Wednesday, October 21, 2009

I chose the road to...counselor/paralegal?

I realized having arrived nearly 2 months ago that I have probably not painted a full picture of what it is exactly that I am doing here in Hong Kong and what my day to day life is like. I have decided to dedicate this blog to just that and hopefully give you a general feel for my life and work so far. (Before I get started I have a small disclaimer: I am not able to control who all reads this blog, nor would I want to, so there may be some details of my day that I might be a little vague about. Due to the nature of the work I am doing in Hong Kong I must be sensitive to the victim’s situations and safety. Thank you for understanding)

My first 6 weeks on the job I was working 6 days a week, with one off day on Saturday. I would spend 3 days at the Bethune House, Migrant Women’s Shelter in Jordan on the Kowloon side and 3 days at the Mission for Migrant Workers in Central, on Hong Kong Island. This past week my schedule changed to 5 days a week. You might be wondering why I don't get Sunday off, but Sunday is our busiest day because it is the only day off for migrant workers. (I go to church usually before work or a service during lunch). I usually work from 10-5, unless there is some other activity going on. I live in Jordan, so on the days that I work at the Bethune House I am able to conveniently walk to work. On the days that I work in Central I take the MTR (mass transit railway, aka subway/train) which is incredibly swift and efficient. I have gotten in the habit of exercising everyday, so usually I wake up around 7:00am, have a cup of coffee while checking email or skyping, walk/jog/bike, take a shower, and get to work.

THE BETHUNE HOUSE The Bethune House Migrant Women’s Refuge was established in 1986 to provide charitable assistance, counselling, temporary shelter, emergency relief, and a place of refuge for needy and distressed migrant workers. The Bethune House caters to domestic workers who have been terminated by their employers and/or forced to leave for various reasons of discrimination, contract violations, rape, sexual assault, physical abuse, labor-related conflicts, and human rights violations. Most of them are from Indonesia or the Philippines. The Bethune House accommodates I would say anywhere from 25-30 women at a time (sometimes more), which is well over its capacity, but the women make do sleeping anywhere there is space.

My days spent at the Bethune House might be viewed as more casual, but are by no means less important or less productive. When I arrive on normal days the residents can usually be found cooking; either finishing with breakfast or starting lunch. The residents take turns cooking; Filipino dishes one day (or one meal) and Indonesian the next, and they rotate cleaning the kitchen as well. The most amazing smells come from the BH Kitchen.
When I settle in for the day I usually have at least one new client waiting. She might have shown up over night through one outlet or another and she is filling out paperwork. If she speaks English I will take her into the office also known as the “counselling” room and begin to take her statement. If she does not speak English I will ask someone who does to accompany us and translate for me. A general rule of thumb is that a lot of the Filipina helpers speak English along with their native language Tagalog. The Indonesian helpers speak Cantonese along with their native language Bahasa. Sometimes they speak more languages, but for the most part this is how it is. Usually only one or two Indonesian residents speak English so they are constantly asked to translate, and fortunately for me they are usually willing to. I’m not going to go through every case detail, but I underwent paralegal training when I first arrived in Hong Kong and I essentially take a legal statement of facts and type it into something ready to be presented to the Labor Tribunal or Court, depending on what type of claims we are making. From this point it can be either simple or complicated depending on the client’s case. Some cases are merely monetary claims, and then some are criminal charges placed on the client or on the employer. (As you can see it’s a lengthy process and would take too much space and time to explain it all.) After I type the statement I print a copy and the client will take it to the Labor Tribunal or Labor Department to file her claims. After filing their claims they must take their paperwork to Immigration and pay a fine and extend their Visa. The process goes on from there and I continue to work their case with them. We usually take lunch anywhere from 12:00 to 1:30pm and it is a MUST that you stop for lunch. No options. We always eat together. After lunch I will pick-up where I left off and continue on about the day working cases with clients.
Some days I will be asked to accompany a fear-stricken client to an Agency to retrieve her illegally confiscated passport and employment contract, to the Labor Department to support her in filing her claims, or to any type of government or nongovernment department that is some part of her process in seeking retribution for the wrongs against her. I am usually more than willing to go, because despite how much this truly bothers me internally, the fact that I am a white-skinned American I seem to carry a “fear factor” with me. Both the client feels safer with me and the person I am dealing with seem to be intimidated by me, based only on the color of my skin. I absolutely despise this fact and am sickened by it, but because it helps these women I am willing to use it in their favor.
I love these women that live in this house. The hardest part is that they come and go so quickly.
Some have been here for months, but some are gone in a matter of weeks. It’s hard not to get attached to them and their beautiful faces and spirits, but before you know it they are packing up preparing to leave to go back to their home country. Each one of them gives me something, whether they realize it or not. I can’t heal their wounds, or take away the pain caused to them, but I can let them know that everyone is not the same. And every “westerner” or person with “white” skin is not here to abuse them. I only hope that I have been able to help them in some small way.

When I work at the Mission, I have to leave home earlier and take the MTR. I do basically the same duties in an office building on the 2nd floor at St. John’s Cathedral. We are a walk-in center of sorts, but the Mission has many more simultaneous functions, while I am only there participating in a few of them. I work cases in much the same way as I do at the Bethune House. When I am not working with a case, I am updating and encoding files into a computer. Some days I am sent out into the community with various Migrant Organizations who are protesting, to be a photographer. This can be quite interesting. I have photographed multiple protests at the Philippine Consulate and Chinese Central Government Offices. It is amazing to watch how strong and confident these people are who are fighting for such a just and worthy cause.

So I think that is it for now. I've nearly written a novel and honestly I've only touched on the surface of my day, not really the depth of it at all. More later.

God's peace.

Monday, October 5, 2009

I chose the road to...St.Francis Day

We celebrated St. Francis of Assisi Day at the 11:45 Blessing of the Animals Service at St. John’s Cathedral on Sunday. It was one of the most unique experiences I have ever had. I had been talking with Father Des (Desmond Cox) previously in the week and he seemed a bit anxious about whether the animals would all get along and whether anyone would fight or eat each other. I tried to calm his nerves but of course I couldn't resist teasing him a bit as well. I knew God would be on our side when “show time” actually arrived. They had originally planned to have the children bring pictures of their pets, but decided to throw that idea out the window and go for the gusto and invite the congregation to go ahead and bring on your LIVE animals! It was truly a glorious day.

Father Des, Dean Chan, and Father Martin anxiously waiting to bless the animals

There were puppies, small dogs, big dogs, kitty cats, goldfish, baby turtles, creepy crawlers, you name it and a parishioner brought it. The blessings were bountiful and gratefully ALL of God's creatures got along in the name of St. Francis on Sunday.

All things bright and beautiful, All creatures great and small, All things wise and wonderful, The Lord God made them all.

Each little flower that opens, Each little bird that sings, He made their glowing colors, He made their tiny wings.

The purple-headed mountain, The river running by, The sunset and the morning, That brightens up the sky.

The cold wind in the winter, The pleasant summer sun, The ripe fruits in the garden, He made them every one.

The tall trees in the greenwood, The meadows where we play, The rushes by the water, We gather every day.

He gave us eyes to see them, And lips that we might tell, How great is God almighty, Who has made ALL things well.