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From Strangers to Blessings

How far is the church from the sojourners?

Candice Au

 (Youth Global Network)

/ Oct. 20, 2023


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Behind the façade of Hong Kong’s prosperity, around 14,000 refugees and asylum seekers from all over the world are living among us. Every day, they hope that the Unified Screening Mechanism (USM) grants them refugee status to move to a host country. The USM is the process the Hong Kong government uses to assess non-refoulement claims against deportation, repatriation, or extradition by the authority. Asylum seekers must first become non-refoulement claimants to apply for refugee status at the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Since the USM is quite complicated, asylum seekers generally have to wait in Hong Kong for three years or more; in some cases, the waiting time is even more than ten years.

Before arriving in Hong Kong, refugees and asylum seekers already experienced physical and mental trauma from genocide, war, persecution, natural disasters, or other causes. Since asylum seekers are prohibited from working to earn a living during their stay in Hong Kong, they could only rely on the government's HK$1,200 vouchers for necessities and HK$1,500 subsidy for housing. The more proactive ones would reach out to churches and non-profit organizations to get more financial assistance but still barely survive with such minimal resources.

In 2013, Youth Global Network launched the first refugee ministry called Global Youth Connect (GYC) under the Endowment for Youth Global Development. GYC aims to integrate local college students, students from Mainland China, and asylum seekers into a youth community. We believe that, by meeting new friends, participating in the new community, and integrating into that, young asylum seekers in Hong Kong can regain their dignity and affirmation. As they understand their identity more, they can face their current situations more positively.

As we connect closely with refugees and asylum seekers, we find that the general public lacks sufficient knowledge of them and pays little attention to their situations. Therefore, the ministry hopes to promote awareness and respond to their needs in creative ways. For example, the first “CArtREfugee” postcard design competition held last year aimed to raise public awareness in support of refugees and asylum seekers in Hong Kong.

Besides our care for the refugees and asylum seekers living in our city, our hearts are with the eleven million Ukrainians who have been forced to flee their homes due to the Russian invasion. We dedicated this year’s “CArtREfugee” postcard design competition to Ukrainian refugees with the theme “We Care.” We printed the winners’ designs into actual postcards and then invited many Hong Kong church brothers and sisters to give heartfelt greetings and blessings in writing to Ukrainian refugees in the diaspora most of whom have fled to Poland, Romania, Hungary, Moldova, and other neighboring countries to seek asylum.

In addition, we have developed a new scheme called “Project I Dignity.” We work with local youth to invite merchants and service providers in different communities to offer discounts in support of refugees and asylum seekers with the “I Dignity” cards. Nearly 60 different merchants have voluntarily participated in “Project I Dignity” which would last for three years.

We are grateful to experience the mutual trust and good collaboration between churches and organizations in the refugee ministry. We hope that more churches and organizations will participate in the ministry to care for and support the refugees sojourning in our city, and witness the gospel with them!

Learning Resilience from our RAS community

Alexander Pforte

(Branches of Hope)

/ Nov. 17, 2023

Recently, a good friend of mine left Hong Kong for good. Over the past few years, I’m sure many of us can relate to this, and no doubt have many similar stories to share. But there is one fundamental difference to this particular story: instead of feeling a sense of loss and a lump in my throat, I felt immense joy, almost exuberance. Of course, I will miss my friend dearly; but their departure marks a tremendous milestone for them and heralds the beginning of a future they were denied in Hong Kong.

That is because my friend was, until recently, a member of the refugee and asylum seeker (RAS) community in Hong Kong. There are around 15,000 RAS in Hong Kong, all of them seeking protection in our city and engaged in lengthy legal proceedings in pursuit of this. Unfortunately, less than 1% of applicants are ultimately successful and recognized as a refugee; but even then, they are not allowed to remain in Hong Kong. Processing the claims takes many years, even decades, after which the majority of RAS community members are removed from Hong Kong and sent to their country of origin. There they face an uncertain future, along with potentially the same hardships and dangers that they sought to escape by travelling to Hong Kong in the first place.

My friend is extraordinarily fortunate to be part of the 1%, and is starting a new life in North America. I say that their departure heralds the beginning of a future they were denied in Hong Kong not just because, no matter what, they would never have been allowed to stay – PR or even just a HK visa is not on the cards for the RAS in our midst. I say it also because of the exceedingly difficult existence RAS have to lead while they are here due to systemic economic and financial disenfranchisement, punctuated for the majority by a prohibition from earning an honest living through working.

But I do not wish to dwell on these depressing facts and statistics. Rather, I want to celebrate the resilience of the RAS community, embodied by my friend who recently left Hong Kong. They were in Hong Kong close to 15 years when they finally left, but at no point did they let the uncertainty of their situation cloud their spirit. They did whatever they could to help themselves in this difficult situation, making friends wherever they went, and even helping the local community any way they could. For example, during COVID they went shopping for elderly neighbors and cooked meals for some of them. Since they could not work in the beginning, they bartered for what they needed, always careful not to cross the line of the law. And when they were recognized as a refugee and allowed to work, they started at the very bottom of the restaurant industry, despite having a professional degree in their country of origin. It shames me to think what minor inconveniences in my life will already send me spiraling, knowing what my friend faced every single day. I pray in the bright future that lays ahead, my friend might choose to become a professional life coach, for there is so much we can learn from them.

Indeed, there are many lessons to be learned from my friend’s experience in Hong Kong. First and most tangibly, we are called as Christians and decent human beings to walk with one-another. My friend was able to make the best of their situation in Hong Kong because of the community and network they built up around them. Our relationships are a fundamental building block in human resilience. Together we are not just strong in the physical sense, but in the mental, emotional, and spiritual sense as well. One mind may struggle to see a way forward, but several may discern a straight and brightly lit path. So let us walk with the RAS community members among us, in our churches. Don’t be afraid to be their friend and to share their burden through that friendship; pray with them and for them earnestly.

The second lesson is not to rely on ourselves to provide for all our needs or the needs of those whom we wish to support. So often we see individual Christians and whole churches overwhelmed by the enormity of a task or a need in a particular community. God does not call on us to solve all our problems ourselves, on the contrary; we are called to Him and to each other. I challenge my brothers and sisters in Christ to look beyond their immediate horizon to recognize the network of organizations and agencies already serving the RAS community in Hong Kong, and to allocate their time, resources and finances to them instead of attempting to stem the tide yourselves. Afterall, is it not in the spirit of this City of Hong Kong to strive for efficiency and impact?

The same lesson applies to those of us, like myself, who work in such an organization. Professional pride tempts us to spread ourselves too thin. It takes humility and confidence to acknowledge when a request lies beyond our means or mandate, and to refer the request to another entity better suited to handle it. If we do not, we only manage to disappoint and frustrate the very people we seek to serve – when I think of my friend, the greatest stress to their resilience in Hong Kong was not hearing “no” as an answer, but receiving empty promises.

Let’s not sugarcoat the reality of the refugees and asylum seekers in Hong Kong. Life is tough, constrained, and uncertain. It moves at a glacial pace, sometimes it even seems to be standing still. But my friend has taught me that this doesn’t mean the human spirit must capitulate, though it may be tempted to. On the contrary – when we all stand together, even the toughest circumstances may be overcome.

No Refugees Here. Members Only.

Darren Pollock

(St Andrew’s Church)

/ Dec. 15, 2023

I like to tell people we have no refugee programme at St Andrew’s Church, that there is no pastor or ministry worker for refugees and there is no magical refugee fund (although hundreds would tell you otherwise).  Why do I tell people this? Well because it's honestly true. We are the church gathered at 138 Nathan Road and as we all know a church is not a building but its members. The members of St Andrew’s who also happen to be refugees are the very same as every other member. 

Frasier is one of our church members. He is a refugee, but he is also a teacher, a pastor, a friend and a christian. He has been a member of our church for as long as I can remember.

Frasier began attending the 9:30am service and the men's fellowship on Thursday nights. He is a great guy to have around. He has made friends, comes to church regularly, and is a faithful member of the men's fellowship, where they study the Bible, pray for each other, and do life together. They even enjoy the occasional sherry. It's as simple and as complicated as that.

Frasier is a valued member of our church family. He receives pastoral care, discipleship, and discipline just like any other member. The church members and staff support him in all of life's challenges, big and small. If Frasier were not a believer, we would reach out to him with the gospel as any other seeker who comes through our door.  We have thirty members like Frasier, and we are grateful for each one.

While there is always room for improvement, I like to think that on Sundays and at our midweek gatherings, our members are treated as just that. We are intentional about welcoming people, greeting people warmly when they arrive, and introducing them to other members of the congregation.  We prioritise helping  them get involved in church activities and our discipleship groups without distinction. This could include things like volunteering, joining a small group, or participating in worship services just like we would anyone else. And while there are cultural and language barriers at times this is nothing new for our city or our church and if anything makes our church stronger through our diverse congregation. In doing so we can shed the stigma of being seen as “just” a refugee or asylum seeker and more profoundly as a member of Christ's church gathered on Nathan Road. 

This may be too idealistic but thinking about these issues it is easy to feel hopeless as we try to care for our members and the situation and challenges they face in the city. If you are anything like me you see the images of the displaced in Palestine and the tragedy that has befallen the Afghani people following the third earthquake in swift succession and your heart is broken.  Or grim statistics concerning refugees in the city where 14,000 refugees and asylum seekers were estimated as of 2022. Furthermore, as many of us are aware and lament, the practical situation and social policies are far from improving.

Amidst the frustration of what often feels like a hopeless situation for our people like Frasier and others in the city, I have found solace in some of Jesus' strongest words about the end times. In Luke 21:5-11, as he speaks to the destruction of the temple and the end times, he says, "When you hear of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away." Amidst the apocalyptic language, we are given words meant to assure the church to keep their trust in God even in the most challenging of circumstances. War, famine and displacement are dreadful things and yet Jesus while describing these terrible events, Jesus tells his listeners not to be afraid.

Despite its language and imagery of destruction, Luke 21:5-11 is a passage of hope, grounded in the belief that God not only remains present in the world but is directing it and these things must happen before he returns and sets the record straight. Amidst what seems like impossible circumstances for our church members, we have a hope that one day the Lord will return and make things right. The situation is terrible, but we do not need to lose hope. So in the meantime, we try to do what we can and look forward to the great invitation that Isaiah gave us: "Come, all you who thirst, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price!" Isa 55.11. One day there will be a banquet for God’s people, they can all come, they won't have to pay and all of this sin, death, hunger, displacement will be forgotten because we will enjoy the Kingdom of God and God himself forever. 

Frasier and others have hopefully learned this hope at our church and our members have learned that Frasier is a member just like them and we face the challenges and support one another together as we do it. All our members hopefully know that in a  world marred by sin God has saved us and will one day put everything under his Lordship. It is a precious thought to our refugee and asylum seeker members.

See Christ in Refugees

Phyllis Wong

(Kowloon Union Church)

/ Jan. 26, 2024

Over the past decade, I have had the privilege of connecting with and serving refugees in church. Walking alongside them has been a remarkable experience.

Refugees come from diverse countries, with varying skin colors, ethnicity, religions, cultural backgrounds, genders, education levels, professions, and personalities. Despite these differences, they share many commonalities with us. They have strengths and limitations, a need for love, the capacity to love and express themselves, and dreams. They are all part of the human family, beloved by God.

I am grateful for the encounters with refugee friends in my life. Their resilience, compassion, and unwavering trust in God during adversity have been a tremendous source of encouragement and inspiration.

Let me share the story of Allen, a single mother from East Africa who sought refuge in Hong Kong due to political reasons. She resides in a small room on Hong Kong Island, surrounded mostly by local Hong Kong residents. Initially, her neighbors ignored her greetings, leaving Allen feeling disheartened and rejected. However, a minister encouraged her not to give up and to continue treating others with kindness, staying true to her convictions.

Allen persisted in greeting her neighbors each morning and took the initiative to keep the communal areas clean. Over time, hearts softened. Her neighbors noticed her acts of kindness, and their attitudes shifted from indifference to friendliness. Allen's sincerity eventually melted their cold hearts, turning stony indifference into warmth. She also participated in the church's "Peace Ambassador" program, sharing her story in various churches and schools, offering encouragement, and raising awareness about the plight of refugees.

The church often emphasizes the importance of welcoming guests and travelers. According to the teachings of the Old Testament, we should receive foreigners and sojourners as if they were our own people. I have visited refugee friends multiple times, and their gracious hospitality has deeply moved me.

Despite their material poverty and lack of financial resources, they understand the value of hosting church pastors and fellow brothers and sisters. Whenever we visit, they generously serve us delicious home-cooked dishes from their native cuisine. In their tiny rooms, where there isn't enough space for chairs, we sit on their beds, joyfully savoring the food and listening to their stories.

I remember one single refugee friend whose living quarters could only accommodate a single bed. He placed the food on the bed to welcome me and another visiting brother. He expressed his happiness, acknowledging that even though the place was small and humble, we had come to visit him. On that day, I was moved beyond words.

Refugees themselves were once foreigners and sojourners, but now they have become hosts, turning the tables and touching my heart.

True hospitality lies in genuine, wholehearted, and sincere giving. True generosity is when, despite our own lack, we are willing to offer what little we have to others. I have deeply learned and experienced this from my refugee brothers and sisters.

Recently, our church's "Peace Project" organized a sewing workshop. Several refugee sisters participated, creating clothes, bags, and items they needed, such as aprons. They even made a uniquely African skirt for me to wear on International Refugee Day. Among these sisters, there was one single woman whom I affectionately call Sally. Using different fabrics, she crafted a beautiful piece of art and placed it in a frame. She shared that the process of creating helped her find inner peace, focus, and tranquility. Meanwhile, Sally had to learn patience while working with an old, frequently malfunctioning secondhand sewing machine. Her first creation placed a mountain right in the center. The reason? During the process, she resonated with Psalm 121: "I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.".

Refugees indeed endure much pain, have faced numerous dangers, and confront many deficiencies in life. Yet, I see their resilience, generosity, sacrificial giving, compassion, and unwavering faith in God. Through refugees, I catch a glimpse of Jesus Christ!

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