Children of asylum seekers struggle with Chinese lessons during Covid-19

  • Refugee children already face a disadvantage when it comes to Chinese lessons, as many don’t speak the language at home, and coronavirus has made the issue worse
  • Much-needed tutorial lessons are out of the question, as they are too expensive
Yanni Chow |

Latest Articles

Nutritional value of different meats and healthiest ways to cook it

Japanese scientists find microplastics in clouds for first time

Kezia Bermudez, age 8, sits at home after finishing half-day class at school. Like many other children who don’t speak the language at home, she’s been struggling with her Chinese homework during the pandemic. Photo: SCMP/Yanni Chow

While 8-year-old Kezia Bermudez is already deep in sleep, her mother, Shirley Ballesteros, waits eagerly until midnight for a WhatsApp message to pop up on her phone.

Every night, the Filipino refugee relies on these messages for her Primary Three daughter’s schoolwork. Parents of Kezia’s classmate send answers to the Chinese homework which Ballesteros does not understand.

The next morning, Kezia wakes up early to finish her assignment, hurriedly scribbling the Chinese characters from the WhatsApp messages before heading off to school.

Kezia Bermudez, 8, at home after finishing half-day class at school with her parents. Photo: Yanni Chow

“I can’t help with [my daughter’s] homework even if I wanted to,” said Ballesteros, 50.

She only speaks Tagalog and English, leaving her no choice but to seek help from the Chinese-speaking family of her daughter’s classmate.

Kezia studies at a Chinese-language primary school in Sheung Wan, but she had no problems with her Chinese homework before the Covid-19 outbreak hit Hong Kong last year. That was because her school used to organise Chinese tutorial classes for children of asylum seekers.

Refugees live on HK$50 a day - here’s what that’s like

But because of the pandemic, in-person classes at Kezia’s school became online sessions. The Chinese tutorials were no longer held regularly – and even when they were organised, they were online, making it difficult for children to ask teachers for help.

During the online tutorial classes, Kezia would easily get distracted, so her mother had to watch her during the sessions.

“My favourite subject is English,” the pupil said, adding that she hated the Chinese subject.

But Ballesteros said her daughter actually used to enjoy studying Chinese. When Kezia was in Primary One, she got a B in the subject – pretty outstanding for someone who did not speak the language at home.

The NGO raising money for Hong Kong’s refugees

Last year, after in-person classes were suspended, the B on Kezia’s report card became an E, leaving her worried mother desperate for full-day in-person classes to resume.

Under the government’s policy, schools can apply to resume full-day classes if more than 70 per cent of their students and teachers have been fully vaccinated.

The problem is that, under the city’s current inoculation rules, only those aged 12 and above can be vaccinated. That means while secondary schools can apply to resume full-day sessions, kindergartens and primary schools cannot do so just yet.

The life of a refugee in Hong Kong

Over the summer, Kezia’s 90-page homework consisted of Chinese, English, maths, and general studies. But the pupil struggled so much with Chinese that she finished only the English part, leaving most of the assignment unfinished because many parts were in Chinese.

Families that are more well-off can send their children to tutorial centres, but refugees cannot afford the costly courses. They rely on a HK$3,000 government subsidy every month and are not allowed to find jobs.

Ballesteros and her daughter live in a subdivided flat, sharing the kitchen and bathroom with four other people.

Asylum seekers share recipes from their home countries

“My daughters’ classmates ... said they pay about HK$2,000 a month [for tutorial classes]. I don’t have the money for that,” the mother explained.

Many other children with refugee parents also find it challenging to keep up with their Chinese learning.

A 49-year-old asylum seeker from Togo, a country in West Africa, is also worried about his two children, aged 10 and 11, after seeing their report cards.

A 49-year-old asylum seeker from Togo, Africa, is also worried about his two children, aged 10 and 11, after seeing their report cards. Photo: Dickson Lee

“I want school to resume full-day classes, so my kids will focus better and learn more,” said the father, who did not want to be named.

“The principal had a talk with me ... She told me to make sure my son finishes his homework well.”

Isabella Ng Fung-sheung, an assistant professor of Asian and policy studies at the Education University of Hong Kong, founded the Hong Kong Society for Asylum-Seekers and Refugees in 2014, to help refugee children with their homework via WhatsApp or in person.

The teen helping Hong Kong’s ethnic minorities learn new skills

“Sometimes we help with reading comprehension exercises. The children cannot read and understand the whole passage by themselves, so I record a voice message translating the passage into English and explaining what it means,” said Ng.

At present, she and her assistant help 10 refugee families.

“The most serious case I’ve seen is one student who left her Christmas homework undone until the Lunar New Year holiday. She just [didn’t] know how to do it,” the professor said.

Ethnic minority students discuss the struggles of the DSE

She added that exposure was key to learning a language, and children learned faster when they had more opportunities to practise.

“They should be given a Chinese-language environment,” Ng said.

Tegan Smyth is the founder of Grassroots Future, a non-profit organisation that seeks to empower the city’s asylum seekers.

Famous people you may not have known were refugees

Smyth said that while the International Social Service Hong Kong Branch offered a subsidy for refugee children’s education costs, the money would usually come after parents needed to pay school tuition fees.

This year, Grassroots Future has already spent about HK$51,000 so far to support 31 students – mostly in primary schools – with the cost of textbooks and other education-related expenses.

“We are a really small charity, and the textbooks are a huge part of our annual expenditure,” Smyth said. “These children really don’t have enough resources.”

Hong Kong’s last remaining Vietnamese refugee camp

Get the word out

Scribbling 匆匆地寫 - Writing or drawing (something) carelessly or hurriedly

Tagalog 他加祿語 - An Austronesian language spoken in certain islands of the Philippines. It forms the basis of the standardised national language (Filipino).

Desperate 絕望的 -Feeling or showing a hopeless sense that a situation is so bad as to be impossible to deal with

Inoculation 預防接種 - The action of immunizing someone against a disease by introducing infective material, microorganisms, or vaccine into the body

Well-off 富有的 - Wealthy

Exposure 接觸 - Experience of something

Subsidise 資助 - Support (an organisation or activity) financially

Sign up for the YP Teachers Newsletter
Get updates for teachers sent directly to your inbox
By registering, you agree to our T&C and Privacy Policy