Lifting the ‘no-work’ policy and contrasting cultural values: Refugee Perspectives

Lifting the ‘no-work’ policy and contrasting cultural values: Refugee Perspectives

As told to Cynthia Chung

[Editor’s note] This is the third part of our interview with Alex* from Refugee Union. We spoke at length about the no-work policy, whereby refugees and asylum seekers are unable to work or volunteer by law. 

How would our society be different if the no-work policy is removed?

As I have said before, the millions of dollars that are currently being spent to support the refugees can be used on Hong Kongers themselves. When I walk around the streets of Hong Kong, I always meet very old people doing manual jobs. They are doing this due to lack of support from the government. Give them social welfare instead to help them meet their basic needs. I doubt you will ever see them again on the streets pushing loads of trash for sale.

Alex, preparing his dish. Photo: Matt Haslam.

There is also quite a number of very poor people in Hong Kong who can’t make ends meet, majority are as hungry as the refugees themselves. Use the HKD$600 million per year that you are currently giving to the refugees to uplift their living standards and better their lives. This would go a long way in reducing the huge wealth gap in Hong Kong. I guess that it is reasonable and noble to spend such huge amounts of money on its citizens rather than spending it on strangers that you really hate so much as to condemn them into this life of hopelessness. Mind you, the money is not enough now as it is, they need to go to the Legco again to request for extra money to meet the shortfall. How do you justify this?

Allowing refugees to work is the most responsible thing I can think of, they will start paying taxes just like everyone else, they will get back their human dignity that’s is so lacking at the moment. Give refugees back their human rights.

It will also lift off the burden of supporting refugees from the treasury and thereby direct the millions to other sectors of economy. This can also reduce the crime rate level. I have seen especially from the Chinese media how they demonize the refugee community alleging that they make Hong Kong less safe. Refugees are idle, they have nothing to do, if they were to start working, they will become productive people in the society. Crimes that they are committing are only a means of survival.


Refugees, of course, could offer many things to Hong Kong society.

Most of the refugees were professionals on their own in their countries of origin before they arrived in Hong Kong, they could add a lot of value to this city. Indeed they have the potential to help Hong Kong unleash its full potential that would move it to the next level of development through innovations. Currently refugees are wasting their lives lying idle day in day out, the government should make use them. They are untapped resource that can play a good role in this city.

With the nascent issues faced by students recently, there has been an onslaught of student suicides in recent months due to the pressure from the education system. Because you guys are from very diverse backgrounds, I feel like it would bring in a lot of new ideas and culture and better values. What do you think?

I think if you look at those societies that are very diverse they are stronger and cohesive, these societies also tend to grow faster, are very responsible and have a high sense of freedom.

I’m a bit surprised by what is happening in the local schools. I think it all goes back to your values and what you believe in. The value system of Chinese people is quite different from other peoples of the world. So are their way of life. These are the issues that are at play in the lives of their children. There is no diversity.

Photo: Matt Haslam.

I think that there is a misconception between good grades in school for example and work related environment. You can do very well in class but when you go out there and be employed you might not perform as exemplary as you did in a classroom.

So they should not focus on getting distinctions in their exams rather they should focus on a good education that prepares you well to handle challenges in life. Education should not be used as benchmark to measure success. Education should be used as the key to success, on learning and becoming educated one can then be in a position to unleash their full potential in life. Let the society lower the expectations that they shoulder on the young people. This way the pressure will go down from the students. As we speak the bar is very high, that’s not a conducive learning environment.


A lot of university students have been committing suicides, they work so hard to get into universities which are supposed to be a dream/ a place to meet ultimate happiness for them but they are still not happy when they achieve this. What are your thoughts?

What is your definition of happiness, what entails of one being happy. For me it’s making the best of what I have and thinking positively and how to move forward. Am happy when am healthy, I can afford to take good care of myself and my family. That’s what it means to be happy to me.

These kids are committing suicide due to pressure because the expectations for them is very high. The expectations reads like a business portfolio from a large multinational company. When it dawns on them that they might be unable to meet these expectations, then life stops having meaning, life becomes meaningless. When this happens they choose death.

Society has to think less of money because you don’t have to own billions to be happy. Nope. As long as you can make enough money to feed yourself, I think you are good to go. I do understand that in Hong Kong housing is a big issue, everybody wants a house and that’s okay. It should not be the problem that drives you crazy. That’s not a wish that is unique to Hong Kongers, everywhere in the world over people wants to own a decent home. But here, it borders on the extremes.

I think if you have enough money to eat, buy your clothes you should be happy. Don’t look at happiness as being able to drive a sleek Porsche or BMW as the only way to have a good life. That should not be it. Because you should define happiness in terms of being able to have a healthy body, be able to afford food, be able to buy yourself clothes, you don’t have to live in luxury to be happy. My advice to them is relook and maybe reevaluate your values, what you consider as important. Don’t focus too much on money. Do what you like to do, stay healthy, have good people and friends around you.

Get to know who your neighbors are, get to know them personally. Many of you do not even know them. You know in my country neighbors know each other very well. Here in Hong Kong people lead very individualistic lives, why is that? Cultivate communal culture, where everybody is responsible for each other.


What brings refugees together?

Culturally people tend to relate to each other. If you don’t know someone, you want to talk to that somebody and get to know them genuinely. You feel that you want to help each other, that’s the way I was brought up.

Everybody is important in a society, we are all equal. Everybody is your friend, you help and assist each other, and this brings about good relationships with other people. The society becomes cohesive.

That is not what happens around here, from what I see, people who live next door to you don’t even know you, yet you’re neighbors. If you have a problem, in my country, your neighbor is the first person to know. It’s someone you call when you have a problem. You go to that person, if you don’t have salt, you go to your neighbors and say “I don’t have salt” and they’ll give it to you. You know, people interact in a good and nice way. Of course, when you go to cities, people tend to live like they do here but it’s not even close.

In Hong Kong however, its way off, I can assure you, people don’t even care who lives next to you, what he or she does, you should be able to have neighbors who know each other who come together, who speak to each other, who share issues, you know. In the societies where I come from, African people are very communal, I think it’s because since time immemorial Africans lived in communal settings. Responsibilities were shared communally. Even though lifestyles have changed since colonization to the modern times, people still maintain those bonds to this day.

My guess as to why refugees stick together in Hong Kong is because one main reason only, they suffer discrimination and prejudice together. They understand the hardships of seeking safety in this city. And as the English men say, “birds of the same feather always flocks together”. It’s all about survival. They have realized that for them to make it here, they have to stick together as one.

From political violence to legal limbo: Refugee Perspectives

From political violence to legal limbo: Refugee Perspectives

(Continued from previous post)

As told to Mhairi McLaughlin and Tegan Smyth. Words by Mhairi McLaughlin. 

People in Hong Kong need to consider refugees as human beings, and understand that they need to be treated with the same respect as their own family

What is life like for your kids in Hong Kong? 

Nino: We need more support for the children. For kindergarten, the government pays the school fees but not the books, uniform, shoes etc. Because refugees aren’t allowed to work, they can’t provide these basic things for their kids. In primary school, refugees manage to get some support but it’s not enough. I want to be able to buy a computer for my kid so that he can do his school work at home.
Before, the government was paying half of the school fees. Because of Vision First, the government is now paying the full fees.

It is important that everyone in Hong Kong knows how refugees are living in Hong Kong, and the problems they are facing, so that something can be done to help. The media are useless – bar the alternative [non-mainstream] publications, the government has done all it can to stop the real stories being published.

Photo: Denis Tsoi. Close up of Veyi, a Togolese dish made from beans and cassava flour.

How did you first get involved in Vision First and Refugee Union?

I first met the people at Vision First in 2009, and decided to join them to help fight the system.

You do a lot of organising, in the past were you a teacher or a social worker? You are really involved with RU.

I’m not a politician, I was a simple guy who helped with the family property business. My grandparents used their own minds to set up a business and I followed them. When I came to Hong Kong in 2005, we didn’t have accommodation. We slept for 7 months on the Star Ferry Pier;  we had to hide ourselves from midnight to 6am because if the police found us they would tell us to leave because we weren’t allowed to sleep there.

Since 1967, the same political party has been in power in Togo, is this why most people have left?

My younger brother was a student leader campaigning for rights. In 2005 there was an election in our country and the police..they were the ones with control over the army, they took power from the ones who had won this election.

The students came out and protested for 45 days. As my brother was one of the leaders (there were five in total), one night these students leaders were all taken away.

I wanted to find out what happened to my brother. My mother, at the time, was also worried and was asking me and pushing me so I needed to find out what had happened to my brother.

I went to different government departments to find out where he was. I found out that on the same night he was arrested, he was killed. So when I pushed the government and spoke to the media one of the army chiefs called me.  He was a friend. He said: “We are the ones in power. Please leave. If you are at home, find a way to leave now.”

I just walked out for five minutes and saw a car driving out of my property. I came back and I could see my wife. They had beat her. She was two months pregnant at the time and lost the baby.

So you see how bad it was. But even now, the same people are in power. Nothing has changed.

Sometimes this all makes me feel bad, especially seeing all this anti refugee propaganda from the government. I’ve seen it all myself before – they don’t know what’s going on.

Photo: Matt Haslam.

When did things start getting better? Is your life better now?

Mark Daly, a human rights lawyer in Hong Kong, fought with the immigration department until taking the case to the media. In June 2006 the government started giving refugees accommodation. At that time they got HKD1000 for rent, HKD900 per month for food, and HKD10 for transportation.

We also receive food coupons which we can use at Park N Shop and Wellcome. This is great but the food is very expensive so this does not seem like the best solution.

Note from the writer: We apologise if some of the content featured in this article has been distressing. But it is important that you read it. 

Nino believes the Hong Kong immigration department uses refuges to make money for themselves. That these people are useless because the work they do to improve the quality of life of the refugees is completely disproportionate to their salary. They are pushing papers around, not knowing what it is to be a refugee with no money, yet at the end of the day they get paid and can go home to their families with food and a bed. 

Hong Kong immigration is creating separate departments to handle the cases of refugees because the justice system is so heavily influenced by politics. There is a continuous cycle of cases being rejected and refugees going back to appeal through hearings.

Living at society’s margins and below the poverty line: Refugee Perspectives

Living at society’s margins and below the poverty line: Refugee Perspectives

As told to Mhairi McLaughlin

In 2005, Nino* was forced to leave Togo as a result of political violence which played out during his country’s presidential election. He fled in search of help for himself and his family. 12 years later, he lives in Hong Kong with his wife and two children, still looking for help.

Do you enjoy living in Hong Kong?

Living here is not something you can enjoy. You start in the wrong place – the room that you have to sleep in is like living like an animal.

I arrived here in 2005 and in 2006 the government started giving accommodation to the refugees the room was tiny, just enough room for a bed. By the time my wife arrived with our two children in 2009, we were each allocated HK$1200 per month for rent. We managed to find a room on the 9th floor of a building. But my wife is anaemic, she struggled with the stairs and she still does now – over 10 years on and we’re all still there.

We started talking to the media about the tiny allowance we are given by the government and this helped us bit in being given more money for transportation – we were going crazy stuck in our room all day. As a human being you cannot stay in a room 24 hours a day – you need to be able to go out and see your friends. There is a constant worry about how we will pay for our rent as well. A friend used to help us out with money which meant we can afford our flat, but this friend has had to move away so again we will have to look for accommodation. But all we will be able to afford is a studio apartment  – how can 2 kids study in a studio apartment?

The refugee situation in Hong Kong is something which is very hard to compare. This is how we are treated by the government: if you are not Chinese, or if you don’t have money – forget being cared about.

Do you see any progression in the next 5 years? 

Not at all – the government will not raise our allowance but house prices will continue to rise. And the number of refugees in Hong Kong will grow and grow.

Right now there are around 15,000 refugees. After the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, the number doubled because China kicked out the refugees and sent them in boats to Hong Kong. I think we can expect 20,000 refugees by 2020. Maybe more.

Photo: Tegan Smyth. Nino preparing a dish from his home country.

Where do most refugees live? 

Some live in slums, however refugees have started fighting about these slums (in NT e.g. Kam Tin) – these places are illegal and dangerous. This is the only place you can get a house if you are a refugee. If you have kids, and they are ill during the night for example , ambulances won’t come because it is so inaccessible. There are no basic amenities, schools, shops, hospitals. Either this they live under bridges, in the lobby of Chungking Mansions; they are homeless.

The worst part of it is that there is so much money in HK, but it is so unequally divided…

When you go to the International Social Service (ISS – who grant accommodation to refugees) they are not doing anything to help. They just help you to sign a contract, and then they get paid.

The government has a bad policy which punishes poor people – the immigration officers get paid a lot of money to help refugees but the refugees get almost no money. When you go to Skyline Tower in Kowloon Bay for your interview (to determine whether you can be categorised as a refugee), you are surrounded by an immigration officer, interpreter and a lawyer – all which cost so much money. You sit there for 6 or 7 hours while they ask you nonsense questions, going around in circles just so that they can say they have done the interview but in the end they don’t grant you refugee status.

The government has set up a mafia of people who take a lot of money to be allowed to do whatever they want. The government does not respect the taxpayers money.

How do we stop this happening? 

The best way forward is to tell the media, tell students and encourage change. So far the students have been given the wrong information.

A few years ago I made a programme with TVB news about our family being homeless and the day after the programme the government gave us enough money for a deposit for a flat. The government always try to cover up stories with money.

How about help from NGOs? 

I don’t believe that the NGOs [alone] help matters, because [some] do not treat the refugees correctly. They only help refugees so that they can get paid. They help you to prepare for your interview and then when the case is rejected, they don’t go to court to appeal with you. It’s half a job.

*name changed for confidentiality. Please note that views expressed are interviewees own.

A Policy for a Divided Society: How the No-Work Policy affects the livelihood of Refugees

A Policy for a Divided Society: How the No-Work Policy affects the livelihood of Refugees

As told to Cynthia Chung

Why is the no-work policy a problem to the refugee community?

Refugees in Hong Kong are not allowed to work to earn a living, they are barred by law from doing so.

We depend on the government welfare system (ISS) for survival. However, the welfare is grossly inadequate. It’s so low that it cannot meet our basic human needs.

Refugees are left to survive on their own without any how they manage within these boundaries of meager welfare assistance. They scavenge and beg to survive which puts them in a very difficult situation because it pushes the refugee community to the extreme margins of poverty.

As a result, refugees resort to other means in order to make ends meet. They have become the official suppliers of illegal labor, fueling Hong Kong’s underground informal economy which thrives through the cheap labor. Simultaneously, it exploits this marginalized, disadvantaged and vulnerable group of people in this great Asian city.

Other refugees engage in various vices such as prostitution, selling drugs and stealing for livelihood. For those who get caught by the police while working illegally, the punishment is so harsh that it’s better to be caught stealing or even selling drugs. They send you to prison for a 21 month sentence.


How do you help others overcome the problems that the no-work policy has bought to your community?

The Refugee Union advises the refugee community to follow the law and live on what is provided by the government because there’ll be indelible consequences. If you are caught working and sent to jail, you get a criminal record. This becomes a serious problem for you as you lose credibility.

A refugee who has a criminal record faces even more hardships, making it more difficult to get resettlement in a third country. Majority of countries will run a background check on you before accepting you. They try to find out what kind of person you are, and if you have a criminal record it reduces your chances of getting resettlement and a future, among other things.

The Refugee Union has always actively sought donors who are philanthropic enough to assist the refugee community with donations of various forms and kinds. May it be financial support, clothes, shoes, household items, furniture or even computers.  We welcome these kind donations in the forms or conditions that they are available. We then distribute these donations to members of our community.

We also liaise with Social Welfare Department to ensure that the welfare package prescribed by the government is accessible to all refugees. There are instances that Case workers from ISS Hong Kong gave less than what the Government promised by law, in this case we intervene to ensure that the law is enforced properly.

ISS Hong Kong does not give money directly to refugees, for housing refugees have to look for a house, sign a contract with the landlord then present the contract to ISS Hong Kong. ISS will then verify the validity of the contract and the ownership of the house before paying 1500 Hong Kong dollars directly to the landlords on monthly basis. Food is issued to us in the form of coupons [1200].

In the past, we used to get bags of food, which we would collect from selected stores across Hong Kong. These bags of food were not a good way of giving food to the refugees.

We were shortchanged by the system.

For example, the food was never fresh, with limited options while the amount given was always in dispute. We did not receive what was promised by law. This led to constant conflict with ISS case workers who declined to give us their price list that they were using to distribute the food. Refugees had to fight rigorously for an end to bags of food which saw the introduction of food coupons in mid of 2015. This fight was fought through a well thought out and deliberate campaign through protests, engaging the media and occupations that lasted over three months.

The use of food coupons does by itself pose challenges whenever we go out shopping, we are required to plan our purchases to 100 dollar coupons, it is indeed difficult for you to come up with items for a flat 100 dollar coupon, so most of the time you need to look for money to top up as you cannot get a balance from the coupon. Where do we get this money from?

Photo: Refugee Union

How is it possible to survive on so little?

Basically it’s impossible to survive on 40 dollars a day in Hong Kong. You got to find ways to bridge the huge gap between what is provided to you to survive on and what you need in order to survive. Hong Kong is a very expensive city. How does the Social Welfare Department expect the refugees to survive off the current assistance?

We deduce that welfare is being used by the Government as a tool to manage/ suppress the refugee community. The strategy is to frustrate and force us to give up on our claims and rights so that we go back to our home countries. My take is that it has failed miserably to achieve that.

There are organizations as well as private individuals who donate both dry and ready to eat food to the Refugee Union. These food donations goes a long way in meeting our daily need while we hope that tomorrow will be a better day for us. For example we have an organization that gives us breads, cakes, sandwiches and salads every evening if they cannot sell all off their stocks for that day.


What are the consequences for companies if they are found out for hiring refugees?

The law says that an employer is breaking the law by employing a refugee to work for him, the individual concerned is liable to prosecution in a court of law. Punishment includes a fine of up to 50,000 Hong Kong dollars.


What is your opinion on the no-work policy in Hong Kong? How it should be changed?

 I think refugees should be allowed to work so that they can be able to support themselves. To me, the right to work is a human right.  If you deny someone the right to work, yet you do not meet his or her basic needs fully, that equals torture. Period.  This policy has changed industrious and hardworking people into pests.

They depend on others for survival. What a shame. This is not only a morally wrong but a very bad and inhumane policy decision.  Most of refugees are healthy and competent people, they can work and contribute to the development of Hong Kong society. The Government should focus on helping the senior citizens and the disabled with welfare instead of putting that money on the refugee community.

The hundreds of millions of dollars being used to fund the refugee lives here can be used to expand the social infrastructure in Hong Kong. Our lives have been ruined. We ran away from the risks of torture and death to a life of hopelessness in Hong Kong. Many of us now have become alcoholics as that’s the only meaningful thing one can do. You find that majority are always drunk because in the state of being drunk one tends to forget all your problems, we smoke weed, do drugs, all sorts of bad things that don’t add value to our lives or anyone else.  One wonders what are the cost benefit to Hong Kong in treating refugees in such an inhumane and cruel manner.

What happened to compassion and democracy? Are we truly honest with ourselves?  Surely Hong Kong can and should do better than this.


How do you overcome the bars no-work policy has set for you and how do you help people overcome them?

This is a law, it’s not easy to overcome a law that is so strictly enforced. I have not been able to overcome it. The only way to do it is to work illegally which is not an option for me. Refugee Union has not shied away from educating the public how discriminatory this law is to the lives of refugees. That’s why advocacy is our top priority as we engage the Government hoping to influence the policy makers to change their views about the refugee community.  We call upon all the loving people of Hong Kong to join us and demand that the law be changed as when some people are not free in a given society then all us will never be free.

Session #2: Bridge the welfare gap

Session #2: Bridge the welfare gap

As told to Cynthia Chung

*Interviewee’s name has been changed as requested*

Ugali, a popular dish in East Africa. Photo: Matt Haslam.

Can you please tell me about your position in Refugee Union?

My name is Alex*, I volunteer my time running the Refugee Union in HK. I’m the secretary, I handle all communications and administration.

This involves the usual day-to-day work in an office, I attend to people who come to the office seeking help. I seek solutions to their problems. I also handle communications for the Union through our Facebook as well as the blog.

Can you please tell me more about your job? What people do you encounter? How do you interact with them? How do you like your job?

It’s good, the impact it has on people’s lives is quite significant.

Being a secretary to the Union, am the face that the public see and meet as I act as the interface between refugees and the various publics in the office.

We assist all refugees who come to us seeking help. Many of them are not able to write or communicate in English, this is one of the most challenging aspect of my job. We go out of our way to understand their needs to enable us offer practical solutions for their problems. Majority come here [to the Refugee Union] because they want to surrender to immigration, they are afraid that if they were to surrender on their own they would be arrested and detained. When they come to us we put their USM claim through to immigration on their behalf. We have experienced situations where individuals have tried unsuccessfully to lodge a USM claim at Kowloon Bay, ImmD rejected to accept their claims, so they come here and we put in a [protection] claim on their behalf and they are accepted.

We also assist with appeals for those whose USM claims have been rejected by ImmD. We also help those who want to pursue judicial review, which is a challenging minefield to navigate. In other instances we offer legal advice because we can access lawyers who are able to advise people.

On Welfare, we advise and assist the claimants on how to access the welfare system. Sometimes it’s very difficult to get into the system. When they go on their own to try and access welfare many fail. From the office Refugee Union liaises with Social Welfare Department which ensures that the individual is registered and accorded the much needed humanitarian assistance as they call it (SWD). We have seen many cases of individuals who tried seeking registration, unfortunately they are turned away with very flimsy excuse that your name doesn’t exists in our database. They are easily turned away from the offices from where they are supposed to get help from. We help them by linking them with social welfare departments who in return refers them to ISS Hong Kong, who manages the Welfare assistance for the refugees in Hong Kong.

I have come across people who are given less welfare than what is in the existing Government policy. The current policy stipulates that rent assistance is to be disbursed at 1500 for an adult, 750 for kids while 300 is paid for utilities. But while this is directive from the Government we have seen many instances where some people who are given 1200 for rent while none at all for utilities. In this case we intervene and make sure they get what they are entitled to.

Refugee Union helps the members to bridge the welfare gap, the welfare gap brought about by this shortfall is so huge, this is so because the welfare assistance that refugees receive is grossly inadequate. It cannot meet the basic human need of an individual, both food and rent is not enough. It’s impossible to survive on 1200 for food as that translates to 40 dollars a day [Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner], while a rental assistance of 1500 cannot secure a decent accommodation in Hong Kong. Therefore we seek donations from organizations as well as individuals who are philanthropic enough to donate to our course. We then distribute the same to the members of the union. This way try to bridge that gap.

Refugee Union offer refugees a platform where they are able to come together and can articulate issues affecting them. They are able to come together, with the numbers, they can form a negotiating block that can push the government to change policies affecting them.

Most memorable thing that happened in your work? Rewarding experience during your work?

To see people who came to us while in a hopeless situation, we strive to assist them in whichever way that we can.

There was also a time when we went to court and we were able to save some people who were to be deported. So that was a big, big thing. A guy was about to be deported, Refugee Union with the help of lawyers intervened and prevented that from happening.

Can you tell me more about the incident?

He was a guy from India, his claim was rejected and so they wanted to deport him. He claimed that it was not safe for him to go back so we went to court and we succeeded in [our case against] immigration.

With financial resources, Refugee Union can do much for the refugee community.

Can you tell me what you do outside work?

I do nothing, go to church maybe, with family, we go out to have lunch or dinner. There’s nothing more to do. I don’t have much activity because Hong Kong is an expensive city, things we want to engage in are financially impossible.

When I’m alone, I would cook.

What was the dish you made just now called?

It is an East African dish called Ugali. It can be prepared with Maize flour, Cassava or millet and sorghum. Its best served with beef and vegetables.

Why did you choose to demonstrate this dish today?

Because it is a signature dish from my country. It’s our staple food. It is the food that people eat most of the time, it’s very popular and easy to cook.

What’s the cultural history behind the dish? How long has it been around? Why and how did it become so significant?

It’s easily available, easy to prepare and cook and the nutritional value quiet high, it is high energy kind of food, good especially for those people who do manual work. I know it has existed for many generations I don’t know from when, I don’t know how it started but it’s food that my great grandparents used to cook and which my mother is still cooking today.

So has the recipe been modified and changed? You said in the kitchen you use a different type of spatula because you can’t find the flatter/ right one here?

I don’t think you can change it. What you can change is the accompaniments that you serve with, you can serve with milk, meat and vegetables. It’s a simple dish to prepare, you need water, bring it to boil, then mix with flour.

What’s your favorite ingredient in the dish?

I think the best is beef, it’s convenient to prepare.

How does the dish reflect your country? What does it tell us about your country? Is it a very agricultural country?

Yes, it is a very agricultural based economy. It reflects people’s health, people like eating together through sharing. The dish is rich in starch and energy. Its ideal for those who work hard. It has a balanced diet having meat and vegetables, some people will even add eggs. You can use it as a main dish and you can accompany it with other food based meats, it goes well with so many other foods.

How does cooking help preserve your culture when you come here?

Because when you eat this food, you are satisfied and feel energized. When I eat it, I enjoy it a lot, it makes me remember my country, nice memories, and good things worth remembering.

Photo: Matt Haslam.

What are the good memories associated with the dish?

The communal kind of feeling, you know in my country, people share a lot and help each other. Food brings people together.

Food for thought

Food for thought

(Continued from Part 1)

You have to understand that being a refugee is not a crime.

It is not something we should be punished for, or a reason to squeeze us or mistreat us or use against us as though we have done something wrong. To deny us our human rights, our joy, our dignity and our freedom… people do not see how that affects us psychologically. I am telling you; being a refugee, you are affected psychologically, physically, emotionally.

I’m volunteering here at Refugee Union. I can’t work, I don’t get a salary here, I can only participate through the Union. It’s a crime for refugees to work – I don’t want to commit a crime. Although, the minute I go outside, I do need money to survive. I do have responsibilities here to the Union but back in my country, I had a family and I was working. I had to leave my children in my home country. I had to leave everything. If you work here, you’re put in jail. I can’t volunteer anywhere [aside from Refugee Union]. This is my life here – it’s not the best. For the people who go out and work everyday, there’s a big difference between their lives and those lived by people who come as refugees. No one forced me to come to Refugee Union as a volunteer – that’s my choice.

That’s because you wanted to give back, to the refugee community here in Hong Kong?

There’s another reason I devote so much time here. Cosmo, the patron of Vision First, he started Refugee Union through his organisation. I joined in 2012.

The day when everything changed, it was when some of the refugees occupied a government contractor’s offices to protest for greater transparency in food pricing. I remember going to the Refugee Union office one day and seeing no one there, they were out occupying these offices.

I would have gone home but I followed the others to see what was happening. I had to see what was going on there. When I arrived, I discovered that the refugees had been locked inside the offices. The workers locked refugees in the offices and did not return for one week.  I found Cosmo, seated outside on the steps. I asked people around what had happened and they told me that people had been locked inside.  That is the time, that is the day, that is the minute, that is the second I realised that I too had to do my best and become part of the Refugee Union effort.

Seeing Cosmo sitting down on the steps, with the door to the offices locked and refugees  locked inside, he was seated outside on the floor – you can imagine, sitting there without anyone to come to him with words or support. Just looking defeated. I thought, if this man can sit down like this and feel for others who are inside, who are refugees, how about me? Who am I? I thought about it twice. I had intended to go see what was going on and then go back home. But instead, I just sat down next to Cosmo. We slept on those steps, we slept seated on the hard floor. In the morning, some other members of the Union came and joined us on the steps.

We were passing up food through the windows to the refugees locked inside and passing them water where we could, they had been locked inside without any food.

The refugees who had been locked in had just gone to these offices asking those officers to show them the price list of the food which had been given by them. Demanding greater transparency in the food distribution process. The officers refused to do this. What these people did instead; they just closed the doors and locked the offices. Those refugees inside also refused to leave until this was issue was resolved so the officers just decided to lock their offices and leave people inside for a week.

A court case was then opened against these refugees and asylum seekers for having occupied the offices, for having trespassed on office premises. Then the ruling of the court was that refugees had to vacate the office until further notice. We of course followed this order. Our intention was to make people aware of what was going on – if we did not take that step, no one would have done anything.

Photo: Tegan Smyth. Behind the scenes preparation of Amanda’s dish, Engege

And the problem before, any food-related donations, were of food that was not fresh?They were not paying us with food vouchers back then. We were only able to collect expiring food [past consume by date] from shops. Three times a month we would go collect food like this. And of course, with expiring food, we needed to be given a fridge to store it. We were not given fridges. We were not given gas. We were forced to find this out for ourselves. Many people got sick.

Sometimes the food would be expired, sometimes it would be rotten and sometimes the food was just not enough.

For 30 days, they claimed that they were giving us HKD$1,200 worth of food. But when you look at the food, you realise that it was probably more like HKD$700 or $800. So that was the motivation of finding out the true cost of our food allowance and seeking greater transparency.

Do you have any hopes for the future of refugees in Hong Kong? Do you think things might improve in future?

Maybe it can change for the better. I believe there is nothing permanent in this life. I’m not sure, maybe things can change. I don’t know.

Session #1: Education, the greatest equaliser


To be a refugee, no one wants to be a refugee. It is part of life. You never think, when you are in your home country “oh, one day, I will be a refugee”.

We kicked off the first session of Table of Two Cities with some incredible dishes from Uganda, prepared by Amanda*, one of the driving forces behind educational initiatives at Refugee Union.


As told to Tegan Smyth

Tell me a bit about yourself

I first came to Hong Kong in 2011. I’ve now been here for six years. I’ve been helping out at Refugee Union Hong Kong for four years. I do my best to counsel and assist the refugee community here.

Most of my responsibilities are to do with the guidance of refugees and asylum seekers, counselling and educating them in some areas, wherever I am able to assist. I was a teacher in Uganda. Now, I deal with women’s affairs and we set up different activities and programmes for Refugee Union. I also chair meetings and discussions for the Union and generally try to see that something is done to help educate [refugees].

We all come from different countries and have different levels of understanding, different backgrounds, different nationalities and even different abilities. There are some areas where I feel I have to help and give others a platform. I can’t do everything but where I feel they need support, I try my best to help. Refugees and asylum seekers, no matter where they come from, I handle them as one.

Another thing I do for refugees and asylum seekers, is run educative programmes, though we are limited by finance. Most of the time, we organise programmes to share peoples’ histories, their backgrounds, their experiences and challenges in Hong Kong. We talk about how they go about their daily life, which problems they face as refugees and asylum seekers and where they need support and guidance.

We will bring people together for a meeting or a discussion, to let people share and support each other and help them handle their lives and improve their situation. Before, we used to have classes three times a day [at Refugee Union], but at the moment we don’t have much support. We do need people to help support us to run these programmes. We need support from companies, from people, whoever is able to facilitate and set up programmes.

I feel I have to do my best because I see many areas where refugees and asylum seekers are missing out on a lot and where they need support. For example, some refugee mothers, they need some kind of education to be able to handle their kids. But they do not receive that education. So I feel that even their kids will miss out on that guidance from their mothers. Many of these children may be born of domestic workers and their mothers do not have any social support. They themselves may not be well educated. Many do not speak English. They are lacking social guidance. They need people to help guide them because learning is essential, even as adults. Where you lack skills in certain areas, you need to acquire knowledge from people who have those skills.

So these are things I feel [refugees] are lacking, some of the refugees here have never gone to school at all, even though they are adults. They never had the chance to attend school and now they are here in Hong Kong. So I feel they are missing out, especially if they are in this competitive community. This community is of civilised people. Hong Kong is a civilised place – yes!

People need to be upgraded. People need to be refreshed. People need to be put on the level of everyone else in the community. And this cannot be done by anyone in particular – this needs to be done by people who have skills and the ability to help. They have to come up and support those that don’t have or know as much as them. Refugees and asylum seekers, we are needy people. So when anyone comes to us in need, we assist in every way we can.

What would you like people in Hong Kong to know about you, and refugees?

We are now in Hong Kong. We have nothing to hide. There is no problem with [Hong Kong people] knowing us, they have to know us. They have to be aware we are in Hong Kong and these are our needs, these are our problems, these are our challenges. These are our hardships. This is how we find our lives as refugees and asylum seekers in Hong Kong.

And all this, to be a refugee, no one wants to be a refugee. It is part of life. You can consider it a cycle. You never think, when you are in your home country “oh, one day I will be a refugee”. All the first hardships, all the first problems which convinced me to move from my country to another country, it is all a part of life. It just comes and one day, you are somewhere. That’s Hong Hong.

For me, by the time I came here in 2011, I did not know I would be here until now. But I’m here. I do want to say Hong Kong is not a bad city, most of the people in Hong Kong are not bad. Not all the people in Hong Kong are cold-hearted. Of course there are some. Some who are bad. Some who are selfish. Some who don’t think of others. Some that do not know that this world we live in is just a change of life.

I can say there are people in Hong Kong who have come to support us and have been standing with us, people with good hearts, people who can give us water and food. People who can sympathise and understand us. These are the people that know what it is to be a refugee. I have to thank them.

(To be continued)

*name changed