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SUNDAY MORNING

My life: Aleta Miller

The refugee charity director tells Nicole Chabot how an appetite for adventure has dictated her career trajectory

 

RURAL IDYLL I grew up in a tiny town in rural northern New South Wales, Australia. Our house was bordered by sugar cane fields and a tomato farm, and we could see the ocean from our verandah. My childhood was idyllic. We spent most afternoons at the beach, fishing and swimming, and every school holiday camping and bushwalking. My parents were both teachers while my extended family are mostly rural people: farmers, steel workers, teachers. There were some indigenous kids at my school but no other minorities really, or anyone with a different background. I had an aunt who had broken away and moved to Sydney. She'd travelled to lots of fabulous countries and she would bring me small gifts from far off places such as Russia, Indonesia, India and Greece. I wanted to go to these places, too.

 

FLEEING THE NEST When I finished high school, I bought a ticket to New Zealand with money I'd saved washing dishes at a restaurant on an avocado farm. I travelled for a few months until my money ran out and while I was gone, my father filled in my university application. When I got home, there was an offer to study behavioural science at Griffith University, and I took it. When I graduated, I initially worked in palliative care, with people who were dying from cancer and Aids, then on a project with alcoholics in inner-city boarding houses. Later, after travels to Vietnam, Thailand and Nepal, I went back to Australia and married my boyfriend, who I had made promise me we'd live an adventurous life.

 

FREE-WHEELING I was 23 when we married. True to form, we decided to move to Hong Kong, and landed here in 1997. I applied for a teaching post at Pillar Point refugee camp [past Tuen Mun], where I taught English, art and drama. It was my first real taste of international development, and I was hooked. After a few years, the camp closed and we left Hong Kong; we returned to Australia and I worked as a psychologist, running a home-based heroin detox programme for an NGO. We saved up and in 2001 spent a year cycling across seven countries, starting in Morocco and finishing in China. We worked in schools and orphanages along the way, including Mother Teresa's hospice for the destitute and dying in Calcutta. I loved the work, the heat, the chaos. After a year, we went back to Australia and I went to work as a psychologist with young drug users. After a few years, I had itchy feet again so took time off and went to a remote region in Papua New Guinea, leading a team of volunteers in a community development project. It was four days' walk from a road, and just having a bath meant climbing down a valley to a freezing creek. Back in Australia in 2003, I decided to pursue an international career. I got a job in Beijing in the Ministry of Health, HIV section. Later, I became national HIV programme co-ordinator for a large NGO in Myanmar, where my husband and I spent six years. While in Myanmar, I moved to the United Nations, and from there I moved to New York with the UN's Population Fund, where I was a gender and human rights adviser.

 

BACK IN THE SAR I joined the Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre as executive director in January this year. We have nine staff, are celebrating our fifth birthday this year, and have provided legal services to more than 1,000 refugee men, women and children. As the refugee convention has not been extended to Hong Kong, people who wish to claim asylum here must apply for refugee status from the UN refugee agency and, if accepted, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees tries to resettle them overseas. It's a complicated legal process that can take years, hence the need for legal assistance, which we provide free. In the long term, we want the government to determine applications itself through the Hong Kong courts. Most refugees are traumatised by what's happened to them, so we help them to document their reasons for fleeing their home countries. We also refer them to other agencies for support with counselling, food, clothing, housing and education.

 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT People are often really shocked to learn that there are refugees in Hong Kong, and by how they can live here on so little (HK$1,300 per month for rent, some food, HK$300 for other expenses). We receive no government funding, and as we operate in a developed country, few international funders will help us, while many local funding options are only open to beneficiaries who are Hong Kong ID card holders. So we rely heavily on donations from the public and from law firms and universities in Hong Kong.

 

The Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre will celebrate "Five years of life-changing legal services" with a party at the Cabaret Theatre Bar, in Central, on December 6. See www.hkrac.org for ticket details.

 

 

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