Our refugee participants are examples of resilience and strength, and no one exemplifies that spirit more than Andine*. Andine fled her home country of Rwanda six years ago, seeking asylum and a better life in Hong Kong. As a mother traveling alone with two young children (her husband joined them a year after living in Hong Kong), Andine knew the importance of staying physically and mentally active. She quickly immersed herself in life in Hong Kong while she awaited news on her family’s refugee claim – even learning some basic Cantonese in order to communicate with local residents, and volunteering to help translate for other asylum seekers who couldn’t speak English.
When Andine heard about RUN (Free to Run at the time), she was already exercising on a regular basis to lose some weight, but she grabbed onto this opportunity to get outdoors and connect with others. “We used to stay inside the house,” she says. “When you go outdoors and meet other people, you’re not lonely, you’re not thinking about all your problems.” In addition to staying physically active, Andine also pushed herself to develop by learning computer skills through RUN’s education programme.
And yet, in spite of Andine’s efforts to build a new life for herself and her family in Hong Kong, her legal status continued to hold her back. As Hong Kong has not signed the UN Refugee Convention, even those “lucky” enough to have their refugee claims recognised (the rate of approval for refugee claims in Hong Kong is dismally low at 0.52%), cannot stay in Hong Kong permanently, and only 1% of recognised refugees worldwide will be resettled by the UNHCR to another country, mainly the US or Canada. Although Andine received her refugee status after one year, it was unclear when and if she and her family would be able to start a new life.
With the large numbers of Syrian refugees in need of resettlement, Andine’s applications for resettlement to the US and Canada were not a priority, leaving her feeling hopeless about her family’s future. In Hong Kong, her family would continue to live in limbo indefinitely, forced to rely on charitable support from organisations like RUN, as refugees have no right to work in Hong Kong.
Andine shared her situation with a friend, who told her about a new model of private community sponsorship being implemented in Canada. In a nutshell, local communities are able to sponsor refugees or asylum seekers to resettle in Canada and commit to helping them integrate into their new home for their first year of stay by offering housing, food, and support to find work. Community sponsorship offers an alternative solution to asylum seekers and refugees like Andine, who would otherwise wait years for their claims to be substantiated or to be resettled. Andine’s friend connected her to a community sponsorship agreement holder in Toronto.
In January this year, after six years of living in Hong Kong, Andine and her family finally received their visas to start a new life in Toronto, Canada. As they had done in Hong Kong, they quickly threw themselves into their new life. The kids started school just three days after arriving, and her husband found a job as a project coordinator for a construction company. In preparation for the move, RUN worked with Andine to craft a CV to highlight her experience and recent study achievements so that she would be able to approach her job search with confidence. “RUN helped me to know how to communicate with other people,” she says. Andine is now doing a part-time course in hospitality management while working at a hotel.
Although there are undoubtedly challenges to adapting to a new life in a foreign country, Andine relishes “being free and feeling like a human being again.” As a resident of Canada, she’s entitled to basic rights that she didn’t have before – like the right to travel and the right to work (and change jobs if she wishes) – rights she didn’t have in Hong Kong.
When asked about her hope for the future, Andine laughs. “What can I say? We are hoping to be Canadians, that’s all, and to be good people,” she says. “You can never tell the future, but now, we’ll be able to pay for our own house, our own food, we’ll be able to have a normal life, and that’s what we’re looking for.”
* Name has been changed