Under the Intensified Learning Opportunity Programme (ILOP), James Cheng Ching-hei and five other HKU students took up the task of raising community awareness about Hong Kong's asylum seekers in a Social Advocacy Project. They enlisted the help of Christian Action, a Hong Kong-registered charitable organisation established in 1985 with a mission to help the poor and disadvantaged in Hong Kong and Mainland China, with particular emphasis upon displaced persons. The group managed to meet, interact and interview a variety of asylum seekers.
James, an MBBS Year Five student, describes the experience as somewhat of an awakening, that even in the safe and stable confines of Hong Kong there are people with horrific personal histories looking to our community for help - and sometimes, unfortunately, they are not receiving the support they need.
"Our group made several visits to the headquarters of Christian Action in Chung King Mansions in Tsim Sha Tsui, and in the process we became acquainted with a number of the regular visitors there. We saw professionals living in meagre circumstances, women attending to children who are the last of their bloodlines, and orphans who have barely reached puberty.
"There are over 2,000 of these ordinary people from all walks of life. For whatever reasons, mostly conflict or political turmoil, these people end up in Hong Kong, drawn by the prospect of peace, their futures entwined with a Southeast Asian metropolis that boasts stability, freedom and wealth.
"They arrive here presumably as a tourist, but de facto an exile from places like Pakistan, Sri Lanka, India, Congo and Somalia. They are uninvited, unwelcome and unnoticed by anyone except a handful of NGOs like Christian Action, the United Nations, the local police and a reluctant Hong Kong government. These are men and women who stood up for their rights and beliefs, or people who witnessed their country devastated and their loved ones raped, killed and tortured in front of their eyes, or ones who are no longer accepted by their country of habitual residence due to ethnic conflicts and politics. They do not consider themselves as persons of greatness or champions of liberty. And being the hospitable people that we are, we reward these lucky survivors with detention, repatriation, or simple neglect at best.
"I think what impressed me the most was that some of these people could now take things so lightly. If I had been through what they had, I'm not sure I could retain such optimism. Some of course were still traumatised and not willing to talk, and some required psychological counselling, but others had gotten past their grief and their hope was truly inspirational. They looked at things in a different way.
"One man I met, we'll call him Joseph (many of these people have cases before the courts), was from Somalia and the only survivor from a family of seven. He used the black market to exit the country and came to Hong Kong illegally. Cases like Joseph, who had been to hell and back, made me think more positively about my own problems.
"What also struck me was that these people were mostly educated, middle-class people with skills that could be used here in Hong Kong. The irony of course is in the way Hong Kong is treating them, when our city in fact evolved into a great metropolis as a result of fleeing immigrants and refugees from Mainland China.
In February 2009, we decided to give our new friends a taste of Chinese culture. We armed ourselves with an assortment of festive delicacies and red packets and gave a brief talk on the Chinese New Year rituals, followed by a very well received class on calligraphy. If it was rewarding to see men who stood against the authorities laugh at their own frustration in tackling melon seeds, then it was even more so when over 20 participants took part in our "Introduction to Chinese Calligraphy" course, producing "Fai Chuns" (or calligraphy posters) that looked more professional than our own writing.
"To them this may have just been a diversion to kill time before they are granted a final verdict on their future, yet to us this was a lesson on optimism in face of adversity.
Our group of six HKU students started out lending a helping hand to the forsaken, but ending up with a guiding hand on redefining our own lives.
"What we did reinforced a sense of contribution that I have had since my high school days, of wanting to look further and to help where I can. In future my career in medicine may be useful for work in an organisation like Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) and this is something I think about."
James Cheng Ching-hei
(MBBS, Year 5)