Featured image: The All Blacks squad resting after a match
When it comes to refugees, Hong Kong observes non-refoulement: the government does not force refugees and asylum seekers to return to their native land where they may be persecuted. At the same time, however, the autonomous territory does not grant asylum.
The sluggish pace at which the case of their citizenship is being reviewed only draws out the frustration of being neither here nor there. As reported by South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s system for vetting cases is broken – out of 10,000 applications processed by the government since 2009, only 83 have been substantiated. But being verified has its own set of problems. The concerned authority merely refers the cases to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and advocates for the relocation of the individuals to a third country.
The continued wait for the affirmation of citizenship made Medard Koya, who has been in Hong Kong since 2012, realise that it is only wasting the potential that can be garnered from the best years of the youth. He decided to contribute to the new society he was part of, by laying his trust in football. To that end, he alongwith Bidjoua Eustache-Hauvelith, founded the All Black FC, a football club for the African refugees in the city.
“All Black FC gives a unique opportunity to refugees, asylum seekers and players of ethnic minorities to finally have a sense of total freedom where, without restrictions, they can play football and express themselves. Through football, they are finding their true identity,” says Koya.
When Koya first arrived in Hong Kong, he had worked as a coach for Chelsea FC Soccer School. It was here that he observed a fairly large number of African refugees who were skilled in the game but lacked proper training. Koya also witnessed the systemic marginalisation they had to face, prompting their exclusion from the community. Through his efforts, the club (with him as their manager) now trains twice a week with support from the Chelsea FC school.
Today, the club has 6 volunteer-coaches (all former professional players) under Eustache-Hauvelith’s leadership. The players themselves hail from various parts of Africa — Congo DR, Somalia, Tanzania, Togo, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Ghana, Central African Republic, Uganda, Cameroon, Congo Brazzaville, Gabon, Republic of Guinea, Gambia, Nigeria, Madagascar — and are aged between 18 and 40.
Since the inception of All Blacks FC, all expenses of the team (such as venue for practice and sportswear) are covered by Koya. Besides welcoming his players to his home for meals, he also foots the collective bill for transportation subsidies, as the monthly transport allowance of asylum seekers amounts to a meagre HKD 200. Due to this, the club is sometimes unable to travel to the training ground in Kowloon Bay.
Members of the club engage in outreach activities such as cultural performances, workshops and seminars at schools and universities where they attempt to build bridges through the idea of “football as a common language”. With the help of their head-coach Eustache-Hauvelith, they also engage in development activities for refugees that pertain to sportsmanship workshops and leadership training. These aspects reside under their umbrella project called Social and Community Integration through Football (SCIF).
Community service plays a big role in the lives of these players: other than reaching out to students through friendly matches and cultural exchange programs, they had also partnered with the Hong Kong Movie Stars’ Sports Association Charities Limited to serve the elderly. Though the club currently has their plate full with such projects of social integration, Koya is worried about funding, sponsorships and partnerships, without which all such projects, and even the future of the club, have to be put on hold.
A prominent feature of All Black FC’s webpage is the recent post that advocates for crowd funding in order to support the club. Published in August 2017, the note states that finances are required in order to participate in Hong Kong’s Cosmos Football League, the target being 25,700 HKD.
Despite meeting their goal, the club faced an unexpected obstacle – racism and xenophobia. Hostility and “Other”-ing are regularly experienced by the players on the pitch. Due to the lack of proper funding, the All Blacks cannot register to join a professional league. The club has to fend for itself and are only eligible to play friendly matches. Even on such non-competitive pitches, it allegedly faces unfair rulings by referees due to racial differences. Racially-charged insults from players of the opposing team are commonplace, with “hak gwai” — a Cantonese racial slur that translates as “black ghosts” – being the most common taunt that is paraded under the mask of “friendly banter”.
Due to the All Black’s status as Hong Kong’s only refugee team, the world is slowly starting to notice them and while coverage on them is, on the whole, positive, it seems to have little impact on the league officials of the city.
“Sometimes, we do not feel welcome: there is always some local team or the other who do not want to play against our club. We planned to join the Cosmos League last September, but the organisers simply rejected our application. We are still not getting the support we need to move and impact Hong Kong simply because we are the founders of this club and we are not Chinese,” says Koya.
Still, Koya believes in sending out a strong message to the masses – that football is for all people, without restrictions and discrimination: “We are against all systems of oppression where people want to use the game as a weapon to destroy and kill dreams, passion and hope simply because they are of different colour and have different status.”
It is this belief that propels the club to demonstrate their skills to the community and to the rest of the world. Early last year, they played against both the Tuloy Don Bosco boys’ and girls’ teams. Other opponents include the Hong Kong Women Representatives team, the Hong Kong team (Retired Men category), the Hong Kong Representative teams (U18 and U19 categories), and local professional teams such as HK Pegasus and HK Rangers. In December 2017, the All Blacks played their first international friendly, against the U18 national team of the Northern Mariana Islands.
Currently, the club is not owned by any individual or private group and rely mainly on crowd-funding, their first such project undertaken to finance membership to a local amateur league. They have officially registered the “All Black Athletic Association Ltd. Company” and the “All Black FC Foundation”. The former was set up to develop activities that will generate sustainable financial support for the Club to stay afloat. These include developing sportswear and football equipment, as well as football coaching programs for local schools.
For many members of the club, their refugee status bars them from gaining formal employment in Hong Kong. Take Eustasche-Hauvelith, for example: in spite of being the head coach, he does not receive any payment for his services. The All Black FC Foundation has been set up in order to receive donations that will support their philanthropic projects as part of social integration. In a bid to make the club as integrated as possible, Koya and his companions have opened entry to anyone who is passionate enough to play football, welcoming refugees, ethnic minorities and “even the local people of Hong Kong”. After a thorough review for two months of the applicant’s commitment and discipline, conducted by the coaching staff, the player is then registered as a permanent member.
A prime reason to set up All Blacks was to give young refugees a sense of purpose and to prevent them from embarking on wayward routes during their formative years. Drugs and alcohol are regular temptations, and they prove to be misleading zones of comfort for those who are languishing in this wait. Initially, differences had cropped up between the players and Koya, and he had found managing a team with such diverse backgrounds frustrating. He recollects the time when even a signed player had stopped coming to training sessions. It was later that he discovered the asylum seeker had been arrested and sentenced to 16 years in prison for the sale of drugs.
The club uses football as a tool to educate, aiming to hone their personal development skills, desire to serve the community and abilities as leaders. “We want to teach them not only to be excellent on the pitch but also to be good people in society even in the face of challenges,” he says.
Soon enough, the team found its stride, going so far as to winning all the friendlies they have participated in, and even drawing a game with a local Premier League team.
But for Koya, the fight to be accepted goes beyond gaining respect from other players by winning matches. In the face of hostile behaviour, he constantly reminds his team to not react to provocation, emphasising on sportsmanship, even if it is not reciprocated. Koya’s three-year-old daughter had once been bullied by other children. It was after this incident that he decided to change race perceptions in children and the younger generation itself, in an effort to create a more inclusive future.
This is why the All Blacks are active in schools and Universities. They interact with students and have already engaged in cultural exchange programs with Hong Kong Baptist University, Hong Kong Lingnan University and Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Koya’s fight is one where hate is replaced with love: “This is the picture that our players want to send back to their home countries; that All Black FC is the platform for hopes and dreams.”
He holds an optimistic view regarding the Hong Kong government’s awareness of the Club’s efforts: “I think the government knows of our positive actions in Hong Kong. Most of the local people and other local communities follow us on Facebook and Instagram, I think that is a positive response.”
But he is aware of how limited their actions can be without the right funding, in spite of their hearts being in the right place: “There is more we can do and want to do for the community but we really need the time and a great deal of support from the local government.”
When Medard Koya and Bidjoua Eustache-Hauvelith founded All Black FC in Hong Kong, the city had its first all-African refugee football team. But for the club and its members, being welcomed to this new land by both its football leagues and its government is a delayed process. Now, around two years into their formation, they are still waiting for it.