Wed, Sep 18, 2019 - Page 13 News List

Taipei church helps activists navigate asylum

Che-lam Presbyterian Church has become a beacon of hope for protesters fleeing from Hong Kong to Taiwan, even as the government lacks a clear policy toward asylum-seekers

By Davina Tham  /  Staff reporter

Publicity materials and gas mask filters for Hong Kong protesters lie on a table at the front entrance of Che-Lam Presbyterian Church.

Photo: Davina Tham, Taipei Times

Andy Lin left Hong Kong for Taiwan five years ago to get away from the strain and dashed hopes of the Umbrella movement.

“In the end we didn’t achieve any of our demands. At the time I felt discouraged. I felt that if [Hong Kong] continued that way, it would get worse and worse, and more unbearable,” the 29-year-old says. “So I made a sudden decision to come to Taiwan.”

The Umbrella movement ended on Dec. 15, 2014, after a 79-day occupation of central locations in the financial hub by protesters demanding electoral reform.

Lin was still a university student. After leaving, his plan was to stay in Taiwan for a temporary break. He ended up finding a job at a tour agency, and has now lived here for the past five years.

Lin’s experience has some parallels with the protesters who are now coming to Taiwan because of fatigue and fear of reprisal for their role in ongoing protests against a proposed extradition bill, which have expanded to calls for wider political reform and for Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥) to step down.

They are not alone. Local supporters are now stepping up to provide long-term assistance to those protesters who find their way to Taiwan, most of whom are young and dealing with lingering stress and trauma.

COMMUNITY EFFORTS

Since the protests in Hong Kong started on June 9, Lin has flown back several times to march with his fellow citizens. But he has also found ways to support them from Taiwan.

On Monday — the 100-day milestone of the protests — Lin was at Che-lam Presbyterian Church (濟南教會) next to the Legislative Yuan, sorting boxes of donated protest gear bound for Hong Kong. He bantered in Cantonese with a young woman who had flown to Taipei to pick up the boxes and courier them back to the city.

Head pastor Huang Chun-sheng (黃春生) estimates that NT$4 to NT$5 million (US$130,000 to US$160,000) worth of protest gear has passed through the church since the protests started. A room behind the church’s main building has been converted into a makeshift warehouse containing gas masks and goggles. They will all be shipped out within the week.

Che-lam is so far the only organization in Taiwan to publicly say that it is assisting Hong Kong’s protesters. Through its work with the donation drive, the church has earned the trust of protesters and the attention of Hong Kong media.

This has made the church a beacon for protesters seeking a way out, even as Taiwan lacks a clear policy toward requests for asylum.

“We are worried that our friends in Hong Kong will be misled into thinking that the Taiwanese government does not care about them,” Huang tells the Taipei Times. “So we are telling them that we will walk with them through their trials and tribulations, and we will always welcome our friends from Hong Kong.”

Huang was unable to provide an estimate of the number of protesters who have sought the church’s help. But last week, the South China Morning Post reported that about 60 people involved in the protests had fled to Taiwan since July.

None who received assistance from Che-lam agreed to be interviewed by the Taipei Times, citing worries about their safety as they intend to return to Hong Kong. Some have been charged with rioting by authorities at home.

“We don’t call them ‘righteous persons’ or refugees. We call them travelers,” Huang says. “People who have no choice but to travel because of politics.”

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