Far from home, refugees fight to keep their dreams alive

September 11, 2019

Photo credit: All Black FC


Not unlike Europe and the US, Hong Kong is no stranger to asylum seekers looking for a new life in a foreign land. 

Traditionally a safe haven for mainland Chinese, the 1950s saw an influx of around 1 million refugees, fleeing persecution and economic strife. 


20 years later, the Vietnam War would spark yet another mass immigration of Vietnamese refugees, taking advantage of Hong Kong's then 3-month grace period and lenient employment laws. 


Nowadays, refugees from Sri Lanka, Egypt and the African continent face stricter controls on immigration to the city, with only 138 claims being substantiated by the government since 2014.


Photo credit: All Black FC


Even if granted asylum, they still face a host of difficulties in adapting to their new surroundings; Cantonese is notoriously tricky to learn, the culture clash is palpable and there has been a xenophobic backlash from local politicians and certain sections of the media.


Despite these obstacles, they have found a common tongue. 


Founded in 2016 by Bidjoua Eustache-Hauvelith and Medard Privat Koya, All Black FC has provided a way for African refugees to assimilate into the local Chinese community through a common love for the beautiful game. 


"What I like the most about playing football with ABFC is how the team unite[s] different cultures and nations," said Micke-Dongo Shamarrange, who plays as a midfielder. 


Photo credit: All Black FC 


"We come all together now as a brothers because of football which mean[s] football can unite nations and promote peace around the world."


In stark contrast to many local sides, the amateur club draws its membership from a broad base including Gabon, Togo, Cameroon, the Central African Republic and other African nations, even including Pakistani, Indian and Chinese players. 


While the amateur club's core message is one of harmony and friendship, they are far from being pushovers on the pitch. 


Sitting near the summit of the ongoing Cosmos Football League season, All Black FC have impressed against high-calibre opposition in Hong Kong, including Premier League outfit Pegasus FC and the Hong Kong U-18 National team. 


Photo credit: All Black FC 


However, All Black FC's latest project speaks volumes of their ambition.


Knocking on the door of the Hong Kong First Division, the club has joined forces with Wong Tai Sin FC in hopes of giving 8 of their players the unique opportunity to play in the second-highest tier of Hong Kong football. 


They have already achieved some success in this regard, having helped nurture Happy Valley AA's (incidentally defending champions) summer signing Jahangir Khan - a winger of Pakistani origin who is now eligible for a Hong Kong passport. 


Unfortunately, success breeds contempt and several All Black FC players have not been spared from some unsavoury remarks and explicit racial slurs. 


Photo credit: talksport.com  


Speaking to the SCMP, an unnamed member of the squad spoke of how he was referred to as "hak gwai" (a derogatory Cantonese term which directly translates to 'black ghost') on multiple occasions, as well as encountering hostility from opposition coaches and officials. 


"As non local, for sure encountering racial discrimination is totally normal - not only for the Black people but also for the ethnic minorities living in Hong Kong," said All Black FC manager Koya. 


"We have to be clear on this issue; racism is a global issue. We are not saying all Hong Kong people are racist, but this is real. We can feel, we can see it and we can sometimes experience it."


The solution to this, as Koya believes, is to respond positively. 


Photo credit: All Black FC  


From the outset, All Black FC has embarked on a "Social and Community Integration Program", actively seeking to build rapport with the community via workshops and seminars at local universities, in addition to supporting fellow ethnic minority sides.


The team has also taken it on themselves to learn basic Cantonese phrases, even if many of them are still precluded earning a living in view of their legal status. 


Slowly but surely, perceptions are beginning to change - with attitudes among the local Chinese All Blacks growing from trepidation towards their African counterparts, to acceptance and even brotherhood. 



"At the start, I was a little scared because I thought they would be really fierce. After all, Hong Kong people traditionally have a negative impression of African people," said Ching.


"But after a few training sessions, I found that they were friendly, supportive and felt their passion for the game - it's so enjoyable playing football with them." 


Since growing closer to his teammates, the 24-year-old feels no shortage of sympathy for their plight. 


Photo credit: May James Photography 


"Some of them only receive a paltry sum of money from the government each month in the form of supermarket vouchers and they are not even allowed to get a job," Ching added. 


"Even for players who have a job, working hours tend to begin at midnight or the early hours of the morning, earning them only 200HKD over 8 hours."


"Hong Kongers are not so personable and less tactile. But they always greet each other so warmly, hi-fiving each other and their passion really stands out." 


Although often overstated, the power of football to transcend boundaries and languages is once again evident. For this group of refugees, it is the only constant in uncertain times, as they seek a better life in a foreign land.