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Edward Snowden

Families who sheltered Edward Snowden in Hong Kong say NSA whistleblower ‘gave them hope’

‘Before I met Snowden, I thought I was lost. [But] he never gave up and I have changed my life because of him’ says Supun Thilina Kellapatha from Sri Lanka

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 December, 2016, 9:52pm
UPDATED : Friday, 16 December, 2016, 10:45pm

The three groups of individuals who sheltered American whistle-blower Edward Snowden in Hong Kong after he leaked sensitive intelligence files in 2013, dream of leaving the city and being received by a third country, where they can find safety and rebuild their broken lives.

“I don’t like staying here, because we are not ­allowed to have a life,” Nadeeka Dilrukshi Nonis, an asylum seeker from Sri Lanka, said, holding her ­seven-month-old boy, still too small and fragile to understand his mother’s concerns. “We just want a place where my children can have a future. It can be anywhere, if there’s safety and freedom.”

Some two months after their photos and names were plastered all over the world press, the families who housed Snowden for a couple of weeks in 2013 told the Sunday Morning Post they had no regrets about helping the former National Security Agency contractor. Although they are still facing the consequences of the exposure that came with it, they said their contact with Snowden gave them something that had been taken from them while in limbo in Hong Kong: hope.

“Before I met Mr Snowden, I thought I was lost. After Mr Snowden stayed at my house, I tried to learn from what he did… He never gave up. I changed my life because of Mr Snowden,” Supun Thilina Kellapatha, Nadeeka’s husband, also from Sri Lanka, said.

Their role in Snowden’s story was only reported in September, shortly before the release of the Oliver Stone’s movie on the former CIA contractor. Robert Tibbo, Snowden’s lawyer in Hong Kong, who has represented them since 2012, said that their identities were revealed to ensure their safety.

After such move, Kellapatha, 32, who filed his protection claim in 2005, said that “good and bad consequences” came their way.

“Some friends met me in the streets and said good things. Others were jealous,” he said. “In Sri Lanka, my family was proud of what I did, but they were worried about my safety.”

The treatment given by the International Social Service Hong Kong Branch, the government’s contractor responsible for providing assistance to refugees, also seemed to have changed once Kellapatha’s name appeared in the newspapers.

“They started to treat me nicely and respect me ... before they treated me like an animal,” he said.

He, his wife and Vanessa Mae Rodel, an asylum seeker from the Philippines, said they have faced questions on their involvement with Snowden.

Rodel, 46, an asylum seeker since 2010, said she sought support to move to a new place because several journalists had banged on her door and there was a brothel operating in the same subdivided flat.

“They said they knew I had ‘go fund me’ [a fundraising page]... If it was left to ISS, I would still be at my old place, feeling unsafe,” said Rodel, who has moved to a new house.

A spokeswoman for ISS-HK previously denied having withheld assistance to Rodel, who has a four-year-old daughter. She also said that “all queries raised by case workers” were related to the assessment of asylum seekers’ needs.

“My main wish is to move to another country,” Rodel said. “My first choice would be Canada, second would be Europe... I don’t want my daughter to grow up as a refugee.”

Ajith Pushpakumara, 44, a former soldier from Sri Lanka, who also helped Snowden, shared the wish to go to Canada. “I could have good protection and hopefully I could work and make money,” the man who has been an asylum seeker since 2006 said.

There are more than 10,000 asylum seekers in Hong Kong – many of whom have waited for several years to have their claims screened. If their cases are recognised, they will later be resettled in a third country.

However, the acceptance rate stands at about 0.6 per cent, with legal experts saying that the government’s threshold is too high.

While in the city, they are not allowed to take up jobs, which means that they have to rely on monthly social welfare stipends and charity.

Kellapatha said that he hoped their visibility could help other asylum seekers in Hong Kong. “Meeting Snowden gave us a bit of hope ... Maybe we will be able to leave ... Maybe that will change the life of others refugees too.”