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Editor’s note: Please note that this interview includes descriptions of domestic violence and sexual assault.
What exactly does one need to experience and endure to have to escape from home and set off for a completely alien place? It has been 14 years since Cathy (pseudonym) arrived in Hong Kong by way of Indonesia as an asylum seeker. Her story tells us much about the vicissitudes different people face in different environments and begs the question: how do we begin to understand the experiences of those on the verge of slipping through the cracks—a constant struggle for survival?
The twin pressures of family and gender
The story begins in 2004. Cathy was 25 years old, an age at which one is supposed to savor the joys of youth. An arranged marriage instantly shattered that expectation.
Though arranged marriages have grown increasingly uncommon in urban centers in Indonesia, some rural areas have continued to keep this tradition alive. In the villages, unmarried women over the age of 25 frequently encounter discrimination and stigma, making it all the more difficult to find a partner as the days go by. A lot of people still see courting and dating after marriage as a sound idea, thereby indirectly sustaining the practice of arranged marriage.
Cathy’s father arranged for her to marry someone with a known background of organized crime. He battered her on a daily basis and often invited gangland friends to their home for drugs and parties. Smoke and violence permeated the space. “They’d get overexcited and threaten to have me sold. Sometimes my husband would even force me to have sex with the others…” Cathy couldn’t hold back her tears as memories of all the pain and suffering from the last 16 years resurfaced.
Not long after, Cathy tried to run, but there was nowhere to go, nowhere that existed beyond her husband and his associates’ reach. Her husband’s uncle was also the head of their village, so no matter how desperately Cathy sought help from her neighbors, no one would believe her. She tried to go to the cops too, but it turned out to be another dead end; the culture of bribery there meant endless futility unless she turned up to the station with cash in hand. Cathy’s family was too far away—an eight-hour drive from her home. She didn’t confide in them and didn’t dare return.
Cathy was stuck; resigned, she had no choice but to stay in this hellish “home.” One year into the marriage, she got pregnant. Her husband continued to abuse her every day. Even at the seventh month, when Cathy’s belly swelled more and more prominently, his blows landed as surely and mercilessly as ever. His friends joined in on the beatings and treated her as a punching bag. Sometimes she would pray, “If I die at their hands, I hope the daughter in my belly can die inside me too.” In the face of this daily torment, perhaps death was the only reprieve. Her daughter was soon born, brought into an unfortunate family.
One day, Cathy found a training center that specialized in preparing people for domestic work in Hong Kong. The center only admitted female students, but this was nothing out of the ordinary; most migrant domestic workers are women, after all. This didn’t strike Cathy as peculiar. In fact, she saw it as an opportunity to escape her husband and promptly applied. Three months’ training later, she finally arrived in Hong Kong in 2007.
The whole process of moving to Hong Kong had gone smoothly enough, but the price to pay was abandoning her daughter. Cathy still has no idea how her daughter is doing to this day.
Escape to Hong Kong
By some stroke of luck, Cathy’s employer in Hong Kong treated her well. The four-year-old son in the family grew close to her. She would often help him with his homework and his grades turned out well under her tutelage, even getting numerous accolades at school. Cathy smiled with pride as she reminisced about this period of warmth that had long been denied her, “I didn’t feel like they were treating me like a maid.” In only half a year, she had built a good relationship with her employer, who couldn’t help but tear up listening to Cathy recount her past traumas. Two people can come from such different backgrounds and have such dissimilar identities but still forge an intimate connection.
With enough breathing room, Cathy finally gathered enough courage to call her parents and tell them everything. Thoroughly shaken and heartbroken to learn of what her daughter had been going through, her mom encouraged her to stay in Hong Kong. Her father, who had arranged the marriage in the first place, remained impassive. Cathy was incensed and in utter disbelief at his own father’s cold-bloodedness.
Good times never last: Cathy’s husband somehow got ahold of her employer’s phone number and began to harass the family daily. A nightmare that followed her all the way from Indonesia, his intrusion in her life in Hong Kong cast a long shadow, “He’s like a ghost. He knows everything about my life, like the back of his own hand.” To protect her employer, Cathy ultimately decided to leave. Neither of them wanted to let go of the fleeting but unforgettable time they had spent together.
No one is illegal
In Hong Kong, if a migrant domestic worker’s contract gets terminated, the worker will face deportation if no new employer is secured within two weeks. At the time, Cathy’s documentation had already expired and she was officially overstaying her visa. But thinking of her husband in Indonesia, she also understood that being deported would be nothing less than heading down a path of no return. To avoid the prying eyes of the Immigration Department, she roamed around, unhoused, in public parks for several months. At the same time, she began procedures to make a claim for non-refoulement protection and became an asylum seeker.
Perhaps by some mercy from above, it was also during this time when she would meet her current husband, a fellow asylum seeker from an African country. He once got jealous of Cathy interacting with some other men and started a huge fight, injuring Cathy in the process. In the heat of the moment, Cathy called the police on him, and he ended up in prison while she herself got detained in the Castle Peak Bay Immigration Center (CIC). Each spending time behind bars for three months, they made up and apologized to each other when they got out, each cherishing the other more than ever before. In 2008, the couple married. Cathy said that Muslim men can take more than one spouse, but her husband has remained faithful: they help each other grow in a nurturing relationship.
Not long after, the couple welcomed three children into the burgeoning family. Their individual applications for asylum became a family case. Though their sons were born in Hong Kong, they were ineligible for permanent residency in Hong Kong under the city’s Immigration Ordinance. Their birth certificates merely designated them as “stateless,” and they were entitled to none of the rights and privileges of resident children. Luckily, they were still able to get free education—they weren’t completely cut off from the rest of society just yet. Still, whenever their schools organized study trips or their classmates travelled abroad on vacations, the awkwardness of their identity became inescapable. In addition to money problems, Cathy has had to explain what it means to hold refugee status in Hong Kong as “illegals”: why they won’t be able to get a passport, and why they can’t have the same life experiences they see their classmates enjoy. This makes her feel a little ashamed, worried that her sons would face discrimination at school.
Domestic violence doesn’t just stem from personal emotional problems that are taken out on spouses but rather implicates entire systems of kinship and gender.
Growing concern for her children’s predicament indirectly led Cathy to connect with local refugee organizations. Asylum seekers in Hong Kong cannot work and are forced to rely on a meager allowance issued by the government. Cathy doesn’t necessarily bemoan challenges in her life all that much, let alone protest the government over these issues. But when she saw how the government would distribute rotten food—yellowed broccoli that had become foul—her first thought was not disappointment at having to skip a meal, but instead a sense of bitterness toward seeing her young children suffer. Agitated, she rounded up some other refugees to protest the Social Welfare Department, ultimately succeeding in getting the government to issue Park’n’Shop coupons for groceries instead. These temporary fixes certainly cannot come close to offsetting the expensive cost of living in Hong Kong, but Cathy also realized that organizing and protesting could bring about concrete change. Advocates later formed the Refugee Union, the actions of which Cathy participates in frequently.
“We have lived in Hong Kong for over a decade. Our kids were even born here. I really can’t imagine how to re-adapt and resettle in another country. I hope my sons can stay in Hong Kong. Let them have a future here.” Cathy saw her rights and needs as second to the protection of her children’s future.
However, Hong Kong is a site of temporary refugee settlement that has historically adopted a “port of first asylum” policy. In other words, Cathy’s children would have no recourse other than repatriation to Indonesia or resettlement in other countries. Could they really have a future in this city?
Who are the ‘real’ refugees?
Cathy’s story raises this question: who exactly is a refugee? According to the United Nations, for one, refugees are those who have experienced persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political affiliation, or other social categories. Domestic and gender-based violence of the variety Cathy experienced is not included in such official definitions. Yet, domestic violence doesn’t just stem from personal emotional problems that are taken out on spouses but rather implicates entire systems of kinship and gender.
Gender equality is ostensibly stronger in Hong Kong, and though we all share the pressures of marriage, we would scarcely be able to fathom the scale at which structures of family, for instance, determine people’s lives in Indonesia. For Indonesian women, getting married and having kids are non-negotiable. Even as Indonesian migrant domestic workers support their families from overseas, they tend to return home at the age of 30 and fulfill their parents’ expectations. Once they have done so, they’d be sent abroad again to work and make money for their families. Their whole lives revolve around the family.
Furthermore, relationships between neighbors are especially close-knit in typical villages; there are many modes of collective labor from farming to cooking. At the same time, marriage and family status largely determine how one is seen through the eyes of the community. The absence of a spouse and children easily fans the flames of rumor and gossip. Some women would deliberately show off their children in public to establish their position in the village. Under this matrimonial culture, domestic violence would hardly warrant a second glance—women are often merely the property of men.
Whenever the topic of refugees comes up, our minds tend to conjure up bloody images of fire and destruction. But the harms inflicted on refugees are not only physical but structural. How many others have experienced pain and trauma under systemic repression in the family like Cathy did? And how many are going to have to deal with unequal treatment because of differences in sex, gender and power on top of overlapping issues of poverty, disability, and the environment? Everyone is trying to navigate all of this in pursuit of survival. What the topic of refugees reveals is also problems specific to each state and culture. Is relying on the “charity” of other countries really the solution to the problem?
Hong Kong in the international field
In past social movements, Hongkongers have urgently beseeched the international community for help. Many protesters have also escaped from Hong Kong since as asylum seekers themselves. If we can argue that other countries have an obligation and responsibility to respond to our struggles, how do we then treat people who have come to Hong Kong from afar? What can we do to transform their lives?