Art of Defiance: 6 refugees find purpose and passion
In a small artist’s studio on Lantau Island, floor-to-ceiling sculptures and vibrant canvases overrun the space. A drum set sits in one corner, barely visible under piles of animal prints and patterned textiles, while a needle perches mid-stitch on a hand bag in the centre of the room. “Art that can move around with you,” explains Kaze Ndassi, pointing to the colourful bag.
Ndassi’s uncle, a painter and sculptor, nurtured his passion for creativity as a child and, at the age of 16, Ndassi enrolled in a programme at Cameroon’s Institute of Arts and Culture. There, he learned about the power of music and how his ancestors used symbolism to bring communities together.
His deep voice grows measured as he talks about the political instability in his native Cameroon, a nation rife with corruption. After authorities took his outspoken brother, Ndassi fled to Hong Kong in 2006 to seek asylum.
The 45-year-old had to put his artistic career on hold when he arrived in Hong Kong, where he was held for two months at Tai Lam Correctional Institution in Tuen Mun while authorities processed his application. “I started developing the idea of creating art around asylum seekers, as I saw it as a way for them to deal with stress,” Ndassi says, referring to the uncertainty that many asylum seekers face.
In 2012, Ndassi started an African drum group at the Refugee Union to serve as a form of “drum therapy,” the artist explains. “The more you beat on a drum, the more energy you release. I try to explain to people how drums can help, how they can balance your life.”
I always want to let people know that we are the same, even though we have different skin colour.
That same year, Ndassi started fusion percussion band, Afritude. Now known as Afritudeband Plus Kaze Arts, the group has eight members from all over Africa. Ndassi also created the One Love Community in 2014 – a series of gatherings, which revolve around music, food, and creative engagement.
As for his own artwork, Ndassi first began exhibiting in 2015. The NAVTI Foundation, an NGO focused on poverty alleviation and self-development, sponsored a month-long solo exhibition at the Fringe Club in Central. “Most of my artwork is about unity, harmony, and nature. I always want to let people know that we are the same, even though we have different skin colour.”
Today, the married father of three is a prominent member of the Hong Kong creative community. “When you make art, the white, the black, and the red are not the same. But when you put them together, their differences bring out the beauty of the painting. Mixing the colours creates magic. Us humans, we are the same.”
Innocent Mutanga looks out at Hong Kong’s Central district
When he was just four years old, Innocent Mutanga took to the pulpit of his local church in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, and by age eight, he was speaking at community meetings.
Mutanga, one of three children raised by a single mother, says his intellectual curiosity paid off: At 19, Mutanga received a scholarship to study actuarial science (mathematical risk assessment) in the United States.
Outspoken on a wide range of topics, Mutanga returned to Zimbabwe and began discussing voting rights. But Mutanga’s political discourse garnered the attention of authorities. When his peers started to disappear, Mutanga realised he was no longer safe and, in 2013, he took the first flight to a visa-free destination and ended up in Hong Kong.
In his adopted city, Mutanga soon realised that things were not “all roses and sunshine.” He enjoyed few rights and was unable to return to the United States to study due to complications with his paperwork.
Despite the setbacks, Mutanga was determined to continue his education. In 2014, while awaiting the verdict on his asylum case, he audited classes on anthropology, linguistics, and Japanese language at CUHK, City University and HKU.
In 2016, Mutanga says he became the first asylum-seeker in Hong Kong to be granted the right to study. “There is this misguided notion that people working within a bureaucracy lack humanity. Many civil servants joined the service because they want to do good things in society, and if you give them something to work with, they will do their best to be true to themselves and true to why they joined in the first place,” he says candidly.
Once he could legally study, Mutanga embarked on an undergraduate degree in Anthropology at CUHK “to better prepare me as a person in a globalised world.” While studying, he continued fighting for asylum and, in 2017, he was finally granted official Hong Kong resident status and received an HKID card – a rare outcome.
I want these children to have a chance. I don’t want them to internalise the limitations that come with labels
After graduating from CUHK in 2019, Mutanga landed a job on the trading floor of Goldman Sachs. Meanwhile, he is determined to address racial prejudice. “I’ve been thinking a lot about blackness and Africanness: wherever we go we are treated like trash. How can we change that, and how can we ensure that we are treated with dignity?”
With this in mind, Mutanga co-founded The Wandering Voice in 2017. The Hong Kong-based social enterprise aims to “provide an active voice for those in search of identity and hope” by including migrant domestic workers, asylum seekers, and ethnic minorities in cooking programmes and media training classes to develop writing, editing and video skills.
Mutanga also set up a refugee-curated social enterprise called Harmony HK in October 2018 with 21-year-old Congolese model Harmony “Anne-Marie” Ilunga. The enterprise offers a platform for ethnic minorities to showcase their talents through the intersection of art, music and fashion, culminating in Harmony Show, a bi-annual fashion event.
In January 2019, Mutanga spearheaded another social enterprise called Africa Center Hong Kong, which serves as a bridge between African and Chinese communities. Monthly events include talks and ‘fireside chats’ on Africa-China relations; an African Literature Book Club; and the African Kidz Club, which welcomes children and parents of all ethnicities.
“I want these children to have a chance. I don’t want them to internalise the limitations that come with labels,” he says. “Their parents might be refugees, but not these kids. We need everyone to realise that.”
Sixteen years ago, when she was 29 years old, Amanthi Siva* fled political violence in Sri Lanka: her husband had been murdered, and Siva was separated from her then one-year-old daughter. Today, all Siva knows is that the child is living in a shelter in the capital, Colombo, but there has been little contact.
“It was tough when I first came to Hong Kong because I didn’t know the language. I’d also never worked, because I come from a very traditional family where I was a housewife,” Siva quietly explains.
To learn English, Siva took classes with Christian Action, an NGO committed to improving the lives of refugees and asylum seekers. She then enrolled in a one-year yoga teacher-training course. “I chose yoga to find peace,” she recalls. “I was experiencing a lot of stress, and I knew it could heal me and help with different psychological issues.”
As a devout Catholic, pursuing yoga had its obstacles. Some members of her Hong Kong church community warned Siva that yoga might cause her to convert to Buddhism or Hinduism. Siva was undeterred: “It gives us inner strength to deal with the problems. Refugees have a lot of issues and yoga helps us to choose the right path.”
Siva hoped to share the benefits of yoga with other asylum seekers but found that many had such strong religious convictions that they declined to try. While navigating the surprisingly polarising world of yoga, Siva found an activity that’s universally accepted: running.
It gives us inner strength to deal with the problems
About four years ago, Siva began training with RUN, a Hong Kong-based charity that aims to rehabilitate vulnerable refugees through physical activity. The experience provided a much-needed opportunity for Siva to engage with the local Hong Kong community, as well as rebuild her strength.
In January 2019, Siva was selected to compete for an ultra-marathon on behalf of RUN. “We trained for five months for the 100-kilometre race and, in the end, they only picked three people. They needed to be sure that we were mentally strong enough,” Siva says proudly.
Today, the 45-year-old feels healthier than ever. She also has refugee status but, she says, this affords her few additional benefits. “Hong Kong didn’t sign the Refugee Convention, so they can’t really help us. It’s their system. I can’t get my daughter here, and I can’t work. This is the life we have.”
“Running, hiking, and yoga – these things make me happy. I don’t expect much, I just want to have a simple life with my daughter. That is my dream.”
Darius is a former law student from Togo whose schedule revolves around two things: sport and human rights. After fleeing political instability in his home country, Darius arrived in Hong Kong where he sought asylum in 2012.
With the help of local NGOs, Darius took English, Mandarin, and Cantonese classes to “keep busy and keep learning.” While developing his language skills, Darius began speaking at schools in Hong Kong to spread awareness about the plight of refugees and challenge negative stereotypes about displaced people.
Around 2016, Darius picked up football, which he saw as another platform to “change people’s mindset.” His role as the team captain of Hong Kong’s “refugee” football team, All Black FC, is a testament to that.
Founded in 2016 by Medard Privat Koya, a former professional footballer from the Central African Republic, All Black FC aims to build a better image for Africans in Hong Kong. And while the first players were exclusively African asylum seekers, today the team welcomes everyone. Darius says, on the field, players are judged by their skills rather than their status as asylum seekers.
Knowing sports can help debunk stereotypes, Darius set up his own multi-disciplinary sports academy earlier this year. At Legends Sports Academy, he coaches football and helps children understand his background.
Outside of sports, Darius also acts on behalf of refugees and ethnic minorities as a core member of the Global Youth Connect group. Based in Sha Tin, the group advances human rights by empowering young activists to collaborate with grassroots NGOs, policy makers, and other stakeholders.
We [refugees] are the best people to speak up about what it feels like to be a refugee.
Darius leads the programme, taking it to schools and universities, including Hong Kong University (HKU), Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), and the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, among others. He’s also been vocal in the local community, hosting a 2018 TEDxWanChai talk on how refugees can contribute positively toward social and economic change in Hong Kong.
Since marrying his partner, who is a Hong Kong citizen, Darius has been able to work outside Hong Kong and attend events with the Asia Pacific Refugee Network. The network consists of civil society organisations and individuals from 29 countries, whose aim is to advance the rights of refugees in the region through joint advocacy and outreach. “We [refugees] are the best people to speak up about what it feels like to be a refugee,” Darius says.
In December 2019, Darius travelled to Switzerland to attend the ‘Global Refugee Forum’, an inaugural programme that aims to encourage more humanitarian responses to large-scale refugee movements, ease the pressure on host countries and enhance refugees’ self-reliance.
Unsurprisingly, the 31-year-old is searching for new ways to support refugees, both in his personal life and his career. “My dream is still to become a lawyer, which is going to happen, no matter how long it takes,” he says, referring to his law school training, which was cut short in Togo.
“I would like to go back to Africa and do something that will benefit the people there. I feel like the problem has to be fixed at the root, and that involves creating equal opportunities for everybody.”
A former nurse, Clarisse Akonyi fled political turmoil in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 2011 with her son and daughter.
Like others seeking protection in Hong Kong, Akonyi faced a challenging new environment. But with the help of Christian Action, she learned English and, in 2012, a woman at Vision First (an NGO that works to improve the livelihood of asylum seekers) encouraged Akonyi to take up crochet. Having never picked up a crochet needle in her life, Akonyi found it meditative and calming.
Akonyi’s designs progressed over time – from simple baby blankets to Christmas decorations, then soft toys such as teddy bears and giraffes. “Everywhere I went, needles and yarn could be found in my bag,” Akonyi recalls with a smile.
Akonyi set up her first arts and crafts group in 2012, providing a safe environment for women to get together and share their skills. In 2017, Akonyi moved into fashion, establishing Art Women with the help of Tegan Smyth, founder of Table of Two Cities, a community project for refugees to share their stories and culture through food.
The pair established Art Women with the aim of offering counselling and therapy for women who have suffered trauma. The group currently includes around 15 mothers from countries such as Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and Egypt.
During weekly Saturdays meetings at MakerBay, a co-working space in Tsuen Wan, participants focus on crafts that take their minds off daily stresses. “I don’t ask the women about their pasts. That would be like pushing them back into their trauma,” says Akonyi.
When we’re together, I feel free. I’m happy because they are happy
Art Women goes beyond Hong Kong to help people back in the DRC, too. “In my country, there are orphans, homeless women, and women who have been disowned by their parents because they were raped,” Akonyi reflects solemnly. Working with charities in her village in the DRC, Akonyi sends sewing machines home so people can “learn how to help themselves.”
In Hong Kong, Art Women brings African designs to the catwalk during the bi-annual Harmony Show, a refugee-curated fashion show. One of the co-founders of the event is Harmony “Anne-Marie” Ilunga, Akonyi’s daughter.
Art Women’s designs mix Chinese and African textiles, creating a unique cultural crossover, and Akonyi plans to add Indian textiles in the future to enhance the diverse aesthetic.
“When we’re together, I feel free. I’m happy because they are happy,” she says of the group of women she has brought together. How does she define the word empowered? Without hesitation, she replies: “Women who can look after themselves.”
Paul Arafa* is easy to spot as he walks into a cafe in Kowloon for our meeting. Tall and broad-shouldered with long, dark curly hair, the Egyptian man stands out on the streets of Hong Kong.
Standing out is something Arafa has become accustomed to over the years. “I converted from Islam to Christianity 10 years ago. That was my first problem. My second problem is that I’m gay.”
At the age of 25, Arafa shared his sexual and religious preferences with his devout Muslim family. They did not take it well. His coming out signaled the end of their relationship and prompted Arafa to leave home in 2010.
“I don’t like Islam and I don’t like Sharia law. There’s too much talk about hate,” Arafa says. “I also had problems with my religious teachers and my father.”
In Egypt, homosexuals are subject to imprisonment, torture, detention, community persecution, even murder. Since Arafa has a large extended family, he thought the chances were high that someone would report him, so he sought protection from his church. A Christian pastor took him in and protected him for the next five years.
For safety, the pastor advised Arafa to cross the border into Sudan where he spent a year. But the situation soon became too dangerous for a homosexual Christian man in a predominantly Islamic country, so Arafa boarded a flight to Hong Kong.
When Arafa arrived in 2016, he felt lost. But with the help of a local church and a number of NGOs, he began to find his way, reconnecting with a major source of inspiration that had helped during challenging times. “When I lived in Egypt and my father was trying to convert me from being gay to being straight, only one thing helped: dancing.”
According to his mother, Arafa started dancing in her womb when she was seven months pregnant. In fact, Arafa’s aunt is a famous belly dancer in Egypt, and he recalls accompanying her to performances when he young.
Only one thing helped: dancing
Back in Hong Kong, the 35-year-old dances in many styles – salsa, tango, jazz – but belly dancing feels the most natural. “When you listen to music your mind will go to another world. That’s where the moves originate from, not from following instructions,” says Arafa, who likes to put a twist on routines that appear in old Egyptian films.
“I have a dream of changing the culture of belly dancing in Egypt. Traditionally, belly dancing is only for women. But belly dancing – all dancing, in fact – is for everybody.”
Two local churches – the LGBT-friendly Blessed Ministry Community Church and the Kowloon Union Church – have both provided Arafa with a place to perform, as well as a sense of community. However, Arafa has never felt fully accepted in Hong Kong. Darker skin makes him a target for discrimination and his passion, belly dancing, is not exactly mainstream.
In 2019, Arafa resettled in Canada, where he hopes to find greater cultural acceptance. “My dream is to one day have a belly dancing school and support LGBT rights across Asia, the Middle East and Egypt,” he says. Arafa ultimately wants to help other refugees find the freedom to express who they are. “If there are positive examples then change can happen.”
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals.