Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Arguing, Learning, Waiting

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Arguing, Learning, Waiting

Article excerpt

My students are Muslim and Christian men, well-educated and caught in the asylum-seeking process in Hong Kong.

For the past five years, I've been teaching English to African and Pakistani men caught in the asylum-seeking process here.

I began teaching the weekly class as a volunteer as part of my research for a book that has since been published. I continue because my students have become my friends.

These Muslim and Christian men are in their 20s and 30s, well- educated, well-informed about world affairs and highly vocal. We don't spend much time on the rules of the English language. Instead, the classes have become discussion sessions about social and global topics.

I begin each class by asking a question. "Who is a better friend to Africa, the United States or China?" "What do you think of gay marriage?" "How do you know God is real?" My students then argue passionately with one another and with me for two hours. When class is over, they go back to being asylum seekers.

It's a tough life. Upon entering Hong Kong and declaring to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or to the Hong Kong government that they qualify as asylum seekers under the U.N. Convention Against Torture, they are sent to a detention center for several weeks. When they're let free, they're given a pittance of aid -- around $270 a month. They are forbidden to work, although some find illegal jobs as dishwashers, delivery men or peddlers.

They wait for years for their cases to be decided. The authorities must determine whether they have been politically, ethnically or religiously persecuted. When their cases are rejected, as most are, they appeal, and wait for many more years. Some get deported back to their home countries. The lucky few who get refugee status are sent to safe countries, typically the United States or Canada.

While some have a legitimate case, others might be caught in situations that the authorities won't recognize -- one might, for example, be fleeing a death threat from a business partner. Others come here in hopes of making a better living by gaming the system.

The government can't let economic refugees work legally; to do so would only invite thousands more from Karachi, Nairobi and other places. …

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