Reducing inequalities (SDG Goal 10) and ensuring no one is left behind are integral to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Inequalities are also deepening for vulnerable populations , in particular refugees and migrants, older people, people with disabilities. June 20, 2020 marks the 20th annual World Refugee Day; however, it will not be like any other. This World Refugee Day is set in the midst of a global pandemic, that has put a larger strain than usual on refugees around the world, including in Hong Kong.
In order to gain a better understanding of the refugee situation in Hong Kong, Encompass HK spoke to Tegan Smyth, the founder of Table of Two Cities, a grassroots project that gives refugees a platform to tell their stories and showcase their local cuisines through events featuring meals cooked by refugees, as well as other initiatives. Believing that refugee-led initiatives are the way to create lasting societal change, Tegan Smyth created Table of Two Cities in 2016 to invite people not only to a meal but also to meet and interact with refugees in Hong Kong, a city built by waves of mainland refugees in the 1950s, as residents who also bring skills, know-how and trades to contribute. Over half of these asylum seekers come from South Asian countries, such as Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.
However, refugees face a number of obstacles in Hong Kong. One of the main problems they face is the length of time they can wait for a decision on their asylum applications. This process can take years and sometimes decades, during which they are not allowed to work and can only subsist on a small government stipend. The coronavirus has only worsened these problems, as refugees have faced empty shelves and inflated prices at the one grocery store chain where their food vouchers are accepted, during the height of COVID-related panic buying. They also could not afford masks or sanitizing products. In response, Table of Two Cities organized food drives and worked with one of their partners, a refugee-led arts initiative, Art Women, to create reusable masks.
Yet the purpose of Table of Two Cities is not simply to provide for refugees, but to give them the opportunity to provide for themselves, as Tegan Smyth explained. “The reality is we need to shift our thinking and think of refugees as a resource. So, really a lot of what we try to do is skill matching. If we identify that there is someone in the community that is particularly good at a particular thing or they want to upskill in a particular way, we try to leverage different contacts in the community to help them get to where they want to be.”
Table of Two Cities works with many small, local partners, and Tegan Smyth recommends “outreach with grassroots organizations” as the best way to get involved with refugee issues in Hong Kong, “because they are the most under-resourced and they need the most help.” Some other organizations serving refugees are the Refugee Union, One Love Community, and Art Women. While one-time donations are always helpful, Tegan Smyth encourages people to consider what skills they can bring to refugees, and above all to engage in dialogue.
She leaves us with a message to keep in mind during this World Refugee Day, “I want people to know that we shouldn’t be “othering” refugees, we should not be treating them as a burden, we should look at them as a resource and the future and look at all the potential for collaboration and society building and peace building.”
Encompass HK looks forward to continuing to work with Table of Two Cities, as we recently co-organized an initiative with LUUNA naturals, aiming to promote period hygiene and donating menstrual cup products to the refugee communities.