Creating a life after trauma: building a future in Hong Kong

Creating a life after trauma: building a future in Hong Kong

As told to Mhairi McLaughlin and Sophie Hines. Translation by Tegan Smyth.

Laura and Maria*, are from Madagascar. They arrived in Hong Kong around a year ago, after fleeing forced marriages to men in Mainland China. This is their story (Part 2 of 2). See Part 1 here.

And then you escaped to Hong Kong?

M & L: Not straight away.

Poisson coco, ready to serve. Photo: Vlad Popov

So you were in China for 4 months?

M: Actually, it was more like a year. In that time, I was bought three times. I tried everything to escape. It was hell. You knew no one, you can’t speak the language. Finally, there was a point where my visa had run out.

When I did finally escape, I could only do it because the visa in my passport needed to be renewed in Shenzhen. When we got to the border, I ran. I managed to get to the Chungking Mansions. Then I was directed towards Vision First and the Refugee Union.


How did you escape?

M: When the visa ran out, this was another chance [to escape]. You see, if the visa ended, I had to come here.


Could you ever leave the place you were being held or the men you were sold to?

M: No. you can’t escape. You can basically never leave the house unaccompanied. They often told me to smile, despite everything that was going on – often, it took that, and more to be allowed out of the house.

Pretending to smile and acting happy. If you just cry every day, they lock you in the house and you’re not allowed out.


Can you return to Madagascar now that you escaped the situation in China?

M: I can’t – I would be threatened and maybe even killed by the people who sold me. They lost their money because I escaped, they lost what they earned for me.


Is that what the situation is for both of you? This is truly shocking. Isn’t there a reaction or outrage, seeing that so many women have disappeared?

L: it is for this reason that we have done everything in our power, everything we could to escape. It is very hard, it is an impossible life, being married to someone you do not love. It is better being here [as a refugee] than it is living in that situation.


Have you had any contact from your family?

M: No. a lot of Madagascan girls are where we were, still, in China. They haven’t managed to escape. They don’t have a visa to get out.

Once they are married, their papers are destroyed. There are only us two and another woman who managed to escape.


Now you’re here, how are you living? Are you living together?

M: We have some friends. We also sometimes slept on the floor at Refugee Union, before we had a place to stay.


Is it comfortable?

Yeah, I guess.


What do you do most days? Do you come here and spend time with your friends?

Yes, we spend time together and we come to Refugee Union. When you can’t work, there is not much else to do.


If the laws could be amended, would you like to work?

L: Yes, definitely.

M: Yes of course, we want to work. It is hard surviving here [not being able to work].


What would you tell the government if you could?

L&M: Change the laws so we can work. We want to be able to work and give back to society.


Thank you very much for sharing your story with us. You are so strong, we really admire your strength and we hope you are getting the support you need now.

L&M: Thank you.

Dreams of a life: single motherhood in asylum

Dreams of a life: single motherhood in asylum

As told to Tegan Smyth

June*, from Indonesia, has lived in Hong Kong since 2006. She has a daughter, Emma that she is raising by herself. She spoke a few months after her original interview about her hopes and aspirations for her daughter.

Alice, from Togo, is also raising her two children alone in Hong Kong. Her children were born stateless in Hong Kong.

Both women are chasing dreams for their children – for lives left behind and the steps forward, making the best of their individual circumstances in Hong Kong. 

*names changed

Bradley Aaron_DSCF4257-2
Photo: Bradley Aaron

Are your children attending school?

J: Yes, my daughter is in kindergarten, she will be in class two of kindergarten in September this year.

A: Yes, both my children are in school.

Does the government pay for school?

J & A: Yes. 

So what is not covered?

J: Transport is not covered but the school is just near my place. But for books and the times I’m just required to pay something [to the school], it is not covered.

A: Books and shoes are not covered.

Are the fathers of your children in their life? Or are you raising your kids by yourself?

J: I am raising her. We are not together. Her father is now married to a Chinese woman so he has papers. Well he’s there and I’m here… but he’s helping us sometimes, with whatever small things he can offer.

A: I’m a single mother.

Bradley Aaron_DSC_5052-2.jpg
Photo: Bradley Aaron.

So what do you think is the biggest problem for you as a parent, with kids who are also refugees?

A: It is very hard, you know. You have the kids and sometimes you need something and then they ask [for another thing] and you can’t buy anything, because you have no money.

Sometimes [my kids] say they want this one, they want that one… [at times], I don’t want to go out. Because I know they will cry and tell me what they want but I can’t give them anything. I’m not working – it is illegal. Having kids with all this, it’s very hard.

Sometimes I need to cry, you know. Because of that I don’t want to bring my kids to the park or somewhere outside.

Bradley Aaron_DSCF4261-2
Photo: Bradley Aaron.

What’s your hope for your children’s future?

J: I hope if he’s [Emma’s father] already established with his wife, he can help us… or help her. 

I just hope that the Hong Kong community accepts us and the government doesn’t make our lives more difficult since we depend on government help, you know? Things are already so difficult.

One last thing; what do you think Hong Kong people and the government should know about kids like yours? Children who are living like this, refugee children?

A: I just want to tell them that we need to be together for a better life for all our kids. Cos now we don’t know what the future is for them, refugee children. I’ve been here nearly ten years now. And there’s been no future, nothing for my kids.

They can’t stay like this. For a kid to know they are a refugee, it’s not good for them you know? But we don’t have any choice. Maybe in future, they can help us, and the government can help us too.


Writer’s note: Refugee kids do not receive assistance or subsidies for textbooks, bags, shoes. Parents likewise do not get subsidies for maternal care items (nappies, formula and baby/child clothing). If you have gently loved clothing, new nappies or would like to help a kid attend school for a semester, please get in touch with Refugee Union at

Taste of home and creating a life after trauma: two refugees tell their stories

Taste of home and creating a life after trauma: two refugees tell their stories

As told to Mhairi McLaughlin and Sophie Hines. Translation by Tegan Smyth.

Laura and Maria*, are from Madagascar. They arrived in Hong Kong around a year ago, after fleeing forced marriages to men in Mainland China. This is their story (Part 1 of 2). Content warning for sexual assault. 


Could you tell me a bit about the dish you made today? How did you learn to make it?

Maria: Since I was ten years old, I’ve been learning how to cook. It was my mother who taught me this dish. Poisson coco – fish in coconut sauce – was one of her favourites, and is one of my favourites too.

Maria, stirring the poisson coco (fish in coconut sauce). Photo: Vlad Popov.

So she cooked “poisson sauce” and “poisson coco” a lot, then?

M: Yeah.


Is that a very special dish that you like to cook? Or just something you like?

M: Well I like cooking with fish a lot. There is also a dish that I like, a similar Malagasy dish called “ravitout” in French and ravitoto in Malagasy. It has meat and cassava, which we also cook in coconut milk. You can also cook pork and beef like this.


So coconut milk is a common ingredient in Malagasy dishes then?

M: Yes. And poisson coco is a dish we cook all the time. But you could also eat it for special occasions too.


Can you tell me how long you have been living in Hong Kong for?

M: A year, come April.

L: Around a year for me too.

photo - ian wong
Poisson coco, served with rice. Photo: Ian Wong.

And can you tell me a bit about yourself? Do you have family here?

L&M: We don’t have family here. We are here by ourselves.


How did you two meet each other?

M: We were both in China, at the same place. We met because there aren’t many foreigners, just a lot of other Madagascan girls in this village.


How long were you there for?

M: Well there were some people back home, in Madagascar, who told us to come to China for work.

L: We were promised jobs here in China.

M: But when we arrived, this wasn’t the case. They sold us instead.


Oh god.

M: They sold us as brides to older Chinese men. Forced marriage, I guess you would call it. Once we got to China, the Chinese agents involved took our passports. A woman was selling these girls like us, two or three at a time, with men coming to inspect them. To inspect them, and to see if they liked the look of the girls or not. If they liked you, these old men would buy the girl. These men were in their 40s, 50s, 60s.

L: The agent received 70,000 RMB for her, and 85,000 RMB for me.


How did this happen, how were you taken there? Were you caught by someone in Madagascar?

M: Yes. There was a woman in Madagascar who was behind this too. She promised that there would be work for us in China. She didn’t accompany us all the way, just to the airport. Then one of their associates here came to pick us up. This woman took us to a place called Fuzhou and a smaller village after that.

We were voiceless – you cannot speak the language. They told us we would be married off soon. We were not allowed to return to Guangzhou as these traffickers had taken all our passports. The visa that was inside our passports was only valid for 4 months. They told us around this point that we would not be allowed to return home.


And Laura, was it the same for you?

L: I had done one year of college in Madagascar. So, it was actually my sister and an agent who got my ticket to China and who forced me to get married to a man here.


Your sister?

L: Yes. My female cousins are also in China, trapped in these forced marriages.


This is terrible. And what happened next?

M: I broke down. I cried. I realised I was stuck and I wouldn’t be able to see my family. I was then sold to a man twice my age. I remember when he came by and looked at the girls being sold. I was taken to the countryside. It was like prison. They don’t care if you love the man you are marrying or not. It is a forced marriage. I was raped many times by different people.

The way they settled this, he paid for me when he saw me and I was taken to where he lived. In a way, I am lucky that I managed to escape before being made to marry him. Once you are married, the agents destroy your passport.


[To be continued in Part 2 of this interview]

Motherhood and living as an asylum seeker

Motherhood and living as an asylum seeker

As told to Dannie Higginbotham and Cynthia Chung

June*, from Indonesia, has lived in Hong Kong since 2006 and is a former domestic helper seeking asylum in Hong Kong. Over beef rendang, June talks about her time as a helper, her daughter, and life as an asylum seeker.

Can you tell us about yourself, anything you want people to know?
I’m Indonesian, an asylum seeker now, before I was a domestic helper here. I’ve lived in Hong Kong since 2006. I have one daughter.

How did you go from being a domestic helper to an asylum seeker?

I was finishing my contract of two years when I had some problem with the contract from my agency. The woman who introduced me to the employers, the one who owns the agency, disappeared. She had a heart attack. I had been in Hong Kong for almost two years and I didn’t know anything at that time.

I was confused and depressed and didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t really familiar with many people at that time because it is a really short time for me to know everything about Hong Kong so that time so when I left my boss’s home, I stayed outside for two weeks, I went to the immigration center to extend my visa. They demand[ed] HKD 160 HKD from me, but I couldn’t pay it so I left the center. They just gave me two days. They asked me to exit Hong Kong but I didn’t have money. A few times, I begged for money in the MTR.

June, preparing the beef for her dish, rendang. Photo: Tegan Smyth

Do you find some of the refugee outreach services in Hong Kong helpful?

Yeah they’re helping me, even one of the staff [at ISS] helped admit me to the hospital and everything. I needed to deliver my baby unexpectedly, because they found out my blood pressure was high so I had to deliver immediately.

For over 7 months I didn’t see the doctor, but thank God my baby was ok. The transportation allowance is HKD 200 for me, HKD 200 for my daughter. It’s not enough; I go to Tuen Mun to report to the immigration office once a week. I need to wake my daughter up at 7 in the morning and she’s angry and throws tantrums, but I need to bring her Tuen Mun then to school every Tuesday. I’ve been reporting for one and a half years but nothing’s changed.

When we pass by the market, my daughter wants to buy bread, she wants to buy something. Sometimes I bring food from home but she still want to buy things, she’ll say, “mum I want this one, I want that”. I couldn’t give her everything she wants.

For some of the clothing, it’s from Vision First.


Tell us about what we’re cooking today.

Beef rendang. This is a very heavy food because of the ingredients; beef and coconut milk are very filling. I don’t consume it often; once a month, maybe. You eat it with rice and prawn crackers.

What are some typical ingredients in Indonesian food?

Ginger, shallots, garlic, coriander, tumeric, lemongrass and lemon leaves. We need to cook this on very low heat; it takes a few hours.

June’s take on rendang. Photo: Tegan Smyth

Is this your favourite dish?

Actually, I don’t eat it often. I make it for my friends.

[To be continued]

Food, running and culture: one refugee’s story

Food, running and culture: one refugee’s story

As told to Hillary Leung and Tegan Smyth. Words by Tegan Smyth.

 Joseph* is a refugee from a country in Africa that is currently embroiled in sectarian violence. He spoke to us about his daily life as a refugee as well as sharing a treasured recipe from home.


Could you tell us a little about the food you cooked today?

Today I cooked beef with tomato sauce, onion, garlic and semolina – with some rice on the side. For dessert, we have fresh mango. I think it is a nice dish for people to eat.


What do you call the semolina meal in your culture? I know in some places it is called ugali or fufu.

In my country, we call it “kosa”. In Lingala [language spoken in DRC, Congo, Angola and the Central African Republic], they call it “fufu”, but in my language, we call it kosa.


Do you eat this often, back in your country?

People eat it very often. It is a basic staple food. Nearly every dish is eaten with semolina, actually.

Photo: Rex Yuen. Joseph, preparing the stew.

Is this a kind of famous dish in your country?

The famous dish in my country is called “koko”. In Hong Kong, we cannot find it. Koko is a kind of vegetable that is commonly available in Africa – but I have never seen it in Hong Kong.


Do you cook this stew often, since you’ve been in Hong Kong?

Yes, whenever I can, I cook it. With this sauce, we can make many different dishes, the sauce is good for fish too.


Is there a big African community – from your country of origin – in Hong Kong, that you feel a part of or are there not many people from your country here?

There is not too much, but we are around 9 or 10 from this country, here in Hong Kong. Because even in my country, we are not too many, only about 3 or 4 million and many just live in one of the big cities.


What would you like people to know about yourself and your country’s food?

You know, food is something good. When you don’t have food, you are nervous, you can die. Food is a basic thing that all people need – if you have good food, you have a good self. I think so. And if you don’t have your food when you like, you need to do something similar from your country.


How do you find Hong Kong?

Hong Kong is security, a secure city.


What is your everyday life like in Hong Kong? What do you do in a day?

Every day, especially if I don’t feel good, I run. You know, running is something people can do when they don’t feel good. You run and are able to de-stress. I like to run in the morning. And if I have nothing on, I go to the park and do training. Sometimes I come here [to the Refugee Union office], and I help out with the computers for the people here.


Did you work in IT or with computers before?

Yes. This is my background. This was my career before. But of course, I cannot work in Hong Kong as I am a refugee, so I help out with computers to pass the time.


If the government allowed you to work in Hong Kong, would you want to do this kind of job?

Yes. I could help many people.



[Editor’s note]: International charity Free to Run set up the running group a year ago, in collaboration with local NGO Justice Centre. Free to Run aims to use the power of sport to change lives and communities in areas of greatest need and co-ordinates running activities for refugees in Hong Kong. To find out more, this is their Facebook page: 

The waiting game: 16 years in Hong Kong as a refugee

The waiting game: 16 years in Hong Kong as a refugee

As told to Leanne Ledgard. Words by Leanne Ledgard.

Mahmoud* arrived in Hong Kong more than sixteen years ago, after fleeing persecution in his country. Despite all his children being born and raised in Hong Kong, each day is uncertain, as Mahmoud cannot work to provide for his family – and his children live as stateless persons.


Would you mind telling me a bit about yourself? Where are you from?

I am from Pakistan.


And when did you come to Hong Kong?



What things would you like people to know about yourself?

I mean, what do people want to know about my situation? How I am suffering? I have been here since 2001. It is not a little amount of time. My children were born in Hong Kong. They do have birth certificates [showing they were born here], but they don’t have rights in Hong Kong for anything. I think it was a bad day, the day I made the decision to come to Hong Kong.


In many different countries… Europe, United States and Canada, it is possible to stay in these countries – I think for a few years. After five years, a person can see their case [for asylum heard], if they have not been given the right to stay already.

But in Hong Kong, since 2001, I have not been allowed to work. I have children. You would think that after 16 years right something would be done? I cannot work in Hong Kong and this is not a good life. I was young, but day by day, I’m getting old. I have my children, so what is their future?

People should know what is going on in Hong Kong. Like, my situation. Everybody has different case, different situation, different problem [being a refugee], its very hard in Hong Kong.

Photo: Vlad Popov.

Did you know much about Hong Kong before you came here?

Of course not. When I came in Hong Kong, it was my second time. But that moment, in the year I left, I went anywhere that would accept us for visa, it was urgent… like getting a passport, buying any ticket out of my country.


I decided to come Hong Kong although the moment [after the Handover] in 1997, everything changed. The British government moved from Hong Kong, but in my mind it was still the way [I remembered it]. We knew that Hong Kong was a British colony, but my own experience of this is only word of mouth.


But because the British left, they handed over to the Chinese, so it became a Chinese country. Sometimes I think if the British government was still here in HK, I don’t think that I would have stayed here for 16 and a half years waiting for my claim to be processed, without a job. I cannot work, it’s not legal. If I work, I could be punished (jailed) from two to 18 months, so who will take care of my children?


What do you think living in Hong Kong is like for you children?

I can say, they go to school, but there’s no future for them. They go to school, only to learn they lack status in Hong Kong. They were born here but they government in doesn’t accept them as nationals. Will they be given the right [of asylum] in HK? No.


What would like the public to know about your personal situation or the situation of other refugees?

Yes. I came to Hong Kong to make my children’s future, for their home. In my home country, and their mother’s home country, there is nothing. They have nowhere to go.

Welfare only give you food now, often rubbish food was given to refugees before. Now it is a little bit different because we have been struggling here for our rights for a long time. Since 2003 or 2004, these [welfare departments] have grown from 3 staff to 300 workers. They will get money for their work.


This is a business, it makes a business of refugees. They don’t want to make a decision. How can they support a client’s case then? When can something real happen? You don’t have to be like me, waiting 16 and a half years.

Photo: Vlad Popov.

Are you hopeful, that you will get granted residency or you will be given an ID card?

You know, I have to have hope because in my home country, I am stateless. I was stripped of papers [that I used to have]. So here you can see my situation, only God can do something. He can move the mountains but I don’t believe in many people.

There is nothing here, nothing, nothing I can give, nothing good for my health, even the medicine they give me is very bad. But when you have back pain, head pain, liver problems, heart problems… They give you panadol! Because you are stateless. Seeking asylum in Hong Kong [means] mostly discrimination anywhere you go.


From local people, do you experience discrimination?

Yeah! Of course, even right now going to the agent of my apartment, I know they are lying to me. They hate or they don’t like refugees [and minorities]. Here it’s like an animal’s system. They don’t care! Don’t care who you are, what you are, what your problems are. We don’t know the laws of Hong Kong and it is very hard learning the language.


So, it’s hard to communicate with the locals?



Shall we talk about your food a little bit?

Yeah, yeah.


What did you cook today?

I cook today, only a beef curry, another is the biryani and roti and another chicken.


Are these things that you would cook at home for your family?

Yes, at home, yeah.


Are they special dishes, or every day kind of things?

No, the biriyani you can see its special meal but not for every day. But beef curry and roti, we usually eat every day, for lunch. You eat at lunch with rice, with white rice, with vegetables, something like that.


And does it remind you of your home culture and country?

Yeah! always, yeah


Do you feel like people don’t listen to your story or that you have told it to a lot of people?

Everybody’s case is different. Some things you can share, some things you cannot share… it’s very hard. There are many legal issues as a refugee [filing a protection claim], so I cannot and mostly don’t share [my story], no.

Education is an alienable right, after all… if you are a child refugee in Hong Kong

Education is an alienable right, after all… if you are a child refugee in Hong Kong

By Tegan Smyth

Nino*, is a refugee from Togo. In 2005, he was forced to leave his country following a series of violent events which played out during a presidential election in his country.

He arrived in Hong Kong the same year, with only the clothes on his back. He has been in search of help for himself and his family ever since, however he feels the system has let refugees like him down. Although his two children were born in Hong Kong, they are denied the right of abode. Conservative estimates are that there at least 600 other children in the same predicament as Nino’s kids; born on Hong Kong soil but living as stateless persons.

Photo: Tegan Smyth. A baby born in Hong Kong to a refugee mother.

“We need more support for the children. The government pays the school fees but not the books, uniform, shoes,” said Nino, when we spoke to him at Refugee Union.

Both of his children attend a local school in Hong Kong that requires them to pay HKD$914 per semester for books although other refugee children have had to pay up to HKD$1,500 per semester. Books are a prerequisite to attend their school – as is transportation – so access to education is not a guarantee for many refugee children.

Hong Kong’s current policy is to allocate an allowance to refugees, consisting of HKD$1,500 for rent, HKD$1,200 for food (in vouchers), HKD$200 for transport and HKD$300 for utilities each month. For refugee parents like Nino, this is falls far short of what is required to cover the remaining costs of his children’s education, especially since it is illegal for refugees to work while their asylum claims are being processed.

Over the past year, Nino has only been able to send his children to school, thanks to donations from Vision First, a local pastor and some individuals in the Hong Kong community. However, he does not feel this is a sustainable solution. Like many refugees, Nino believes that the no-work policy that is imposed on refugees makes it especially difficult for him to give his kids an education.

“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.”

During our interview, Nino’s kids are playing with a friend in the Refugee Union office. They are babbling in a mixture of English and Cantonese, as befitting their lives here, as the only place they have ever known is Hong Kong. Their carefree demeanour is in stark contrast with Nino’s, as the past twelve years for him have been of bare survival. His first seven months living in Hong Kong were marred by homelessness, he slept at Star Ferry pier with several other refugees.

Photo: Tegan Smyth. An uncertain future awaits this young girl in Hong Kong as her parents are still waiting for their claim to be processed.

Now he is one of the core coordinators of Refugee Union, a refugee-led society that was created to help refugees and asylum seekers in Hong Kong become more self-sufficient. He is involved in lobbying the Government and ISS, to give greater assistance to refugees in the city.  In the context of education for refugee children, it has been an uphill battle for Refugee Union and other advocacy groups to even get the government to recognise their children’s rights to education.

“Before, the government was paying half of the school fees. Because of Vision First [a local refugee/asylum seeker advocacy NGO], the government is now paying the full fees.”

In the meantime, he hopes that people are made aware of the predicament refugees and their children find themselves in.

“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,” he said.

At the forefront of his mind are his children and those of his peers. He hopes to build a future for them here, he fled political violence at home in the hope he could give his children a better life. Although Hong Kong enjoys greater political stability, families like Nino’s still find themselves in legal limbo. After more than a decade, his family’s refugee claim has still not been processed.

Despite Nino’s children growing up multi-lingual and calling Hong Kong their only home, they will remain excluded from the Hong Kong’s workforce and society, if the current policies prevail.