Whilst you may know of Hong Kong - the “fragrant harbour” - for its neon lights, skyscrapers, and sweeping views, there is also a huge socio-economic disparity in the city.
Christian Action Centre for Refugees (CFR) was founded 20 years ago under Christian Action, and it’s Hong Kong’s first and only drop-in community centre for asylum seekers and refugees— people who are often fleeing war, violence, and persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, political standing, or membership of a certain group. It is a “home away from home” for anyone who visits.
The centre serves over 600 refugees and asylum seekers each month, providing counselling, housing, and medical support, food, electrical devices, and emergency response. However, CFR prides itself on its small group classes that happen daily. The programmes available are vast and include the Ladies Empowerment Arts and Development (LEAD) programme, an initiative that brings together female refugees and asylum seekers to have fun, connect, and share their unique skills. Activities in LEAD include cooking, sewing, jewellery making, yoga, and baking. These workshops are a focal aspect of the centre and foster empowerment and allyship among clients. As proof of their value, we were told that the number of ladies needing external psycho-social support has declined since the programmes have been underway.
Before we joined the ladies in a jewellery making class, we were first greeted by Chandni, an aspiring social worker and team manager at CFR who told us more about the background of the centre and gave us an insight into the lives of an asylum seeker and refugee in Hong Kong. The city has historically served asylum seekers however, life often remains an uncertain struggle for these people.
After Chandni’s welcome, we were introduced to a lady who had recently graduated from attending the LEAD programme due to being granted refugee status. She and her husband fled Pakistan to escape persecution on religious grounds and had lived in Hong Kong as asylum seekers for nine years. After speaking with her it was apparent how CFR was fundamental in helping find her confidence after she left her home country, where she had a great career and college degree. The charity even provided her son with a scholarship to attend a reputable school in Hong Kong which will undoubtedly transform his life and future.
During the workshop I was shown how to make beaded earrings by a lady from Egypt, she was my age, 26, and attended the class with her mum. She told me about her experience in Hong Kong, particularly of her difficulties in the schooling system. Since she could not speak Cantonese, she was forced to drop out of high school at a young age, and she is unable to work, which leaves her at home a lot of the time— a catalyst for declining mental health. She spoke about the stereotypes she feels are attributed to herself and family as asylum seekers from those who are ignorant to her situation, but which are dissolved at CFR. The women can practice and share their unique skills and talents without limitations of language barriers or social status.
During the lesson, the ladies shared jokes and laughed together, and it was clear that they had developed genuine connections; it was very much like being around a table of my own friends.
The following week I returned to CFR and joined a tour of Chungking Mansions with a larger group of colleagues. The building is well known in Hong Kong, but not necessarily always for positive reasons. Chungking Mansions opened in November 1961 during an era of rapid growth in industry, immigration, and tourism. Moving throughout the 80s, the rabbit-warren mansion gained notoriety for illegal activity and a somewhat dodgy underbelly, and to this day many people stay away because of safety concerns.
I arrived with pre-conceived ideas as to what Chungking Mansions would be like which were soon put to bed by our fantastic tour guide, Jeff. We visited restaurants and shops owned by people who were Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, and Jain; though there are many more religions and nationalities represented and celebrated. During the tour we tasted a masala chai tea made by a rising Instagram star, Akka, and a mango lassi from one of the longest standing restaurants. We visited a Sikh man and learned a little about the religion. He showed us the kirpan which he always kept on his person—a small, curved sword or knife made of iron or steel. Jeff emphasised numerous times how the business owners and traders of Chungking Mansions look out for each other and work together, which you can really see and feel as you explore the area. We finally had a tour of the Chungking Mansions roof top which boasts an incredible view of the city where CFR host fundraisers and parties—we’re invited to the next one!
CFR is an incredible charity and a non-negotiable in a city such as Hong Kong, a foreign land which some asylum seekers haven’t heard of prior to arriving at the ports, and one which if they leave, they cannot return to. The charity would be forced to shut without fundraising and organisations such as Hyve supporting such communities. I’m incredibly proud to work for a company that is investing in the communities in and around where we host our events!
A big thank you to Chandni, Jeff, and the ladies we met who were so welcoming and open to sharing their experiences - a bonus was getting to take home the beautiful earrings and headbands that were made for us. We will be back very soon for more crafts and catch ups.