Posted by Allegra Bersani
Every year, Justice Centre’s Young Advocates’ Programme (YAP) is open to a small number of young people to give them insight into the workings of refugee law and human rights advocacy in a real practice setting. Allegra Bersani, a 17 year old student going into her senior year of high school in the USA, and one of this year’s Young Advocates, reflects on her experience of the programme.
Though many times necessary, there is a danger in labelling groups. It becomes much easier to process and understand once we can file information about certain people in that one cabinet in our mind. But often, I think, we begin to blur the lines more than we should; the people in that group become that label and all the individuality and diversity that exists gets filed away too. Before, and even during, my YAP with Justice Centre Hong Kong, it was easier to look at refugees clinically and indistinctly. I think I can point to my lack of any real knowledge or education about the issue of refugees, beyond the occasional newspaper article, as a partial cause of this. But I think another very real aspect of it is simply that it is easier to deal with the shocking pain and suffering of huge numbers of individuals when you view them as an amorphous group. It is the easy thing to do. So though it was, in huge part, the education I received at Justice Centre that allowed me to start seeing refugees as other individual human beings, it was also a series of interactions where I saw aspects of my life reflected in theirs. It forced me to reevaluate how I thought about the world around me.
Rather early in my YAP, some people from Justice Centre, myself included, travelled up to Crossroads Foundation to help tutor a few refugees in English. They had been working with a teacher, who also happens to be a caseworker at Justice Centre, for a while and she wanted to give them an opportunity to use the English they’d learned. It was here where I had three interactions that made it impossible to think of refugees simply as a group of people. The first interaction I had was probably the most memorable. It was at the beginning of the lesson when we were all being introduced. He was wearing an amazing cowboy hat of sorts and, though he was introduced to us as a group, he greeted us individually and quite acrobatically: he tried to tip his hat while shaking our hands and putting his right hand over his chest. It was a romantic gesture that was quite at odds with his large frame. I don’t think I’ve felt so touched by someone who hasn’t yet said a word.
The second was with a man who presented to us, in English, about the culture in his own country. He had separated it into food, festivals, clothes, and weather. During his presentation, I was struck by the universality of learning a second language. Almost every year, I’ve had to give presentations in Mandarin about food, festivals, clothes, and weather and, for a second, I felt an inexplicable sense of familiarity and connection with at least one part of this man’s life.
The next activity was for each of us to find a partner and talk to them about a given topic. A different man, my fellow young advocate, and I received the topic of food. The three of us started off talking about what our favourite meals were but quickly digressed to the topic of sports. We discovered that though the most popular sport in his home country was basketball, he liked soccer. We debated who the best player was and teased the other young advocate for her ignorance of all things soccer. He was nervous and embarrassed to be speaking a second language, often looking down at his feet or laughing when he didn’t understand. I thought of the other day when my friends kept trying to pry some Mandarin from me and I was too bashful to look at them when I spoke.
These three men were people that I felt at one point connected to, be it because we were all trying to learn a second language or because they had mastered the perfect hello or because I liked the hat they wore. And they also happened to be refugees.
The views expressed in this blog represent the personal views of the author/s and do not necessarily represent the views, opinions or policy of Justice Centre Hong Kong.