Our group is called Cultural Splash, originally known as Refugee Project. It began when I was at Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), while I was taking a general education course called Service Learning. There are different groups you can work with, and I decided to work with the refugees in Hong Kong. Originally, I didn’t even know that there were refugees in Hong Kong - I just thought that most non-Hong Kongnese were tourists, but after taking that class, I realized that a lot of the refugees in Hong Kong are from places like Africa, the Middle East, Sri Lanka, and Cambodia. I also learned that Hong Kong didn’t sign the 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees and so is not legally bound to take in refugees, so it does not give out permanent residency status to refugees. Therefore, these refugees come to Hong Kong for safety but they usually have to wait between 5-10 years for a permanent visa to another country, and they can only go to either Canada or America. Also, most of the refugees are so young, and many are the same age as me.
According to an article by Quartz, by 2015, Hong Kong had around 9,900 asylum-seekers: “Of them, about 20% each come from Pakistan and India. A further 15% are from Vietnam, 13% from Bangladesh, and 11% from Indonesia. The remainder come from other countries in southeast Asia such as Sri Lanka, and some from as far afield as Somalia, Eritrea, and the Democratic Republic of Congo...Of the 19,844 applications for asylum Hong Kong has received since December 1992, only 31 have been granted, a recognition rate of just 0.16%.”
For the Service Learning course, we could design our own courses and teach the refugees subjects like computer skills, English, and math. I remember this kid, who is the same age I am, always asking me things like if he could see my textbooks, what I was learning at University, if he could go and visit my class. The problem is that in Hong Kong, if you are a refugee who is over the age of 18, you don’t have any rights to go to school, and since you are not a resident, you cannot work or get an identity card, which means you do not have access to healthcare. The worst thing is that the support from the government is so minimal that they only get about 1500 HKD for accommodations (which goes directly to the landlord), 1200 HKD for food (in the form of food stamps) and 200 HKD in cash for transportation; however, in Hong Kong, one small room with a bed already costs 6000 HKD. This means that a lot of refugees end up homeless, or living in these “cage houses” that are similar to the cages they have for dogs. However, a lot of refugees in Hong Kong are political asylees, and while they face difficult conditions in Hong Kong, many are appreciative of the relative safety they have now.
After the class, I was so disturbed by the refugee situation in Hong Kong, and wanted to do something about it. So I started contacting some of the refugees I knew who were the same age as me and met up with them once a week for tutoring; if you have a TOEFL certificate or GED certificate, you have a higher chance of getting a permanent visa, and so I got involved this way.
Then I went to Germany to study abroad, and I wanted to get involved in refugee advocacy there as well because of the Syrian refugee crisis, which I got a first-hand view of. During my year in Germany, I was living right next to a refugee camp. I remember during the winter in January when I went to class, and there was a kid sitting right in the front row of the classroom. I later realized that he had fled to Germany just three months ago, and had been in the process of finishing his MA studies back in Damascus. I asked to interview him, and he told me about his time in Syria, how he crossed the Mediterranean Sea, how he reached Italy, and how he almost got caught in Hungary and Austria. I was shocked - I could not believe that somebody my age who had gone through all this suffering was sitting in the same room I was.
I started interviewing more refugees. I wanted to raise awareness, and my target audience was local Germans and German students because especially in the small town I was in, there was a great deal of anti-immigrant feeling. My Syrian friend later introduced me to this event they have every month for Syrian refugees at a local coffee shop, and there I coincidentally ran into a professor from my school. He was there as a volunteer, and when I told him about my project, he offered to help me with it. He told me to take his class called Cultural Management, and in this class, we started a buddy program and cultural workshops. For the buddy program, the idea is to pair one Syrian with one university student. We would help pay for them to get coffee or something, to help encourage them to get to know each other, to talk to each other. The cultural workshops were held once a month where we did whole group activities like go play laser tag or go to festivals.
Afterward, I found out that PolyU gave out funds to students who do cultural immersion work, giving out up to 100,000 HKD ($10,000 USD), and so I applied so that I could get extra funding for my work in Germany to help make sure that our programs were sustainable.
My university then asked that I also create a similar program in Hong Kong. Originally I had concerns because I had a whole team to help me in Germany, but not in Hong Kong, so I reached out to all my friends there to join. However, when we tried to replicate Cultural Splash in Hong Kong, we realized that the audience is entirely different - they have no support from the government, an incredibly diverse refugee population, different age groups. We had to change the whole agenda. We still held cultural workshops but we had to get creative. For our second gathering, we all went to a concert. We had whole families there, including kids who were born in concentration camps who had never stepped foot inside a music hall before - it was so cool to see their excitement. We then all went out for pizza afterward. Another time, we had a soccer match with the refugees and the local university students, and then went out for ice cream. Also, one time we did a Refugee Walk. We started in a district that has a lot of refugees, walked by the mosque and church that they, the only hospital where refugees can get treatment, the local United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) branch office, and ended the walk at a refugee’s home. For many, they were skeptical of the conditions that refugees were living in, and this walk really helped the local community see a little bit of the life of a refugee, as well as see first-hand the difficult living conditions. Ultimately, the goal of events like these are to encourage interaction and understanding between the two groups. We are now applying for a second grant.
We try to make it possible for as many people as possible to attend our events, and so we focus on different schools each time - if they attended this event, we would give priority to another school for the next event. I remember how there were only 2 people who signed up for our first event, and then for the second, there was a waiting list. It’s been so nice to see how many people have become interested in what we do, and in getting involved in refugee advocacy.
My professor in Germany once told me something that really helped inspire and remind me to continue what I’m doing: “It’s not a refugee’s fault that they become refugees, but it’s our responsibility as human beings to help other human beings.” No one asks to have to become a refugee, and most don’t ever think that they would ever become one. And not every refugee ends up in a place that is welcoming or designed to help support refugees. It’s so important to help those in need when you have the ability to. There are a lot of people who think that their contribution won’t matter or make a big difference, but from what I have seen, there are so many students who have come to me and told me how being involved in Cultural Splash has changed how they see refugees. And that is huge. We need to have empathy.
Christine Chang is a Taiwanese student educated in the United States, Hong Kong, and Germany. As a Chinese and Bilingual Studies/Corporate Communications major at Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), Christine focuses on understanding the communication norms in business and private settings from both theoretical and practical perspectives. As a scholarship and award winner for her philanthropy effort, Christine started her own refugee project (fully-funded by PolyU) in Germany and Hong Kong to foster cultural understanding between refugees and local community members. Hoping to acquire more professional skills in social work, Christine will pursue a Master’s degree in social work at Columbia University starting this fall.