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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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Hong Kong's community is home to many asylum seekers, but we may not be aware of their existence, let alone understand what they need. Last summer, while participating in a food distribution service in Yuen Long district, I met several South Asian women. For various reasons, they and their families were forced to stay in Hong Kong as asylum seekers for five to ten years. After several home visits, I found that they often feel anxious about the future, and some are more resistant to contact with the outside world. Asylum seekers are not allowed to work in Hong Kong and can only rely on government and non-profit organization support for their livelihood, bearing tremendous pressure both economically and mentally. They worry about their children facing social and learning difficulties in Hong Kong, and on the other hand, the future direction of the family is hard to predict, and the road ahead is unclear. In addition to material support, they need to be seen, heard, and accepted.

Starting in September this year, the Global Youth Network (YGN) and the Yuen Kei Alliance Church Family Service Center co-organized a sewing class to teach asylum seekers to make cloth products. We hope that through the training of sewing techniques, asylum seekers can learn to use sewing machines, and no matter where they settle in the future, they can master a craft. During the process, what the tutors and I are most grateful for is seeing the satisfied smiles on the faces of the asylum-seeking women students when they pick up the products they have made.

Through the production of cloth crafts, asylum-seeking women can also get a space for rest from the tremendous pressure of life, and can enhance their self-confidence and sense of ability. God reflects His inner richness and beautiful image through different human works and crafts. Genesis Chapter 4 records that Lamech's sons Jabel, Jubal, and Tubal Cain became professionals in living in tents, herding livestock, playing the harp and flute, and forging bronze and iron tools. God gives people different gifts and allows people to gain strength and rest in creation. Although the women participating in the sewing class temporarily lost job opportunities due to their status as asylum seekers, they can still show their creativity and vitality through the sewing class and bless others.

Thank God for the brothers and sisters of the Yuen Kei Alliance Church D4E Fellowship, who allocated funds from the social fund to purchase second-hand sewing machines and fabrics for sewing teaching. At the same time, the body and young people who are good at sewing also put in time and effort to teach sewing skills. Through this learning space, people of different ethnicities and age groups can gather and build each other. During the process, the staff of the Family Service Center also came into contact with the children of asylum seekers and got to know and build them through board games. The community, institutions, and churches have always been a whole. In a limited space, there are still many opportunities for lives to touch each other. Hope to let more people see God, and more people see each other.

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!

Who Will Take the Baton to Become the Neighbor of Refugee Families? 

Ruth Li

(CCC Wan Chai Church)

/ Feb. 2, 2024

Illustration by Syrian refugee Diala Brisly (for #WorldRefugeeDay, International Rescue Committee UK) The church I belong to is one of the few Cantonese churches in Hong Kong that cares for refugees seeking asylum through educational assistance. We sponsor over forty refugee students seeking asylum, who come from more than ten families. Over the past decade, we have witnessed a small number of families successfully obtaining refugee status and immigrating to Canada. More often, we see students grow up in Hong Kong, from kindergarten to high school, from elementary school to young adults in their twenties.

Since 2019, many Hong Kong people have moved abroad, and Cantonese churches in Hong Kong are no exception. The number of members of the refugee concern group has also decreased due to immigration. The so-called “pull one hair and move the whole body”, it was ideal for a servant to closely care for one or two families, but it is no longer easy to achieve. As one of the pastors of the church meeting who is involved in the charity work, the power of individual compassion is not enough to inherit many ministries. It can only slow down the development, stick to the post, and get to know the servants and refugees who have not been familiar with in the past. The “Refugee Kitchen” that was common before the epidemic, those gatherings of nearly a hundred people have also become the past. However, every service begins at the feet, and the ministry needs to be restarted and varied according to the shrinking of the servant team.

Last year, the refugee concern group invited several families from the same country to the church to participate in the Christmas fellowship, play “fool”, eat pizza, share personal testimonies, and pray for each other. In the laughter of several high school students and mothers, believers of different races gathered together to inspire each other. Many church members have never directly communicated with refugees, but they all express blessings with Christmas greetings.

Sharing allows us to experience that it is more blessed to give than to receive. And every relationship connected because of service, actively gathering and walking together, allows us to experience the blessing of caring for each other. People who have only participated in the ministry through donations in the past, if they can take one more step, learn to love each other with people of different backgrounds, work together for the Lord, walk with the Lord, it is another kind of blessing. Everyone does not stay in hearing about God, choose to face God directly, confess the heart and strength of service, walk with God together, and learn to become a neighbor of refugees. May we always be blessed to walk with the Lord in the limited. For example, when refugees move in Hong Kong, it is also our opportunity to become their neighbors. Hong Kong people know how to find second-hand treasures. When everyone is praying, looking for furniture and appliances that meet the requirements for refugees, although it seems trivial, easy to solve, it really deeply affects the moving refugees. Everyone learns to respect and listen to each other in this difference.

I remember a family from West Africa, as parents shared with me the joys and sorrows of our respective families. What amazed me the most was that they continued to give birth in economic difficulties. They went from a family of six to a family of eight. They had to move to the North District due to the increase in population. Because the parents do not have transportation subsidies, they cannot send their children to school from north to south every day, and the students have to be absent for a few days every month. Parents, like raising children in African villages, also have to move from downtown subdivided houses to live in village houses in the North District, students go to school across districts, children “sleep with their eyes open” in class and can’t keep up with learning, parents’ choices under limited resources, Sometimes it’s very different from Hong Kong’s grassroots families.

Listening patiently to their detailed narration, as parents have the strength but cannot work hard, and also listening to their evaluation of our hard-working life is blessed, the interaction in it makes me think again, how to see my own blessings in difficulties. At that moment, I told the other party that many young working couples in Hong Kong choose not to have children, which is exactly the opposite of their continuous childbirth, and there are also many Hong Kong people who find it difficult to face unemployment and need others to care. Both the sojourner and the local community have the need to be cared for, and everyone’s heart asks: Who is my neighbor? May the Lord Jesus ask such a question in more people’s hearts and awaken love. May each mission group continue to have people take over and collectively become the neighbors of refugee families in Hong Kong.

Daily Little Stories of Living with Refugees

Katie Ho

(Kowloon Union Church)

/ Mar. 8, 2024

International Cat

An Egyptian family has a tabby cat named Salsool, which means ‘life’ in Arabic.

Salsool is very hospitable. We like to pet cats, and Salsool likes to pet people. Everyone must be petted by him before entering the house.

But when the whole family communicates in Arabic, they have to speak to the cat in English, because they say Salsool doesn’t understand Arabic. It turns out that Salsool was given to them by a Pakistani neighbor, so the cat’s mother tongue should be Urdu, and he has to live in English in his new home.

Thinking of many refugee friends who only learned English after coming to Hong Kong, from not knowing ABC to speaking very fluent English in a few years, the process is unimaginable, but from it, you can see their extraordinary learning and adaptability. On the contrary, learning Cantonese is not so easy. Firstly, the vocabulary and grammar of Cantonese are more complicated, and secondly, there are not many systematic learning methods in the market. However, I know an Egyptian girl who came to Hong Kong at the age of eight. Through watching TV and YouTube, her Cantonese was the same as other Hong Kong people when she was fourteen.

This yellow cat named Salsool symbolizes the experiences of many refugee friends. Despite facing many cultural differences and difficulties, they still overcome various difficulties with strong vitality.

Like most cat owners, cats indeed bring a lot of laughter and vitality to this family. If you find that the cat at home doesn’t pay much attention to you, you might as well switch to another language to communicate with him. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t understand Cantonese.

When I became Apple Support

This uncle’s thinking is very out of the box. Sometimes he will talk to you about the meaning of technology to humans, and the next second he will talk about a sparrow on the street reminding him of childhood memories. So every time I talk to him, I have to listen carefully to what he needs.

A few times he wanted to ask me how to use the phone. He has an iPhone 7 that is full of mon. His first request was that the notifications would only pop up at the same time, causing him to read WhatsApp late and miss some opportunities; but too many notifications made him feel very annoying and troubled.

So I turned off the function of notifications appearing at a fixed time, turned off the notifications of useless apps, and taught him how to send photos in WhatsApp, and he happily left. At that moment, I felt that he was no different from some of my relatives’ uncles. They would be troubled because they couldn’t keep up with technological progress, but as long as they took a few simple steps, they could solve their troubles and inconveniences in life.

The second problem he had was, how to edit recordings on the phone? So I taught him a simple method. He was very happy to say that he had asked many people but no one was willing to teach him. Everyone said they were too busy to drive him away. He was very happy that someone was willing to sit down and teach him how to use the phone.

Later, he shared a poem he had written before. Although I didn’t understand it, the content was probably:

“Language is the whole world. Therefore, language gives life, deep in our hearts. Perhaps what we need most is a word.” This uncle reminded me of Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, who wrote a poem like this:

“Poets are fantasists. They fantasize about everything they have, even fantasize about pain, fantasize about the pain they really experience. And those readers, when they read those pains, do not feel their own pain, but the pain they have never recognized. This track, satisfying our rationality, this carriage, they call it heart.” The English translation of Fernando Pessoa’s poem is as follows:

"Autopsychography"

The poet is a pretender,
Who pretends so completely
He even pretends to pain
The pain he really feels.

And those who read what he writes,
Reading of pain, feel truly
Neither of those pains he has,
But what they themselves have not.

So round its track goes
Wheeling, to entertain our reason,
This string of carriages
They call the heart.

"We reach out for the light, wishing to be among the stars! 

Gloria Chan

(The Hong Kong Society for Asylum-seekers and refugees)

/ May 8, 2024

It has been exactly one year since I first stepped into the field of volunteering to help asylum seekers and refugees. Under the guidance of my teacher Isabella, I have spent this year helping those in need fill out legal documents, accompany them to submit information, organize ‘storytelling sessions’ for these families, distribute goods provided by benevolent donors to them, take them to see doctors, and introduce students to these marginalized individuals… Due to changes in the larger environment, and as a ‘novice’ with no experience, my contributions this year are far less than what our NGO ‘Hong Kong Asylum Seekers and Refugees Association’ has done before, like a drop in the ocean. Yet, this year’s experience has allowed me, as a participant, to witness the relationship between my teacher Isabella and the refugees, as well as the relationship between the local community and the refugees, transforming from ‘strangers to blessings.’

I remember the first time we organized a distribution of goods, we had to adopt a ‘first come, first served’ method for registration and distribution. Our NGO’s member names are ‘quirky and interesting,’ with various symbols and strange characters. As a rookie, I couldn’t keep up with the registration speed, and some ‘veteran members’ would help me sort things out and tell me who those strange names belonged to, to avoid duplicate registrations or omissions. Later, I learned that many of them had been staying in Hong Kong for nearly ten years and had a deep relationship with Isabella. Isabella knew their children’s amusing stories by heart, and they hoped to help our NGO and Isabella within their capabilities. Later, I discovered that every time we met, the ‘veteran members’ had a light in their eyes that spoke of gratitude.

Among our NGO’s official volunteers, I am the most junior. The more senior ones can always predict which items are suitable for which families during distributions, always conveying more ‘love.’ And Isabella’s long-term partners always provide our NGO with the needed goods, such as the most popular toilet paper. This should be the result of long-term close contact with the ‘members,’ to be able to help them with what they need.

Providing what is needed accelerates the relationship between people from distant to close. Our NGO’s partners have walked with us for many years and have reached the realm of ‘thinking what we think’ and ‘giving refugees what they need.’ In the past six months, I have witnessed one of our NGO’s new partners building this ‘From strangers to blessings’ relationship with us, from acquaintance, sympathy, to understanding, and help.

The world is tough, and people are in a foreign land, trying to push away the boulder that blocks their fate, facing failure repeatedly, and with a slight misstep, they ‘once fell into darkness, in that unsatisfied world’ (excerpt from ‘Reality and Desire: Cernuda’s Complete Poems Before Exile’). Our NGO and partners do their best to help them choose their direction, and although they cannot push away the boulder of fate for them, they do their utmost to lift a glimmer of light to discern the path ahead.

‘If you extend your soul to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted soul, then your light shall dawn in the darkness, and your darkness shall be as the noonday.’ (Isaiah 58:10)"

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