“No matter the situation, we should always have hope”

As told to Edmond Lo and Tegan Smyth. Translated by Tegan Smyth.

André* has been living in Hong Kong since 2013, after fleeing sectarian violence in his home country, Togo. He left amid suspicious fires occurring at two major markets in Togo, leading to the arrest of opposition members without trial, ahead of the country’s parliamentary polls. He discusses the struggles of leaving family behind and his hopes for the future.

Could you please tell us a bit about your story?

What happened to me is something that I still find difficult [to speak about]. It started in 2013, for me. You know [many countries] in Africa, there are dictators and politicians that control everything. When you are not aligned with the party in power, you are marginalised.

Normally, when you fall, you need to fight against the powers that be, that’s how it is. When [others] take you down, and fight you, it is natural to want to defend yourself. At the beginning of 2013, something really terrible happened in our country. In the largest market in the capital [Lomé, Togo], there was a fire that burnt everything in the marketplace. It was total chaos, no one knew what was going on. The fire was blamed on political opponents of the leaders of this country.

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Chopping okra for fish gombo. Photo: Yvonne Lau

No one knew who actually started the fires in the middle of the markets, vendors had gone home after the market day ended, security guards and police were surrounding the outside of the market. It happened on a Saturday night. On the following Sunday morning, [the government] started rounding up people who were seen to oppose the regime, as suspects.

This is not the first time the government acted in this way; in 2012, they cracked down on protestors and used violence to make an example of dissenters, to keep people afraid. So, on that day, in early 2013, they came for any people seen to be opposing the regime, with the excuse that the fires were started by political opposition, it was terrible.

This continued for a long time, they hunted anyone who had shown any dissent to the regime, often young people.  I was just a trader then, in business with my younger brother. People were being rounded up and dying in prison, never seeing the courts but dying behind bars [in politically motivated arrests]. There was never any proof or evidence that these individuals who had been rounded up and arrested were responsible for the fires, but they were rotting in jail all the same.

Without any judicial process?

Yes.

In Togo, there are some long standing political issues, the same family and political party has been in power for over 40 years?

This year is actually 50 years. Yes. They have been in power so long and use tactics like these on a regular basis to make people scared to oppose anything. Whenever protests have taken place, they have gone to all lengths to put an end to dissent. I used to go to Ghana and Benin frequently for work. As part of running a trading business, I would purchase items there that we would bring back to Togo for sale.

One time, when I had come back from Ghana, I came home and saw that masked men were in our neighbourhood looking for people who were identified as opposing the regime. I realised I could no longer live there. What ended up making me flee was being told that it would be better to leave my children [in Togo]. It got to a point that it be better if I was far away from them, and living – than staying with them in constant fear of my life and putting them in danger, where they would continue to suffer because of me.

Luckily, I left for Ghana because the following day, I found out that they were looking for us too. A list came out of suspected persons who were said to have caused the fire. Our family name was on the list even though we had nothing to do with it. Even people with nothing to do with this incident might be named [on the list]. The following day, I took a flight to China from Ghana.

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Fried plantains, fish. Photo: Yvonne Lau

And you came to Hong Kong in 2013 too?

Yes. But I went to China first.

And this brought you to Hong Kong, although you had to leave family behind? It isn’t an easy decision to quit your family.

I had no choice. Well, it was the choice between staying and potentially dying or being far from them, with the hope that one day I may live to see them again. That was how I made the decision. Of course it wasn’t easy – it was extremely difficult. I am here now, thanks to God. I believe that the decision I made to leave was the best for me at the time.

How did you find Hong Kong in 2013, when you arrived? Was it very different?

Like how everyone would find it I think, when you change your environment. In the beginning it was very hard but thanks to God, some people were able to help me stay somewhere – in a temporary accommodation. After I had to leave that place, someone took me to Christian Action. Someone contacted Refugee Union and Vision First and I was able to sleep there. It was different then to how it is now, there were beds inside where people could sleep.

I was able to stay for 4 months while I waited for the situation to stabilise. Normally people stay for 1-2 months. Thankfully, the day I arrived, someone had departed so I had a place to sleep in this communal space. Then I had to find my own place. Someone took me to ISS [Government contractor] to get food and rental allowance. For the first year or two, I cohabited a place with another guy and after that we both found our own small places to stay. It’s been like that until now.

What is your hope for the future?

Well, when you suffer in this life, you must always hold on to hope. This is my second life now but I am always looking forward to tomorrow. I am looking forward to what tomorrow brings; that is what keeps me going. We live our lives from day to day.

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Skinning and gutting fish for gombo, a popular stew with okra. Photo: Yvonne Lau

Do you think that if the situation improves, you see yourself going back or reuniting with your family elsewhere?

People do ask that a lot. I ask myself this too. I think the best way to put it is this: no matter how happy you may be in another country, it doesn’t compare to the sheer joy you have to be in the place where you belong and feel home. You can be “happy” in a foreign country, but you can never be who you were in your own country.

So, cooking the food you prepared today, does it connect you to Togolese culture, while you are abroad?

I learnt these dishes before, culture is not something you forget. All of this is in my everyday life and the culture will run in my blood no matter where I am. There are a few Togolese here [in Hong Kong], while we are all quite different people, we generally get along and it’s good.

What is your daily life like in Hong Kong?

There isn’t a fixed schedule on any day, each day is different. It depends on the program you have for the day. Some days we need to go to the Immigration Department to sign documents, ISS, Vine Church; it all depends.

It seems like you are quite spiritual, do you frequently join the congregation at Vine Church or another church?

I go to a few, Vine quite often. There are a few [other refugees] who attend as well. Rental top up is always an issue for refugees; some churches help refugees with this sometimes. Generally, though, I have a few friends that we pray with from time to time, it is important to hold on to your faith [in our situation].

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Fish gombo. Photo: Yvonne Lau

What would you tell Hong Kong people about yourself?

It isn’t easy because sometimes we really don’t understand one another. However, when we seek asylum here, we should not be criminalised for doing so. When your life is at risk and you need to hide somewhere remote, and you can no longer be at home, these are the situations we lived that eventually brought us to Hong Kong.

I pray that Hong Kong people see us as people too, see beyond the colour of our skin. What we have seen in this life is really terrible. We are also people like them. And besides, you never know what will come tomorrow.

That is right, people anywhere, including Hong Kong people, could be the next asylum seekers.

Yes, that’s it, that is how I feel exactly. So, it is best to life day by day, respecting and being kind to your neighbours. Tomorrow you might find yourself in a difficult situation – in atrocious difficulty – it is often faith and the kindness of others that will have to save you.

The best thing to do is treat everyone like people, with respect. No matter the situation, we should always have hope. We hold onto hope that tomorrow will be better for asylum seekers. We didn’t come here to overstay or get a Hong Kong Identity Card, we left real problems in our home countries. It is important for people to know that.

*name changed

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