When social worker Fermi Wong Wai-fun first approached a group of South Asian teenagers in a playground, they ran away from her. 'Be careful, she's Chinese,' shouted one of the older boys. Ms Wong was perplexed and disappointed, but another setback awaited her at her social agency. Her supervisor reminded her that her job was to work with local young people - meaning Chinese. Ms Wong argued that children from Nepal, Pakistan and India were just as 'local' as their Chinese peers, but her boss would not relent: resources were scarce, Chinese youth came first. That incident, in 1998, changed Ms Wong's life. Since then she has been accused of treachery, insubordination, self-glorification and of neglecting her duties as a social worker. But she has persevered in her one-woman battle to provide equal opportunities for Hong Kong's ethnic-minority youth, establishing her own centre and a large, loyal and grateful clientele. Ms Wong ignored her supervisor, and kept talking to the youngsters. 'I tried to win them over, but the elder boys were very suspicious, wondering what my hidden agenda was.' But her persistence paid off. After a few weeks, the childrens' parents approached Ms Wong: they began talking and out came a flood of troubles that plagued their lives. 'I was so touched - I told them I wanted to take their children to Ocean Park but they said, 'No, all we want in life is for our husbands to have jobs and that our children have a school to go to.' 'They wrote this down in my notebook and I read it over and over again. They were so upset. Going to school is such a basic right. I thought, how could these beautiful children with big eyes and sweet smiles not have it?' Realising that she would not be able to help the youngsters if she remained with the agency, Ms Wong resigned and joined another large organisation in Yau Tsim Mong. There, she found schools for more than 40 children, but was soon forced out of her job. Ms Wong angered her supervisors by giving media interviews about the problems of ethnic youngsters. Steeped in notions of hierarchy, her managers felt they themselves should have been interviewed. 'But the media wanted to talk to front-line workers,' she says. Still, she was forced out of that job by the end of 2000. Without follow-up assistance, some of the children dropped out of school and some even began taking drugs. And although she had no job, the parents continued to call her for help. 'After nine months, in March of 2001, I started my field observations again and in the first three months, 2,000 people came to me for help,' she says. In that month she created her own, one-woman social work powerhouse, Unison Hong Kong - For Ethnic Equality, where today she is chairperson. She recently took on an associate, Mok Miu-ying. Today the energetic 32-year-old spends so much time with her south Asian 'clients' that she is often mistaken for a Nepalese. Chinese people marvel at 'how good your Cantonese is for a foreigner.' She has since been a thorn in the side of the Education Department and other government bodies. Armed with little more than the determination to seek fairness and justice for the teenagers she had befriended, Ms Wong set out on a mission to find a school each of the children and to make the Education Department aware of their existence. 'I could not understand how, with 1,200 schools in Hong Kong, there were only four that catered to ethnic minorities despite a law requiring compulsory education since the 1970s. Many, many south Asian children had not been to school in years,' says Ms Wong. In her office, two massive folders hold letters of complaint she has written to the Education Department, the Home Affairs Bureau, hospitals, police, the judiciary, the Department of Justice, the Labour Department and others on behalf of her clients. Hundreds more remain to be filed. She has gained insights into the limitations of social work institutions. 'Social workers say that their mission is to help with no regard to race, but they receive no multi-cultural training in school. And social workers are, after all, a product of society,' she said. Her dismissal over the media interviews was another eye-opener. 'Some social workers think the media is evil,' she said. 'But I see the mass media and the social work profession in a powerful partnership that is the only way to solve social and institutional problems today,' she said. The Social Welfare Department denies any form of discrimination in providing its services, saying all social workers speak English as well as Cantonese. Ms Wong's work includes counselling on family, peer and dating relationships, finding school places for children and jobs for parents and young people. She conducts follow-up inquiries into workplace industrial accidents, police and court cases, and writes letters of reference for youngsters who get into trouble with the law. Home visits, field observations, advocacy, Cantonese classes, school talks, and service linkages with the labour department and drug rehabilitation centres are also part of the job. Her work has led to the initiation by the Ombudsman of an investigation into ethnic minority peoples' right to education. Her heavy workload has eased along the way. Things have a way of falling into place when you follow your real calling, Ms Wong says. 'One day I was thinking how I had no base for my services, and maybe I could just try to manage from home,' she says. 'A few days later, a friend called saying one of her friends had an empty office that I could use indefinitely if I just paid the electricity bills, and we have been here ever since.' She has decorated the Unison office, a homey little place in Mongkok, with sofas, books, toys and computers for the young people. Other people came forward and provided her with name cards and printing services for a brochure. 'I could find no explanation for these things but that God was watching and helping me do the work he had chosen me for,' says Ms Wong. Born in Fujian in 1970, Ms Wong emigrated with her family to Hong Kong in 1981. Hong Kong was booming, and discrimination against new arrivals from the mainland had begun to occur. Ms Wong's experience as a new arrival entering a primary school in Hong Kong perhaps sowed the seeds of her empathy for ethnic minorities. But she said that when she was growing up she never realised the level of poverty in what she calls the 'invisible' population of working-class and lower-class people from South Asia. She says the problems impoverished non-Chinese face are far more difficult to solve and get far less attention than those of mainlanders. 'They are different in three areas: one big problem is the language. Mainland arrivals can't speak Cantonese, but at least they can read and write. Second, the cultural differences may present some difficulties to mainlanders, but they may easily catch up. South Asians are very, very different. 'Also, social and race discrimination because of to skin colour is deeper and greater for South Asians than it is for new arrivals [from the mainland].' Ms Wong says that while she does not underestimate the trials faced by arriving mainlanders, there are at least some well-established social services available to them including Labour Department initiatives, and policies on integration.Home Affairs Bureau chief Patrick Ho Chi-ping told Legco in February that more could be done to help alleviate the difficulties faced by ethnic minorities. He outlined a series of measures the government has already taken, including the provision of language classes, education support, public education and awareness programmes on racial sensitivity. The focus, Ms Wong says, should be on education because that is the only way to break the poverty cycle. The Education Department has a policy of integration for ethnic minorities, but integration means more than just putting people in mainstream schools and leaving them to cope, she says. 'I have suggested that, instead of teaching them French, we should create a separate syllabus for non-native Chinese speakers, just as we have the easier syllabus A for English for the [Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination],' she says. Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's call for Hong Kong students to become 'biliterate and trilingual' obviously ignored ethnic minorities, Ms Wong says. 'All you need is to teach them basic Primary 6 level Cantonese by the time they graduate. If they even learn a little, it's a breakthrough and will give them the confidence to go forward.' Ms Wong still worries about how many school-age South Asian youths may still be at home, unaware of their rights, and with no social service assistance. 'Every year, 10 to 20 come to me when they are already seven to eight years old, and have had no schooling,' she says. 'They are living with a learned hopelessness and they don't feel, like the local people, that they are entitled to citizens' rights. When they see services advertised, they think, 'This is not for us. It is for the Chinese.'' When the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak began, government text-message warnings were sent out only in Chinese. 'Disease is a matter of life and death, but when I tried to draw reporters' attention to this, they were not interested - except for the English-language media,' she says. Ms Wong says local media have little interest in the problems of ethnic minorities because they think so few people are involved. But the community numbers at least 350,000 - by no means a small group. Although a few social workers are taking an interest, the majority are still blind to the specific needs of minority youth, she says. 'I still get calls from people who accuse me of being a traitor. They say, 'Fermi, you are Chinese. How come you help them instead of helping Chinese people? Look at your face - you are Chinese.'' 'But our blood is red, right? They are needy and they are also Hong Kong people. I am not betraying my country. I just believe in the simple truths of fairness and justice for all.'