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Human rights

Journey into the mind and life of a South Sudanese refugee – with a UN audio show from the safety of Wan Chai

United Nations installation on Hong Kong street offers chance to experience the distress millions endure every day fleeing conflict zones

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 November, 2017, 7:17pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 November, 2017, 10:58pm

The sound of gunshots and the voices of militia fighters are the kind of threatening noise most Hongkongers only hear on television in one of the wealthiest and safest cities in the world.

But this weekend residents and visitors are getting a rare chance to experience the distress millions of people endure every day in conflict zones around the world – by going on an “audio journey” in Wan Chai.

The United Nations Refugee Agency has set up three tables with headphones and eye masks at Central Piazza in Lee Tung Avenue, through which city dwellers can embark on a seven-minute journey into the life of Nadima, a fictional 13-year-old girl fleeing South Sudan for Uganda.

Nadima’s story is based on the real life accounts of refugees who have escaped the African country, which saw another outbreak of violence last year. She is “a character used to portray the situation in South Sudan and the individual experiences of refugees who were forced to flee”, said Andrew Mok, associate refugee status determination officer for the agency there.

“It’s a way of bringing people together to understand a bit more about what a refugee feels and what they go through.

“The first thing we want to do is help people understand that refugees are human beings like you and me, and that they are often forced into displacement by situations out of their control,” Mok said.

In recent months the Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar has made headlines across the globe, with more than 600,000 fleeing to neighbouring Bangladesh since August 25. But not much attention has been paid to the largest refugee crisis in Africa.

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After Syria and Afghanistan, the refugee problem in South Sudan is ranked the third largest in the world, and about 85 per cent of those displaced in South Sudan are women and children.

“People know a lot about Syria, but they don’t know about South Sudan ... What is particularly challenging in this case is the large number of pregnant women and teenagers,” said Bianca Lam, head of private sector partnerships at the UN agency.

“Secondly, South Sudan’s neighbouring countries are some of the least developed countries in the world, so they lack resources. It’s really a challenge for our colleagues ... They also got only 21 per cent of the funding [they needed].”

Mok, who was born in Hong Kong but works in South Sudan’s capital Juba, described the situation there as “quite serious”, noting that one in every three people in the country had been forced to leave their home.

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To spread the message of their plight in a place like Hong Kong was particularly challenging, said Lam, who is based in the city.

“I think many refugee issues may seem distant for many of us here because we enjoy peace and safety every day. But the reality is that today we have 65.6 million refugees and displaced people [in the world],” she said.

In recent years Hong Kong has been rattled by claims about fake asylum seekers abusing the system, but Lam said “we want to let people know that in every society you might get some bad people”.

“That’s inevitable. But if they are refugees and they are bad people they will still be punished like all of us would,” she said. “So we are trying to change that narrative in Hong Kong.”

She said she hoped the audio journey would raise awareness of the struggles of innocent people.

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“People might have seen many images of refugees across the world, but I don’t think they really get the opportunity to feel how it is to be a teenager forced to flee home and take a life-risking journey to seek safety,” Lam said. “Unfortunately this traumatic experience is happening daily to millions of teenagers. I just hope people can feel that, and offer their support and hopefully donations.”

Debbie Lai, 20, a Hong Kong resident, said the audio journey had felt “very real”. She said she was more familiar with the issue of Syrian refugees, and had heard little of South Sudan.

“I did not expect these kinds of situations to be happening ... rape, killing, the lack of basic necessities,” she said. “Hong Kong should help more refugees. We are not on the front line, but we are a rich society so we can do more in terms of funding and donations.”

James Cheng, 38, a visitor from Taiwan, said the audio experience had left a strong impression on him. “I feel so scared right now. What we have here, it’s like heaven. There is such a mess in other countries,” he said. “If I had the chance and time, I would like to help them.”