A GOOD START I had a privileged upbringing in a city in East Africa. My childhood was a happy one, coming from a rich family and attending famous schools. Life was exciting; I was ambitious academically and had joined the national basketball team by the age of 16. My parents were very proud of me. They were both civil servants and I was inspired to become a lawyer by South African activist Steve Biko.
TAKING FLIGHT When the civil war started, everything changed. I was a government lawyer, but when I found out what (the state) was doing in terms of human-rights violations, I switched sides and set up a law firm with some friends to represent political prisoners. It didn't really please the government and we were warned to stop. Some of us were detained, some killed and some fled. One night in 2004, my life was in danger and I had to leave. There was no time to prepare my things or say goodbye to my family. A friend organised the flight and I thought I was going to Australia, but found myself on my way to Hong Kong. I only knew it was part of China and that I didn't need a visa to enter. I was seeking protection under the International Human Rights Act, and surrendered to airport immigration.
NO RED CARPET I was detained for five days, but it felt like three years. Immigration officers conducted interviews with me all night long and it was torturous to be kept awake. The room was cold and the bed was like a plank of wood. I was really disappointed because seeking asylum is a basic human right, but they kept asking why I had come to Hong Kong. I was so shocked that they didn't have a clue about the war in my country. On the third night, I refused to answer any more questions. I knew my rights so I contacted the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and they conducted status-determination interviews while I was detained.
A DARK PARK Out of about 11,000 people seeking protection in Hong Kong, fewer than 150 have been granted refugee status. Most remain "protection claimants", also known as asylum seekers. However, I was one of the lucky few to be granted refugee status so I was released. It was early evening and getting dark. I didn't know anyone and had nowhere to go, so I spent the night in a park. The next morning I made my way to the UNHCR office and they paid my accommodation allowance directly to a landlord who provided a roof over my head. The days were long and empty; I spent my time sleeping, eating, playing basketball and waiting to be called for processing to determine my future.
FAMILY TIES I am married and have five children but, during this period, I was not able to contact my family for about two months. Nowadays, we often speak on the phone but I haven't seen them for 12 years. It's very depressing and it was a really sad moment when I realised I had to leave them behind. Recently, the situation has worsened back home and they aren't safe, but I have a few friends helping them.
IDLE HANDS In Hong Kong, asylum seekers can't legally work and this creates difficulties. A few years ago, five of us joined a group court case to apply for the right to stay and work in Hong Kong. We were denied, but after the second appeal the court ruled that the immigration director could grant three of us permission to take employment using his discretion. It is not the same as the right to work because you first need to find an employer and then apply. In September 2013, I became the first recognised refugee (of the modern era) granted permission to take employment in Hong Kong.
GAINFUL EMPLOYMENT I work for Christian Action's centre for refugees. My role includes awareness, advocacy and fundraising, and I advise other refugees. I visit schools and teach that being a refugee is not a choice, we never know where the next refugees will come from and it really can happen to anyone. Working has given me the opportunity to plan and a salary that is higher than the minimum wage has helped me recover my dignity. Back home, the husband is the head of the family and they depended on me. Now, I can give them something back.
AN ACCEPTABLE FACE In the past 12 years, I have seen many improvements in Hong Kong. When I arrived, most asylum seekers slept at the Star Ferry and people were detained for much longer periods, even years. People used to cover their noses when they saw an African person; that doesn't happen as often any more and some African men have married local ladies. Only when there is education, understanding and tolerance will the life of an asylum seeker improve.
NEED FOR SPEED If you look at the global statistics of 20 million refugees then 11,000 in Hong Kong is really nothing. Nowadays, the Immigration Department conducts refugee status-determination interviews instead of the UNHCR but the government must introduce clearer legislation. We need faster processing of asylum seekers because the current system can take decades. Those granted refugee status will be settled overseas and if someone does not have a genuine claim, they will be deported. Recognised refugees and asylum seekers are treated the same way. The government provides a housing allowance of HK$1,500 a month for accommodation, paid directly to the landlord, and HK$1,200 a month in food coupons. It is not enough for an individual to live on, but the combined amount is a lot of money paid out for years and years. If the right to work and pay taxes was granted then there are clear benefits for all. Refugees can contribute towards society and they should be allowed to; they've brought everything with them, brains, strength, skills and talents. They are teachers, doctors, lawyers, journalists and nurses.
I am proud of my work here but I want to see my family again and, when there is peace instead of war, I will go home to help rebuild my nation.
Mr A is a participant in "We Are Here", a multimedia project set up by Polly McGovern and Katherine Sparrow to raise awareness for asylum seekers in Hong Kong. It opens on Thursday at The Hive Studios, Kennedy Town. For tickets, visit www.facebook.com/weareherehongkong