It's a day we all remember, the moment in our young lives when for the first time, things got serious. Good or bad, the memory of our first day at school sticks. Cecilia also remembers that day, but not for the reasons you might think. It's because she thought it would never come. Born in the heart of Kowloon in 2004, to a Filipino mother and a father from Pakistan, quiet and unassuming Cecilia was forced to look on as all the other children her age let go of their parents' hands and trooped gingerly into school in 2010. That was when she was five. Then she was six; seven came and went with no change, and by eight, Cecilia - not her real name - could have been forgiven for losing hope that the day she had been dreaming of - and that she would never forget - would never actually come. It did eventually, but the memories of feeling left out are the ones that linger for the little girl whose plight sums up that of a largely invisible group of several hundred Hong Kong children who through no fault of their own were born refugees in a city where the word is more of a curse than the cure. "I used to feel bored. I had nothing to do and I didn't have friends … I felt very lonely," recalls Cecilia, who is now 11 years old and wore her first school uniform in September 2013. Born at Kwong Wah Hospital, her mother, a domestic helper from the Philippines, left Hong Kong when Cecilia was 10 months old and never returned. Her father, from Pakistan, had been seeking refuge in the SAR since 2002 and didn't have the faintest idea about the bureaucratic battle he would have to fight to get his little daughter an education. "It was very hard to put her in school, because I couldn't get her birth certificate," said Antony, also not his real name. A byzantine web of red tape, compounded by financial restrictions, mean refugee parents - who are not allowed to work in the city - struggle to give an education to their children, even though many of them were born in Hong Kong. Most of their children don't hold either a passport or an identity card from the region or from anywhere else. Some spend the first months of their lives with no official identification. They are stripped of the simple dreams and experiences no child should be denied. As of June this year, Hong Kong was "home" to 9,940 people the government describes as "non refoulement claimants" or "protection claimants" - catch-all terms for people seeking refuge from fear, political repression, violence or torture in their home countries. According to the Immigration Department, 504 of them were under 18 years old; 269 of them were born here but not recognised as residents of Hong Kong and effectively stateless. Cecilia's case was particularly difficult because of her mother's absence, but other refugee families said they had to wait from several months up to a couple of years before they could get a birth certificate. The Immigration Department said in an email response that birth certificate requests can be completed within the same day as long as both parents provide the necessary documents and information, although cases of illegitimate children might be more complex. It said 99 per cent of cases in the past three years were completed on the same day upon receipt of all documents. After getting his daughter's birth certificate, Antony was eventually able to get Cecilia a place in a government school with the support of a local NGO and local lawmakers. The happiness of flicking a school textbook is clear in the little girl's round face: "I like a lot the lessons and I like to study," she said, proudly showing off the high marks she has been getting. Hong Kong is the only city where Cecilia has ever been, the only place she calls "home". From a seventh-floor walk-up in Kowloon, she dreams every day about becoming a doctor or a lawyer, because she would like "to help people". Despite her father's delicate financial situation, she was her class's fifth-best student and she is going to Primary Four next September. "I don't care about myself. I just hope she is given the chance to pursue her studies, because she is a good girl," said Antony. The Education Bureau said in an email response that "apart from those who were subject to removal within short periods, it has successfully placed all children concerned in the past five years". However, it did not say how many refugee children are studying in Hong Kong or how many were rejected. Non-government organisations, like the Hong Kong Committee on Children's Rights, accuse the government of withholding such information. "They never release the figure of how many children were accepted and how many were rejected. We don't have a clear picture, so we don't know how big the problem is," said the executive secretary Billy Wong Wai-yuk. Enrolling a refugee child in a kindergarten or primary school in Hong Kong is a tortuous process which parents and advocates says takes months, forcing many children to miss a crucial formative year at school. While struggling to send her two older children to school, Edith, 30, originally from the Congo, spent the past academic year looking for a kindergarten place for her younger daughter, who just turned six years old. "The government doesn't help to find kindergarten," she says. "I went to many schools. They said: 'Please, fill the form. We will call you.' But they never called. Some of them told me, 'Sorry, it is full.' I feel that many schools, even if they had a place, they thought 'Ah, they are black'," said Edith, who arrived in Hong Kong in 2009. Her children only joined her in 2013. Either because they can't find a kindergarten or because they can't afford fees - the government pays kindergarten fees on a case by case basis - many refugee children wait until turning six years old to start school. That puts them "at a massive disadvantage" in a city where the education system was highly competitive, said Cosmo Beatson, executive director of Vision First, which advocates for refugees' rights in Hong Kong. Before arriving in Hong Kong, Edith's children - aged between six and 10 - only had heard Swahili, an East African language. Just as her two brothers did, the young girl will start attending primary school this September barely speaking English or Chinese. Aside from any racial discrimination, difficulties can arise in schoolwork due to the language barrier, lack of nutrition, lack of sleep, and psychological trauma, said Justin Murgai, manager of Christian Action's Centre for Refugees. Regina, 43, originally from the Philippines, who is divorced from a Pakistani man, shares the same frustrations as many others. There are days her children can't get to school because she doesn't have money to pay for transport. "They stay here doing nothing, drinking some milk and eating noodles. The TV doesn't even work," she said. Regina, also not her real name, told her story and that of her three children, aged between 10 and 14, from a subdivided flat in North Point, which can fit little more than a bunk bed shared by four. "Nobody knows about our situation, nobody knows that we are sleeping here with empty stomach." While Regina's eldest son is reading the Koran, her daughter, 13, arrives home from school and cries. "I don't like my classmates because they tease me… They tease me just because I have used books, and because they say that my glasses are cheap." Rachel has the same pink glasses she got when she was nine and her books have seen better days. "My children are good students, but they have been bullied because they have used books and used uniforms. And I know the same will happen next year," says Regina. Protection claimants are not allowed to work in Hong Kong. This means they are dependent on social welfare stipends and charity. Many also work illegally, risking jail if arrested. The names of protection claimants on this story have been changed to protect their safety.