

Did you come to Hong Kong directly or did you come via other countries?

When I first arrived in Asia, I took a plane to China. When I arrived in Thailand, I was with a friend but I didn’t know the place at all or the language, it’s difficult to survive there without knowledge of English or the local language – we thought at the time that it would be better to come to Hong Kong.

How do you find Hong Kong, as Arabic and French speakers, as both languages are also not too widely spoken here?

When I arrived here, I was the only one from my country to be here. It is difficult with the language barrier and when you’re the only national from your country of origin on the other side of the world. And you know, we have so many other problems as well.

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Photo: Phoebe So

What is your day to day life like in Hong Kong?

There isn’t much for us to do here. We learn English sometimes at Refugee Union and the Vine Church – If not, we stay at home. I go out sometimes but because I don’t have friends or really people I have known for long, or really speak the same language, I mainly stay home.

It’s difficult when you don’t have many friends or people you know.

We [myself and my wife] are basically always together at home. We like taking part in programs and educational activities. With some people in the English classes, we are almost friends. If you stay home, without work, without people that you know… it’s a bit too much. It brings you a lot of stress.

You live on Kowloon side, how are your neighbours?

With the neighbours, you don’t have any contact, even if you see each other all the time. That’s what I see here.

In our home country, it’s really not like that. Even if you have only seen someone once before, if you see them again in the street – you would definitely greet them. It’s different but I like Hong Kong still.

What is the most annoying thing for you in Hong Kong?

Firstly, it is being a refugee. This is what is really difficult. And when you have no way to express yourself, that is annoying too. We would like to share a language and have ways to speak to people.

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Preparing the dough for beignets. (Photo: Phoebe So)

If you could work, what would you like to do?

I would like to work like everyone else, earn my living and give to those who need it. We don’t want to just wait for donations all our lives and stay here with nothing to do. Maybe people don’t know how much pain that causes us. As for a profession, I don’t know. I was a businessman in my country, my wife was a housewife.

What would you like Hong Kong people to know about you?

For me, if people were to approach me and know who I am – who we are. I would like to have friendships with Hong Kong people. I would like to know them and for them to know me.

In our country, we had many refugees. We had contact with them, we knew why they left their countries, why they asked for asylum in our country. We knew the problems in their countries of origin. Normally, refugees were from countries neighbouring Chad: Sudan, Libya and Central African Republic.

They ran away from war and political problems and we gave them shelter. It is strange that in a country with human rights and international responsibilities, that refugees are forgotten here.

How long have you been in Hong Kong? Did you both come together from your country?

D: I came in to Hong Kong in 2015. Aicha came in 2016, she came after me. You know, in my opinion, I never thought I would leave my country. As I say, it is a decision I made in two or three days.

Do you stay in contact with friends and family in your country?

I speak less and less with friends than before, and with family members; maybe once or twice a month only.

Even if I wanted to speak to them more, I wouldn’t know what to say sometimes because I don’t know sometimes where I am or what to do – I don’t want to bring them more problems or worries.

So both your families are still in Chad?

Our families are in Chad and also overseas. Actually, we have two kids who are still in Chad, their grandmother is the guardian now. They are going to school and their favourite subjects are Arabic and French.

What are your children’s favourite dishes, the same ones you cooked today?

They like sauce avec du pain (spicy stew with bread), so not the same one we made.

Do you want your children to join you in future?

Yes of course we hope to see them again but for the time being, it is not a good decision. Definitely not in Hong Kong. They wouldn’t have opportunities to earn their living or have a good education here.

In the future though, you would want them to re-join you somewhere? In what situation ideally?

For the time being, their grandmother is busy with their education – especially Arabic – but in my opinion, if I was in Canada or the US, a country like that, I would like that they join us. But first, we have to be accepted as refugees in Hong Kong before being able to go to another country. We want to reunite our family.

Do these countries you’ve mentioned represent anything in particular to you?

Freedom and the ability to work or make something for your future, to everyone their own. Success and being able to succeed in life. That, more than anything else is what we want for our children.

*names changed

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Photo: Phoebe So

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