Laughed, sweated, cheered, danced – but most importantly, they empathized: A reflection on the ‘Social Inclusion Programme’

Our summer intern, Angus Lam, joined the service learning programme with students from French International School to appreciate the impact of cultural and economic exclusion on refugees and ethnic minorities in Hong Kong. Students had the opportunities to interact with refugees and gained an understanding of how economic, linguistic and sometimes legal circumstances combine to prevent full participation by refugees in Hong Kong’s economic and civil society. Angus wrote a reflection of the programme and his interaction with both refugees and students.

The ‘Social Inclusion Programme’ was a firm and resounding success. Each activity — from the refugee home visits to the African drumming and dancing workshops — seemed to fully engage and instill a sense of empathy in the students. This was expressed through the questions that they asked during the refugee walk, the comments they made during the debriefing sessions, their willingness to participate in the basketball games and African dancing workshops, and their attentiveness during Aimé’s interactive presentation on global and local refugee issues. A few students even went up to Jeff, the Refugee Walk tour guide, and asked about how and when they could volunteer to help refugees and our Social Purpose Organization (SPO) partner during the summer holidays. Needless to say, the programme seemed to leave a mark on the hearts and minds of these middle school students.

The programme was inaugurated with an engaging, yet descriptive, presentation given by our SPO liaison, Community Outreach Coordinator, and refugee: Aimé. Accompanying every statistic, figure, and factoid were physical activities and demonstrations, thought-provoking questions, and powerful images. This presentation was immediately followed by more intimate Q&A sessions with refugees from all over the world. Students took the opportunity to ask profound questions, and hear personal and heartwarming answers. One refugee, a Yemeni man who escaped his war-torn country with his five children and wife, talked about getting his 17 year old girl — not much older than the students listening to his story — through high school and the prospect of sending her to university. It was a truly enlightening experience for everyone who listened.

Day 2 was one that matched, and quite possibly exceeded, the excitement of the previous day. Students were split into two groups: one that made jewelry with the female refugees of the SPO, and another that cooked lunch for the refugees. The groups switched activities after lunch (with one group cooking dinner instead), so everyone had a chance to experience both activities. The students’ passion was tangible and very noticeable. They were able to engage all five senses: the tear-inducing smells of chopped onions, the sight of smiling refugees as they presented the refugees with food, the intricate and delicate handling of beads and jewelry, and much, much more.

The third day of the programme was another enlightening and eye-opening day. Students followed Jeff around Yau Ma Tei, Jordan, and Tsim Sha Tsui, visiting two refugee homes along the way. There, students got to hear personal stories from the residents, and got to witness firsthand the living conditions of the refugees. One of those refugees was a 60 year old woman who had a lot of trouble finding a landlord who would rent out a flat to her — simply because she was not from Hong Kong and was an asylum seeker. She told the students that she had been imprisoned for some time, and is now trying to appeal to the courts for compensation. In response, the students asked thoughtful questions to better understand her and her situation.

The last day saw the students and refugees having fun together — through basketball tournaments and African drumming workshops and performances. It was truly a bonding experience for most of the students and participating refugees; together they laughed, sweated, cheered, danced — but most importantly, they empathized.

The wide range of activities and events kept the students constantly engaged and enthusiastic. Yet, the need for seriousness and focus in most of the activities (eg. cooking, sourcing ingredients, visiting refugee homes) really allowed the students to show their maturity and develop their leadership skills. It was great to see this type of behavior, even under the (not-so-ideal) weather conditions and extreme hot weather.

* Angus Lam is currently a sophomore at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, US. He joined Sowers Exchange as an intern in Summer 2017. 

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