Mission impossible The first time I travelled overseas was for an internship in Kenya, working on a microcredit project in the slums in Nairobi. I was 21. I come from a very ordinary Hong Kong family, my parents didn’t even finish high school. But they’d tried their best to provide everything I needed to enter the University of Hong Kong.
At the youth centre I was working with, the mothers would come with their kids and some of them were infected with HIV or had a sister or brother who had died already. There was one child, about four or five, called Michael. He’d hang out with me almost every day at the slum, holding onto my shirt. When I was leaving Kenya he said, “Jason, one day I will save enough money to come to Hong Kong to visit you.” I knew it was a mission impossible for him. It had me thinking, “How can the world be like this?”
Finding the front line My parents wanted me to follow a typical path. I studied business and started working at an investment bank. Working in an investment bank can make you blind – you just see your e-mail, your salary, your clients – but I tried my best to stay connected to society. I volunteered for the Hong Kong Correctional Services, working mainly in the juvenile prison. A lot of people think prison is prison. But how can we help a juvenile to become a social asset again? We have to offer opportunities for them to rebuild their lives.
Unfortunately, our education system in Hong Kong may have killed all the interests of young people. So, we came up with some classes. A lot of the youths were keen on Japanese animation, so I offered free Japanese lessons in the prison. After half a year I went back and some of the kids sang me a song that I’d taught them, and were looking forward to starting a new chapter in life.
I resigned after working in the bank for four years and went to Japan, in 2008, to study international relations at Waseda University. There I came across the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) for the first time. I thought, “Wow, this organisation is really the one on the front line. This is the sector that not many people would dare to go to. And those victims are exactly the ones in the most extreme situations.”
Mud, sweat and tears Hong Kong Red Cross assigned me to an earthquake rehabilitation programme in Sichuan, after the 2008 quake. It was my first ever experience in the field. On my third day there we got the news that a big mudslide had killed thousands of people. My colleagues and I were not prepared: we were there for a normal handover and inspection of village houses. At that moment, the home of the head of the local Red Cross branch was already under water. He had 15 family members under the mud, and he was working with us to check the situation of other people. After that, when I saw him again, we were like brothers. We didn’t say anything, we just hugged.
Mum’s the word The best way to handle stress is to admit you are stressed. Nowadays, even in the battlefield, you can always find a 3G data network somewhere and send a text message to your family. People ask me, “How come your mum allows you to do this kind of work?” I started without telling her. I told her it was office work. Once she saw the news that I had interaction with armed opposition she started to realise. But, nowadays, she never says no. I think not saying no, from a Chinese family, is the strongest sign of support.
I spend more than 70 per cent of my time in the field. Every year I come back I find it difficult to reintegrate into Hong Kong. In Afghanistan, whenever you hear a bomb, you always look at how far away, whether you need to protect yourself. The first time I came back and heard a truck on the road going “boom” I immediately thought, “What’s happening here?”
Hostage situation When I was working in Afghanistan, around 33 schoolchildren and teachers were kidnapped by the armed opposition. I called my Taliban interlocutor and said, “We’ve heard that this group of people is with you. We don’t want to intervene, but just want to tell you they are civilians, they are protected by international humanitarian law, and if you think there’s room for ICRC to pass a message between them and their families, or provide any other assistance, let us know.”
After five days, they contacted us, saying, “We want to release them, but we cannot release them to the Afghan government or the US government. We want a neutral organisation in between, so we want ICRC.” Our relation with all sides of the conflict was not built overnight. This was the same group that we had been providing health assistance to. This is why it’s so important to have a neutral organisation on the front line that all parties feel comfortable working with.
It’s always controversial, because people question us: why do you work with terrorists? ICRC does not consider the political agenda of any person. As long as you’re injured during armed conflict and you decide not to fight, the international law gives us authorisation to protect you.
Border crossing Doing sports opened a lot of unexpected doors for me in the field. I used to play volleyball for the Hong Kong junior men’s team. The Pashtuns, the major ethnic group in Afghanistan, have a strong volleyball culture. I was in dialogue with my Taliban interlocutor, and my interpreter told him I was very good at volleyball. He said, “OK, then today we don’t talk about medicines and things. Show me your volleyball skills.” That helped build our dialogue.
Sometimes crossing checkpoints, you see the same soldier every day. At first he doesn’t talk to you but one day he asks where you’re from, and if I say Hong Kong: “Ah! Jackie Chan!” Then the next week you start saying hi, and you just cross.
Eyes wide open The second world war had a very clear start and very clear ending. But when it’s a protracted conflict, the country stops running and you have health issues, poverty issues, education issues. They become problems that will take decades to solve.
Think about the Afghanistan war, going on for 30 years. Think about Palestine – 60 years. A few weeks ago I took Hong Kong Red Cross and some of their volunteers to the Syrian refugee camps at the border between Syria and Jordan. People have been living there for seven years already. We’re talking about 80,000 people at these camps. And the number of refugees in Jordan already outweighs the local population, meaning Jordan’s population has doubled in five years. Imagine if it were Hong Kong – when we have visitors from China or new immigrants, we’re already complaining.
People ask me, “Apart from donating money, what can we do?” I don’t think we need to make it too complicated. Just open our eyes wider. We call ourselves an international city, but what internationality are we talking about? Only business? Only tourism?