Asylum seekers in Asia

‘It could happen to anyone’: Asylum seekers in Hong Kong set to share their stories at British Council performance

Four refugees from Africa and Asia will each perform a monologue in a bid to raise awareness of the plight of thousands across the globe

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 November, 2017, 9:53pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 November, 2017, 11:19am

Images of thousands of anonymous faces fleeing conflict on boats or by foot have become all too common in recent years. But the world rarely hears their individual stories.

On Wednesday, four refugees from Africa and Asia living in Hong Kong will share their personal tales in a performance named The Refugee Monologues – Voices of the Displaced at the British Council.

The monologues were coordinated by Anna Esaki-Smith, an American researcher living in Hong Kong, who found her way of empowering asylum seekers by teaching them English and exploring different ways of telling their stories. The production, she said, is an attempt to raise awareness of the current refugee crisis around the world, create a greater sense of community and show that anyone can become an asylum seeker.

“Hong Kong welcomes international people in general, but for asylum seekers and refugees – as it happens everywhere – there is often a chilly reception. I would like to emphasise the universality of being an asylum seeker,” she said.

“Everyone can relate to those themes of isolation, leaving home, the unknown, not feeling welcome. Everyone feels that at some point.”

The performance, set to run from 12.30pm to 2pm, will include four monologues, each about a different theme. It will be followed by a question-and-answer session.

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In the first monologue, an asylum seeker will talk about his journey from his home country to Hong Kong.

“This particular speaker came to Hong Kong very young, as a teenager … leaving everything behind,” said Esaki-Smith, who works as editorial director of the British Council’s education intelligence team.

The second part is about the limitations asylum seekers face in Hong Kong, their limbo existence in the city and how it is to be part of a “system”.

Asylum seekers in Hong Kong are not allowed to work, forcing them to rely on social welfare stipends and charity. The city also does not grant asylum. The few claims that are recognised by the Hong Kong government are then referred to the UN refugee agency, responsible for their resettlement in a third country.

We all have fears, we all have dreams, we all have people we love
Unnamed asylum seeker

As of September, there were 7,244 people waiting to have their cases screened in the city.

“The third monologue is going to be about education and learning English. It’s about empowering and feeling part of a bigger world beyond Hong Kong,” Esaki-Smith said.

The last part will be on the social existence of an asylum seeker in the city and how to seek happiness here.

The audience will see the four speakers’ faces, but no photographs can be taken.

“The word ‘refugee’ – what does that mean to you? What does that mean to anyone? In Chinese, they say nanmin, which means ‘disaster person’ … I’m here to tell you, even being white, being educated, speaking many languages, being successful in your business cannot save you. You, too, can be a refugee, one day,” one of the asylum seekers will tell the audience on Wednesday. “The main thing is we all have fears, we all have dreams, we all have people we love. It’s not like being a refugee is like being an alien creature.”

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Esaki-Smith, who started teaching English to refugees in 2014 and last year prepared a group of asylum seekers to take the International English Language Testing System test – known as IELTS – said that the monologues had been an ongoing idea in her head. “I just did not know how to make it tangible. But then I thought that instead of having a casual discussion over lunch, we could prepare something and make people clearly understand the points they want to make,” she said.

Esaki-Smith noted this first production would serve to test the waters and understand how to make the project larger next year.

“I would use this as an opportunity to ‘workshop’ the monologues and hopefully convert it into a larger fundraiser in early 2018 … I would also like to engage with more women and include the female perspective,” she said.

The main drive behind her work with refugees is dictated by reality. “Because the refugee situation is at such a level, we have to address it and not act [as if] it will go away. The 65 million people are not going home, so the way to go about it is just to rise awareness about the individuals behind the millions of people that have been displaced,” she said.

Esaki-Smith said she wanted the project to create a sense of community.

“I hope their stories of human perseverance will be inspirational. People can learn from them … If I were them, could I survive that kind of isolation and those challenges?”