By Christopher KL Lau
Behind the glitz and glamour of Hong Kong’s neon signs and 24/7 pace of life live a group of people often hidden away on the fringes of Hong Kong society and in the most cases, completely ignored. The people in question are the city’s hidden community of refugees and they would all but be forgotten if not for the work of several well meaning Hong Kong based NGOs and organizations who seek to work to alleviate their plight, provide support and highlight their cases to the wider Hong Kong public.
Hong Kong, for all its monetary wealth and image of a world city, has often been criticized for the lack of assistance towards refugees who are often left in a form of limbo as their legal cases are heard and this can often take years leading to insufferable uncertainty; thus often, refugees are often left in less than pleasant accommodation with insufficient provisions for survival and day to day living yet they are are not allowed to work to improve their plight. This sense of helplessness can lead to a vicious cycle of despair and loss of hope.
One organization dedicated to helping the plight of these Hong Kong based refugees is The Vine Community Services Ltd (VCSL) which seeks to help and assist those who have fallen through the gaps of Hong Kong society. One core focus of their work is refugees and who would remain nameless and faceless if not for the hard-work and dedication of those who are keen and determined to ease their suffering and bring their predicament and circumstances to a wider audience.
The Vine Community Services Ltd (VCSL) began their refugee services in 2004 and this assistance has grown from providing basic necessities to a much wider scope of work including post-traumatic counseling, financial assistance, providing a sense of community, relocation preparations, meal preparation as well as legal support and advocacy. These services, which are utilized by up to 300 refugees from Africa, South and Southeast Asia, are provided by both full time staff as well as many well meaning volunteers.
Importantly VCSL also provide a sense of community and empowerment in the form of football which is a passion for many of the refugees and an important outlet for them to forget their daily struggles and allows them to build their self image and sense of worth.
To build upon the premise of sport as a form of empowerment, this coming Saturday, November 14, 2015, the Vine Church will be hosting their 4th annual “Home & Away” Charity Football Tournament in the hope that the tournament will raise awareness and funds for the refugees and asylum-seekers living in Hong Kong as well as providing high tempo action for the many teams and fans who are participating and watching.
The underlying message of the tournament is one of hope and acceptance and that even though refugees are thousands of miles away from their home and separated from their families and friends and seemingly invisible to the general public; that there are those who do care for their well-being and who will fight their cause. It is the beauty of sports that allows community to be built and for the refugees to showcase their skills and talents to the wider world.
Christopher KL Lau of Offside.hk got in contact with VCSL and Thomas Franz, CEO of VCSL kindly answered a few questions about the plight of refugees in Hong Kong and the upcoming “Home and Away” tournament 2015 to be held on November 14th.
Thanks also to Lolly Law, Michael Chard and Roy Njuabe!
For more information on the tournament, please go here: www.vcsl.org/events/football2015
What is the premise of the “Home and Away Charity Football Tournament”? What do you hope to achieve?
We hope to bring awareness to the circumstances of the asylum seeking community and achieve integration between them and those in the corporate world by creating a platform for friendly interaction via playing football.
How empowering are sports like football to refugees? Does it build a greater sense of community?
Because of the lack of control in their lives, football and other sports are extremely empowering. They are able to control their world for a few hours and be who they want to be. They find themselves as equals with other men and women, not stuck in the role of victim to circumstances.
There are many misconceptions and stereotypes about refugees in Hong Kong. Why do you think this is?
It is easy to create stereotypes about people you do not know. Many people do not know how educated, bright, creative, friendly, and honest much of the asylum seeking community is. Because they come with a different culture, speaking different languages, and are kept from entering the work world of Hong Kong, it is easy to think of them as uneducated, or lazy, or unhygienic, when really nothing could be further from the truth.
How does your organization attempt to promote a positive image of refugees in Hong Kong?
We try to create platforms where they can interact with others, or share their stories and their culture with others. We go out and visit elderly with St. James Settlement in Wanchai, or go as a choir to visit other churches. We have outings to the beach where they can interact on a friendly basis with locals. We have done theatre presentations in which they can act, entertain, and tell their stories. We are looking to put together teams that can do cultural exchange with schools, primary, secondary, and even in the universities, in which they can share the culture of their home countries and tell their stories. We are also looking into ways to reach out to the street people, maybe with a feeding program, in which the asylum seekers can use what they do have to bless others.
What are the barriers refugees face in their attempts to join mainstream Hong Kong society?
The biggest barriers are legal. It is hard to take part in a community that will not let you work at all. They have no way to earn money legally and must rely on the small living allowance given by the government. This amount is so small that many asylum seekers end up on the streets. We help with a small living allowance to help them get in tiny apartments and to be able to buy things like soap, diapers, deodorant, and other things we would consider necessities that the government does not provide for.
Where do the majority of the refugees in HK come from? What do they tend to be fleeing from?
We can only talk about the Asylum seekers we are involved with. The majority are from Western Africa. Others are from Nepal, Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Malaysia. Most are fleeing violence, either warfare or tribal. About a third are fleeing political or religious persecution. Only 5% are fleeing famine or for economic reasons.
Given the choice, would the refugees rather go home or build a new life in Hong Kong?
All the asylum seekers I talk to really miss home and family, but most feel they could never return. They feel that for one reason or another it is just too dangerous. Many end up marrying Hong Kong people and are happy to be a part of this society. Those who do go through the asylum seeker process, which can go on for more than 10 years in some cases, and become refugees are then sent to receiving countries. Hong Kong really doesn’t take refugees. More than 99% fail to get through the Hong Kong refugee screening process.
Can any team join this tournament and what is the level of play like?
We are using this as a fundraising opportunity. It used to be mostly corporate teams. The economy is pretty tight now and so many corporations have cut their giving way back. But if people want to get together and raise the support themselves to buy a place in the games, they are more than welcome. There are some pretty good players who are serious about their game and winning, but there are also teams that are just here for the friendly camaraderie of sport. In these games fun and fellowship is much more important.
How will the money raised help your organization?
It will help us continue to provide financial assistance in order to fill the gap between the support they receive from the government and the actual cost of living. Our church, the Vine Church in Wanchai, provides most of the organizational costs and this allows VCSL to put most of the money raised straight into improving the lives of these asylum seekers and their families.
Location: YMCA of Hong Kong Christian College
Date: Sat, 14 Nov 2015 (8:30am – 6pm)
Tournament Format: 7 vs. 7 (Round Robin and Knockout Stages)
Expected number of teams: 24
More information: www.vcsl.org/events/football2015