Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Taking a razor blade to the hand that feeds you

Work has been getting busier. I don't know if it's a sign that the political environment in Central and Western Africa is worsening but there has been a deluge of asylum seekers from Congo (both of them), Cameroon and Nigeria in our centre.

When we started this place a few months ago everything was new and people were grateful for whatever help they could get. Many of them were living on the street and they were constantly telling us how much their lives had improved since our centre opened.

These days, the organisation responsible for asylum seekers in Hong Kong sends them to us as soon as they make their application. Many think that we are the food-distributing, accommodating-providing arm of that same organisation and they come with a list of demands:

I'm hungry! no crossaint? where's milk? Mr Joe give me bread!

My English lessons on how to make polite requests aren't sinking in fast enough! My basic English class has been able to learn to learn to use the classifier 'a piece of bread' much more easily than 'Could you please...'.

One of our part-time volunteers has quit. He couldn't handle the pressure of cooking meals and giving out food packages only to have the recipients give complaints. At one breakfast recently people ate so much bread that it ran out and I had to make porridge as an emergency measure. Most liked it but one guy came to me in the kitchen with his bowl, 'Mr Joe, this no good!'.

At the extreme end, things are even getting a little dangerous round here. Two people have had complete breakdowns in our centre in the last couple of months that have almost become violent. One client has been particularly problematic and is continually starting arguments with others. He began fighting with someone a couple of weeks ago and I was thankful that there were enough of us around to separate the two.

And then there's been drama with the set of hair clippers I bought (with my own money) for people to use. Last time someone used it they left five razor blades scattered around the room and a heap of bloody tissues in the bin. The hair wasn't all cleared up and a couple of the clipper fittings were left on the window sill. I let them know that I wasn't very impressed, particularly as the children's Cantonese class was to be held a little later in the same room.

Yesterday morning the same person that caused the hair clipper problem asked me for some bread to take away because he was fasting until six o'clock. I then saw him digging in to a huge plate of rice and curry at two o'clock in the other charity organisation in our building!

Anyway, in the midst of all this I've become very thankful for the 50% of our clients who are very helpful and grateful for the assistance they get here. I'm also becoming a lot stricter and more prepared to yell and say 'no' when necessary. I guess I"m learning to give 'tough love'.

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