Living with a chronic illness in Hong Kong: Refugee Perspectives

As told to Tegan Smyth and Rivekie Ho.

Sarah* arrived in Hong Kong as a foreign domestic helper. However, after falling sick with a serious illness, her contract of employment was cancelled and her employment agency bought tickets to send her home. After overstaying in Hong Kong to receive medical treatment, she is now living as an asylum seeker.

Photo: Hannah Tong

Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I’m Sarah.* I come from Indonesia.

How long have you been in Hong Kong for?

I’ve been in Hong Kong since 2002.

So in 2002, you came to Hong Kong, what was the reason?

I came here as a domestic helper. Yes.

How did you find Hong Kong when you first arrived?

I came through an [employment] agency. Through the agency, I got to Hong Kong and I worked with a Chinese family for four years. I was just there [with that family] for four years, then I changed employer… because, you know, they cannot bear to pay for long service [for domestic workers]. Then I went to another employer for two years but I did not finish that contract.

When I was renewing my last contract, I got sick and was unable to renew it. I haven’t been working since 2008.

You’re currently pregnant how many months along are you?

My pregnancy now is uh, I don’t know how to calculate it in weeks. In fact, it should be like five months? Yeah. I don’t know how to calculate in weeks but I know it is five months.

Preparing chicken for tumpeng. Photo: Chris Davey

So if you’re comfortable talking about it, could you give us a bit of background on how you became an asylum seeker in Hong Kong?

In May 2008, I was going to renew my contract. But to renew a contract, we need to do a medical check-up. When I was doing my medical check-up, the result was that I am HIV positive, but my employer and the agency did not tell me [at the time].

I just wondered [why they reacted]. I asked what happened because they just gave me a ticket and my passport and they told me, “go home, go home, before the letter goes to immigration.” They never told me the reason, that I was sick.

When they gave me the ticket and passport [to leave Hong Kong], I didn’t go home because I have many friends here. I also didn’t know what happened to me – maybe I needed medical treatment in Hong Kong for it.

After the termination of my contract, I only had 14 days left on my visa. I was thinking that I could still stay here. I began to stay at a boarding house, you know, they have many boarding houses where you can stay. Then I decided to go to the hospital because I wanted to know what happened with my [original] medical check-up. And then, when I got to that clinic, they said I am HIV positive.

It must have been really shocking to hear that.

Uh, yeah. It’s like… I’m a little bit angry, angry that my boyfriend [didn’t tell me], my employer didn’t tell me… and [at] the time, I didn’t have experience [or knowledge] that I can report my employer and agency for [how they handled] my health check.

The doctor said that they would write me a letter and send me to a specialist for HIV in Kowloon Bay. I followed up for three years and stayed at the boarding house. Before [when I was able to work], I had a salary… I was saving and saving… but in the end, I had to spend all of my money [to get treatment]. Some friends helped me with money as well.

But in three years, I became very poor so I couldn’t continue my follow-up medical appointments or stay in the boarding house. I was just being overstaying – I didn’t know what ISS was, what refugees or asylum seekers are.

While [I could take] my medication in Kowloon Bay, I was healthy. So healthy that I was thinking why I still need to go to the doctor. [By] 2014, after overstaying for more than six years, with three years of no [HIV] treatment, I became sick again, with no money and no one else to help me.

So is this how you came to Refugee Union?

I went to Christian Action, [their office] for domestic helpers. I was already very sick. [In the past], I got to see the doctor myself because I still had member ID card to show I was once a domestic helper. I just called my friend to give me money and then I went to Christian Action and then they sent me to hospital.

After I was discharged from the hospital, I went back to Christian Action and then they helped me to find ISS. Yeah, they wrote a letter to the Social Welfare Department. I heard about Refugee Union because I didn’t know how to apply for asylum seeker status, I didn’t know how to write letters like that. A friend recommended me to come here, to Refugee Union.

Tumpeng, plated up. Photo: Hannah Tong

With ISS, they give an allowance of HKD1500 for housing, HKD1200 for food and HKD200 for transport. Do they give anything extra to you for your medical costs?

For the medical [costs], ISS pays. This is the first time I’m living outside. I guess the biggest challenge right now is that I can’t share accommodation with friends.

For the previous three years, I stayed with friends. I didn’t have any problems. But now, I have problems because I moved in this house by myself. I cannot stay with friends. I am not allowed.

It’s very difficult, especially now I’m pregnant like this.

Before I had some comfort because I could stay with friends, rent could be shared. Even if the house is three thousand or four thousand dollars, we can stay with friends

So now you have to pay that by yourself?


Do you have any problems with your landlords?

No, [generally] with the landlord, I don’t have any problems, but of course, for now, I have a problem because I cannot say with friends. It’s difficult for me to pay.

The welfare departments keep saying that if you stay with friends, you need to tell your friends about your condition. They say if I cannot do that, I need to live alone. I said that if I cannot stay with friends, and I live alone, they are supposed to give me all my expenses and pay from A to Z because I cannot live with other people. Unfortunately, not all things are covered. I cannot stay with friends or wherever I want to stay. I said to them that if they don’t want to care for me, just allow me to stay with friends.

In Hong Kong, so many people, Chinese, foreigners [are living] with HIV. They can live with people. They can live normal lives.

I want to ask why they don’t allow [people like me] to live with others. Those who are making me live alone don’t realise that other people are also not telling the family that they are HIV positive, they even keep silent.

All they told me is that they have to protect my friend, who is also a client, from getting HIV from me. Maybe they think I’m like this because [they don’t realise] HIV treatment now is not like before and I’m taking medication. I’m undetectable already. I am undetected [in the viral load], I am healthy enough that my doctor allowed me to keep this pregnancy.

Photo: Chris Davey

Yeah, are they also not aware that it’s culturally very difficult for you to tell people of the same background about being HIV positive?

Yeah, especially. It’s not that I’m afraid of telling people that I’m HIV positive. It’s more that if you say you have [the disease], people will insult you, hurt you, reject you. That only makes me sad so it feels better for me to not tell anyone. I just keep it a secret and I try my best to live normally. Yeah.

Do you contact your family back in Indonesia?

Oh, no, because I have problems with my mother. Yeah, because when I’m was overstaying… I told them that I’m HIV positive. [I felt like] I kept repeating, but they don’t accept it or me, because in Indonesia they think everyone with HIV is very dirty.

If someone has HIV in Indonesia, do you think that they would be persecuted or find it difficult?

Yeah, most people will treat you differently, with discrimination. Most people with HIV would not be able to say they have it, they would just be quiet and die [without getting treatment].

What happened to the partner who gave you HIV – are you still with that boyfriend?

Oh no, because the day after I knew that I am HIV positive, I just left him. I don’t know where he is, if he could go the hospital or if he’s already dead. I don’t know and I never saw him again.

The father of my baby, he’s already gone home to Africa. He’s not a refugee, he came here for work. But now, he has no more work so that is why he went home.

It’s nice that Refugee Union does have a lot of mothers that have children of different racial backgrounds so your child will grow up with people from a similar community. Do you have any hopes for your child?

Number one is that it is healthy. Yeah, because I’m not. I want my baby to be healthy. If you are healthy, you can do everything. Even if you have money, if [you’re] not healthy, you don’t have a good future.

Is there anything you’d like Hong Kong people to know about yourself and asylum seekers/refugees?

I mean I guess the attitude of a lot of people in Hong Kong is negative to refugees. It’s not simple. I’m an asylum seeker, it is not a sin. Even Hong Kong people go to Canada, New Zealand, Australia just because they want to have a better life – I want the same for my life and that of my unborn child.

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