Endless Way of Cross from Egypt to Hong Kong - Christian Refugees, S and H
Editor’s Note: Unreasonable detention at the Immigration Department’s detention centre, epitomized by the recent case of migrant domestic worker Yuli, is unfortunately not rare in Hong Kong. Worker’s News received an entry regarding an Egyptian couple, who were detained at the Castle Peak Bay Immigration Centre (CIC) right after fleeing to Hong Kong to avoid religious prosecution. S, who converted to Christianity from Islam, reached Hong Kong with her husband H after a torturous and eventful journey to avoid assassination by S’s family and fellow Egyptians. They had heard of the international reputation of Hong Kong and thought that the refugee immigration policy here would be friendly. Instead they were subdued by officers from the Immigration Department soon after their arrival, and then got tricked into detention at the CIC for 5 months.
The couple experienced capitalism, Hong Kong-style right after detention: every item of daily necessities have to be obtained through monetary mediation in this city. The pair was refused basic rights to life as potential employers despised their status as refugees, forcing them to rely on the roughly 1,500 HKD subsidy from the government for survival. In order to save money, the couple had to make a living out of a roughly 100 sq. ft. room. They found their sole means of entertainment in walking around the urban areas in Hong Kong Island – this was how they save some tram fees. By the time this piece was being published, the couple had already received asylum from Canada and were able to leave Hong Kong the Purgatory. However, not everyone in a similar situation got to be as lucky as they did.
S and H are a refugee couple who escaped to Hong Kong after escaping to a series of countries from Egypt in 2016. This January, I met the pair at the Yellow Umbrella Mass held by Fr. Franco Mella, and we became friends as I translated for them. They invited me to their home for an Egyptian meal several times and shared their road of religious oppression openly. I gradually got a fuller picture of their way of cross through our conversations.
Egypt: Oppressed for being Christians
Living in the rather secular Hong Kong, it is quite difficult for us to understand the importance of religion to Middle Easterners. According to statistics by the CIA in 2015, Sunni Muslims accounts for 90% of the population in Egypt and Coptic Chistian minority only around 10%. Everyone’s identity card obtained from birth has his/her religion marked on it, and marriage across religious boundaries are seen as violations of conventional morality, creating an intergenerational religious separation. Coptic Christians are tolrated by the mainstream in general, but next to no representatives are able to enter the political sphere. Whenever there are mass demonstrations, the military oppresses them without any reservation. After the ‘Arab Spring’ that brought down the strongman rule of Mubarak in 2011, Christians who were part of the call for equal rights were remade as the culprit, leading to escalating oppression from both civilians and the government.
On paper, everyone has the right to change their religion; in reality, it is a lot more acceptable to the mainstream if one is converted from Christianity to Islam, not the other way round - in that case one commits the severe crime of apostacy. If the apostate’s identity is revealed, he or she does not only face imprisonment from the crime of blasphemy, but also death threats from the many and in the worst case death. It is not uncommon for family members to kill the apostate out of a severe sense of shame.
H passed me Egyptian tea and began to narrate his story. From birth, he was one of the minority Christians. He became a journalist after graduating from university as well as a young deacon in the church who is outspoken about corruptions in the religious establishment. During his work in Saudi Arabia in 2002, he converted a Saudi princess into a Christian after spending time talking with her, and the princess was honor-killed by her brother once this was known publicly. H was sentenced by the government there to death. Luckily the Bush administration in the USA intervened and got him deported back to Egypt. Egyptians were famous for being ruthless and also for being outspoken against their government once they fled the home country. What was mersmerising to H was what the police said to H’s mother while grabbing H from his family: ‘Don’t you worry, you still have another son!’ During his two years of imprisonment, he was tortured to the extent that he lost his sight in the left eye completely.
After being released from jail, H returned to his work as a marketing manager. However, as he took part in the Maspero Demonstrations against the government’s act of demolishing local churchs in 2011, he was one of the victims among the hundreds of causualties as the military oppressed the demonstration with guns. His left leg was shot leaving a severe wound, and the government began to block his business from running. In 2014, he realised as he was back from grocery shopping at a supermarket that some people were holding guns waiting to assassinate him from behind his car. Thus, he fled in a hurry first to Dubai and then to Ulsan, South Korea under the care of a local church. He stayed there for 2 years without much aims in mind, until he met S.
Four years ago, S was still a typical Muslim housewife caring for her three daughters with her ex-husband who was used to wearing the burqa in public. After graduating from university, she taught at a French Language Center while maintaining her work as an author and an underground feminist. She said that her daughter’s classmates always admired her daughters for having such a thoughtful and open-minded mother. After a long period of independent reflection on her faith, she eventually converted from Islam to Christianity and got baptised in an underground church.
When her conversion was known to her family, she was sent to a mental hospital by her family members and put under home arrest for 2 years. Her ex-husband divorced her as a way to force her back into Islam. S fled her hometown only after she received news that her family planned to murder her, and she stayed at different Egyptian cities before she fled the country all together.
She knew H online and both of them were active on social media, engaging in the debate between Arab Muslims and apostates. They felt for each other as they met in South Korea and eventually got married in a local church. They were awaiting resettlement to Canada under the help of the South Korean church, until Muslims gave them death threats. They had to flee to various countries in February 2017, and forced to endure all the inhumane and corrupt immigration policies.
They went to Jeju Islands where they were given a 28-day ultimatum before being expelled; they stayed in Seychelles Island in the Indian Oceans for a month, then they tried to board a plane to Kenya before realising that a Muslim immigration officer had bought off all the counters to prevent them from departing. They were reduced to travelling 14 hours by van to Tanzania. They then flew to Japan and sought asylum there, before being told that they would be deported back to Egypt. S fainted and eventually lost the child she was pregnant with at the time. She still faced a host of obstetric problems afterwards.
After they threatened to inform their US friends at the United Nations of what happened, the Japanese authorities eventually agreed to let the pair sought asylum in a third country on the next day. And that place is Hong Kong.
Arrival at Hong Kong: Violent attempt of deportation after waiting half a day
Hong Kong does not provide asylum for refugees. Instead, it only ensures that the applicant maintains his/her basic living needs while having their application processed, and that successful applications can be free for deportations. In terms of the legal process, the torture claimant needs to claim in writing that he/she is facing political oppression or torture in his/her home country, and therefore is seeking political asylum in Hong Kong. If the Immigration Department confirmed the applicant fulfills the conditions, then he/she will not be deported and the case will be referred to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
However, from the end of 2009 to March 2019, only 160 claims were substantiated by the Immigration Department among the 21,285 cases where application review had been completed. The success rate is only 0.75%, far below that of developed countries (such as Canada with a 40% success rate). In S and H’s experience, they raised their asylum claims immediately upon arrival at Hong Kong. However, after having waited at the airport for half a day, a senior official arrived to rudely proclaim their deportation.
S felt deceived and ran towards the Immigration Department Office in a attempt to stage a sit-in protest. They did not expect to be pushed onto the ground by a group of around 20 staff. One of them even stepped on the back of H’s neck and pressed him so hard on the floor that he lost his consciousness after yelling for help several times. In response to a similar charge of violence by another refugee on another occasion, the Immigration Department claimed that their staff will only use minimal violence necessary to subdue the subject, who initially agreed to be deported but then resisted when brought to the boarding gate. But S and H did not even know that they had to go at the time!
Detention: Duped into signed agreement, Separated for almost half a year
Afterwards, the pair was brought to the office and a completely new group of staff used a softer approach to appease them. One of them ordered H to buy a SIM card to make a call to some unknown ‘representative lawyer’. S said, ‘When we were most desparate, they handed us a document and asked us to sign it. H signed it quickly, but I was more hesitant because I did not know what was written on it. H asked me to sign it (H covered his mouth in a bitter laughter), I saw an officer signalling a ‘No’ to me with the eyes, but I still signed it blindly.’
In fact, the document stated that the person consented to being detained at the Castle Peak Bay Immigration Center (CIC). According to an 2008 Legislative Council document, the Immigration Department will only detain a person during a period of time - when there is a reasonable doubt that the person is overstaying illegally, that his/her right of abode is under review, and that deportation is under consideration or to be executed. H cited section 37ZK of the Cap. 115 Immigration Ordinance, and listed out 5 questions: 1) they did not commit any crime as they had just arrived at Hong Kong at that time; 2) his left eye was totally blind and required medication; 3) his wife S had a waist injury; 4) he needs to take care of ihs wife; 5) S needs to contact her daughters. These five criteria fitted the ‘factors for non-detention’ on the document. However, since they signed the document under a state of ignorance and were quickly sent to the detention center on the next day, they were soon separately detained by sex.
To leave Hong Kong, H insisted on writing a letter of complaint every day and tried everything within his means to make noise. He banged his head against the iron gates and even refused to take in food or water for several consecutive days for 4 times. The staff were afraid of him and allowed the pair to meet up once and then twice a week separated by a glass wall.
On 18 October 2018, they were suddenly told ‘you may go now’. Without the time to cheer they were already sent onto a taxi, putting an end to their five months of detention. Their status as refugees were substantiated by extensive evidence (especially for H who drew the attention of the US government years ago), so once the official review was done, they were released quietly without even notifying their lawyers. H contacted the lawyer afterwards to take back his documents, and for some reason the lawyer who followed their case disappeared and they could only meet with the remaining staff.
A picture drawn by S inside CIC. She exchanged her meals for color pencils from a fellow detainee. These pictures were used to illustrate that she developed Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, from which she had yet to be fully recovered.
Stuck in Hong Kong: Everything costs money, willpower drained in unemployment
On the date when they left the detention center, the government issued a recognizance paper to each of them. Holder of such paper cannot work in Hong Kong, so the government rely on the International Social Service (ISS) Hong Kong Branch to provide assistance to them, including fixed public facilities usage allowance, transport allowance, Park’n’shop food card and housing allowance. Despite its appearance of being all-rounded, the goal really was to maintain a bare minimum of living - for instance, each person gets only 1,500 HKD in monthly housing allowance. What can one rent in Hong Kong with that?
S and H were living in a 150-square-feet subdivided unit, with a rent of $8500 per month - the economic pressure is huge. However, the largest expenses came from various kinds of expenditure for refugee immigration applications, including translation, photocopying, printing, mailing, photo-taking and stamping. ‘In Hong Kong, everything costs money, everything needs money! Nothing is free,’ H complained. Indeed, when one got into poverty one realises deeply that every part of reality is mediated by money. The couple were shocked at the price levels in hong kong. H said, ‘in Egypt, we get a full meal with 2 Egyptian pounds (around 1 HKD). One can survive minimally with 200 US dollars (around 1600 HKD). My family does not understand why we can’t do anything with the 100 US dollars they give us every month’.
Luckily for S and H, they received their non-refoulement claims and were free of deportations. For the over 99% of refugees without the non-refoulement claims, if they lacked what the Immigration Department deemed as ‘evidence’ (the department had never been transparent about their review standards), their multiple claims were often rejected. Many refugees come from South Asia, the Middle East and Africa, facing severe armed conflicts due to political and religious divisions not less severe than that in Egypt: some asylum seek claimed that she received death threats from her family for changing to another religion, while some claimed that his whole family were wanted due to religious differences with the mainstream. Over 20 asylum seekers who got stuck in Hong Kong for over 10 years saw their children growing into adulthood losing their right to work due to a lack of nationality - this prompted them to make a joint petition to the Chief Executive, demanding humanitarian right of abode in Hong Kong.
S and H received their UNHCR refugee status in January 2019. The status is valid worldwide, allowing the holder to work in any region where they seek refuge, as well as ensuring that they receive free public health care. S fainted on the street several times due to stress from trauma experienced, and was diagnosed to have adjustment disorder at the hospital. Even though waiting for emergency service was still a long wait, at least they did not have to pay the HKD 1,230 fee for all non-Hong Kong residents (including those who holds a recognizance paper).
However, even though their documents allowed them the right to work, it was not smooth for them to find jobs in Hong Kong. Normal agencies had no experience in making applications relevant for recruiting refugees, as after all there had only been 160 claimants receiving refugee status in Hong Kong over the last 10 years. The couple also found it difficult to merge into Muslim co-worker groups due to religious reasons. When they went for a local Catholic church for an English mass, they were surrounded by Filipino migrant domestic workers. ‘They saw us getting dressed well - especially as we wore a golden cross chain we brought from the streets a few days earlier - they came to ask if we need a domestic worker. I said to them: I am willing to do domestic work if there are such opportunities!’
H went for interviews in 16 restaurants in the district where he lived without any good news. These restaurants all recruited English speakers, but they were discouraged by H’s refugee status. H thought that the Immigration Department’s sheet of recognition did not solve the employers’ concerns and did no help for refugee to get employed. Instead he thought that the department should provide concrete employment aid.
A simple meal for H & S – Shakshuka, the omelette with vegetables and meat was served at the upper right corner.
Migrating again: Enough of Helplessness in Hong Kong
At their home, the size did not limit what they could make out of it, and the pair could finally try the taste of home outside the confines of the CIC. ‘If you cut my arm, it is milk tea from the CIC that will burst out, not blood!’ said H, who had had too much milk tea inside the CIC. S was an excellent Egyptian chef and she was able to make a feast of traditional Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food such as fried fish, beef kebab with herbs and seafood soup. She even used the local ingredient luncheon pork to make an omelette called ‘Shakshuka’ (meaning ‘mixed’ in Hebrew).
However, the joy from regained freedom was quickly cut short by challenges in reality. Due to their language barrier and limited computer skills, asylum seekers and refugees were often highly reliant on a handful of refugee support organisations to mediate their interactions with the bureaucratic-legal system. S and H relied on themselves for further migration and job-seeking issues due to religious and other reasons. The pair became increasingly mentally distressed due to an unforeseeable future.
I was shocked as I helped them to check supplementary documents for the Canadian Immigration - there was a one-week deadline until the documents were due, but the letter was so long that they did not even know that they had to open the link to the application form. Since they did not install Adobe PDF reader in their computer, they would not be able to read it even if they opened the document. S kept writing long-winded account of their experience, compiling the different links evidencing it and sending them through email to different organisations and lawyers. H could only carry a huge pile of documents and air tickets for scanning and photocopying. They needed help in communicating or fully understanding the bureaucratic system and without help, they might miss the emails and have troubling having a good night’s sleep as they waited for the bureaucratic replies weeks after weeks.
Luckily, they received an interview notice from the Canadian Immigration Center and they would know if their application for relocation is successful in a few months. Despite the excitement this was the only thing they could look forward to - S did not want anything other than leaving the disappointing place of Hong Kong. She wanted to get her family in Egypt to start a new life with her at Canada after settling down with H.
When the pair thanked me for my help, I always replied that you are legends with stories worth writing as an Odyssey. You deserve it. I hope that their immigration application will be successful to regain the sense of dignity that carried them through all difficulties. We always find locals with all-encompassing comments over refugees without hearing their stories in full, and in effect taking for granted the stability in life that we enjoy. Instead of standing with the powerful, we need to see the bureaucratic biases and tortures, listen to the others’ experience and give the oppressed the respect that they deserve.
A picture drawn by S inside CIC, showing two wild horses pacing out of detention cells. Despite the hardship experienced in the detention centre, her will to shake off their shackles remained strong.
This article was written a few months ago. Having encountered many, S & H finally migrated to Canada successfully and became permanent residents there. They resided in an adequate housing that they can call their own. H aspired to return to his former profession as a journalist, while S was resting in order to return to a healthier state of mind. The fortune of S & H comforts us, despite the still worrisome conditions of many other refugees who continue their struggle in Hong Kong every day.