As ‘Snowden angels’ start new life in Canada, other asylum seekers in Hong Kong are filled with greater anxiety, hope
Posted on March 31st, 2019

Raquel Carvalho  Courtesy SCMP.com

  • Former soldier Ajith Pushpakumara and a family of four from Sri Lanka hope to regain their freedom soon
  • They had all sheltered Edward Snowden when he was in Hong Kong
Ajith Pushpakumara, a Sri Lankan refugee who sheltered Edward Snowden. Photo: Edward Wong

Ajith Pushpakumara, a Sri Lankan refugee who sheltered Edward Snowden. Photo: Edward WongWhen Ajith Pushpakumara, an asylum seeker from Sri Lanka in Hong Kong, hears the word Canada”, his smile turns wider and his brown eyes brighter. That word isn’t just the name of a country, it means hope to him – an apparently distant and yet tenable possibility.He is one of the four adults who sheltered American whistle-blower Edward Snowdenwhile he was in the city back in 2013. They filed refugee claims for themselves and their children with the Canadian government a couple of years ago.This week, the news that one of them, Vanessa Mae Rodel, from the Philippines, and her seven-year-old daughter Keana, had been granted asylum and were leaving for Montreal, shook his world all over again.

I am really happy for them. We were all in the same situation … I hope it’s like a chain, maybe our time will also come,” he says.‘Snowden refugees’ feel free in Canada after ‘living in hell’ in Hong Kong

But I also feel more tension. It’s like it will go one way or another for me.”Pushpakumara, who has been in Hong Kong for about 15 years, knows that his life is at a crossroads and it can soon take dramatically different turns. I may go to Canada or I may be detained in Hong Kong and sent back to Sri Lanka, where my life is going to be over.”SUBSCRIBE TO THIS WEEK IN ASIAGet updates direct to your inboxSUBMITBy registering for these newsletters you agree to our T&C and Privacy Policy

Vanessa Rodel and her seven-year-old daughter Keana talk to the media after arriving at Lester B. Pearson Airport in Toronto, on March 25. Photo: AP

Vanessa Rodel and her seven-year-old daughter Keana talk to the media after arriving at Lester B. Pearson Airport in Toronto, on March 25. Photo: APShare:In a similar situation is a family of four from Sri Lanka.

Legal experts – who were not involved in the applications and who prefer not to be named due to the sensitivity of the case – say that it is very hard to predict the future of the three adults and two stateless children who still remain in Hong Kong.  TOP ARTICLES1/5READ MOREAs ‘Snowden angels’ start newlife in Canada, other asylum seekers in Hong Kong are filled with greater anxiety, hope  TOP ARTICLES2/5READ MORESaudis ‘had access’ to AmazonCEO Jeff Bezos’ phone, his security chief claims

Even though they all filed their claims with the Canadian authorities at the same time and helped Snowden, the applicants came from different backgrounds, a lawyer says.

Another notes that each country has a number of internal procedures and criteria that we are not necessarily aware of. For instance, some prioritise women over men”.

Robert Tibbo, who has been their legal adviser since 2012 and who is now in Canada, says that each case is being handled by a different Canadian immigration officer. Each one goes at their own pace – that’s what I have seen in terms of documentation,” he says.

It is also likely that the US or the ‘Five Eyes’ [alliance of intelligence agencies] have put pressure on Canada.”

Vanessa Rodel and her daughter Keana with lawyer Robert Tibbo. Photo: AP

Vanessa Rodel and her daughter Keana with lawyer Robert Tibbo. Photo: APShare:This group of refugees helped Snowden after the former National Security Agency contractor fled the US and went into hiding in Hong Kong for several weeks in June 2013. He was on the run after leaking classified documents that exposed details about global electronic spying programmes used by the United States and other governments.

These are clear-cut cases,” Tibbo argues. They should all have been approved and be brought together to Canada.”

THE CANADIAN DREAM

Pushpakumara has thought of what he would say to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau if both men were to meet.

Thank you for helping Vanessa,” he would say. I am not safe in Hong Kong. I am stuck and very, very tired. Please, take care of us.”Canada accused of ‘dragging its feet’ over asylum seekers in Snowden case

The 47-year-old wears an inscrutable expression, until he talks about Canada. Then, his face lights up. He has been through three interviews with Canadian authorities and imagines the country to be a place where poor people face less discrimination”.

I think Canadians are very good people, who like to help others,” he says. I also think it’s a very quiet place, and cold – I am a bit afraid of that, but I will be happy in summer,” Pushpakumara says, grinning.

If he is given a chance, he would like to work as a carpenter. I have no studies, but my hands can do many things … I can be a good handyman,” Pushpakumara says. I will probably need help in the first two or three months there and then I can buy my own tools and even set up my own business.”

Ajith Pushpakumara, right, Vanessa Rodel, second from right, with her daughter Keana, Nadeeka Dilrukshi Nonis, third from left, and Supun Thilina Kellapatha, second from left, and their children pose for a photo in front of the Torture Claims Appeal Board building in Hong Kong in July 2017. Photo: AFP

Ajith Pushpakumara, right, Vanessa Rodel, second from right, with her daughter Keana, Nadeeka Dilrukshi Nonis, third from left, and Supun Thilina Kellapatha, second from left, and their children pose for a photo in front of the Torture Claims Appeal Board building in Hong Kong in July 2017. Photo: AFPShare:

Pushpakumara, who now relies on donations, says he is looking forward to being independent. Asylum seekers are not allowed to work in Hong Kong – one of the world’s most expensive cities to live in.

If I go to Canada, I can work, make money and provide for my mother and daughter,” he says. I could take care of them.”

Pushpakumara has a 17-year-old daughter living with his mother back in Sri Lanka. My daughter knows my story, but she keeps asking ‘when are we going to be together?’”

‘UNSAFE’ IN HONG KONG

Hong Kong had never been part of his plans.

When he fled Sri Lanka, his initial intention was to reach Canada. My agent told me to wait in Hong Kong for a week and he would pick me up a week later. I am still waiting,” he says.

Pushpakumara was a soldier for three years in Sri Lanka. His refugee claim says that he decided to desert the army after being sexually assaulted by superiors, but he was caught and tortured before being able to escape.

He landed in 2003 in Hong Kong, where he later filed a protection claim that was rejected about two years ago.

Pushpakumara needs to report every four weeks at the Castle Peak Bay Immigration Centre in Tuen Mun, a facility for detainees awaiting repatriation or deportation. I am still waiting for the result of my appeal. But every time I have to report to the Hong Kong authorities, I am very scared of being arrested,” he says.Hong Kong rejects asylum claims by refugees who sheltered Edward Snowden

If his appeal fails, the last avenue for recourse is a judicial review. But he says that his fears have become greater as proposals to tighten the current regulations have emerged.

The city’s Immigration Department has recently suggested amending the existing law and introducing tougher procedures. If their proposal is approved, authorities will be allowed to remove an asylum seeker from Hong Kong even if he had filed a judicial review or a legal aid application – unless the court had already agreed to hear the case.

I don’t think I would be able to cope with detention … And if I am sent back to Sri Lanka, forget it. My life is finished,” Pushpakumara says.

Supun Thilina Kellapatha and his family. Photo: Jonathan Wong.

Supun Thilina Kellapatha and his family. Photo: Jonathan Wong.Share:

At an even greater risk of arrest and deportation is the Sri Lankan family of four who also helped Snowden.

Supun Thilina Kellapatha who, according to his claim, was nearly killed because of a relationship with a woman linked to an opposition political party, fled Sri Lanka and met Nadeeka Dilrukshi Nonis in Hong Kong. She had also to leave her home country after being raped and held against her will by individuals linked to the government.

They meanwhile had two children in the city, who are stateless: Sethmundi, 7, and Dinath, 2.

Both their protection claims in Hong Kong and their appeals have been rejected. They have already filed a judicial review.Families who sheltered Snowden in Hong Kong say whistle-blower ‘gave them hope’

Their lawyer Tibbo says that they are now under great stress in Hong Kong, noting that Supun had to be hospitalised twice in the past month. They are currently unavailable for comments, the barrister says.

A previously undisclosed link between Supun and Rodel – the asylum seeker who has moved to Canada – was revealed this week. He is also the father of Keana.

Keana (R) with her father Supun in Hong Kong. Photo: Handout

Keana (R) with her father Supun in Hong Kong. Photo: HandoutShare:

Both Rodel and her lawyers are calling on the Canadian government to grant refugee status to Supun’s family. Keana should grow up with her father and stepbrother and stepsister,” Rodel says.

Meanwhile, Montreal is receiving her with open arms. People here are really amazing and warm. They already gave us many things, like clothes and toys … And Keana is enjoying it a lot, playing in the snow, seeing birds and squirrels.”

But Rodel, who is being helped by non-profit For the Refugees and other local organisations, insists that their happiness will only be complete when the rest of the group is given the chance to rebuild their lives in Canada.

MEETING SNOWDEN AND THE LIMELIGHT

Pushpakumara, who has been diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder, has lived in about 15 different houses in Hong Kong – either because of rent going up or safety issues.He recalls an episode from 2016, when he was told that Sri Lankan police investigators were in the city looking for the asylum seekers from the country.

I am still afraid … Life here is very hard. Hong Kong is like a jail,” he says, adding that he sometimes needs to take medication to help him get through the day.

My mind is not the same and sometimes I cannot control my feelings. My body starts shaking and I cannot sleep,” he says.

Despite all the pressure, he says he does not regret having helped Snowden. I would help anyone with a life problem,” he says. We, asylum seekers, know how it is to go through problems, living with no money, no accommodation, in fear.”

Pushpakumara says he monitored the area while Snowden went to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ office in Hong Kong. He says he also travelled several times with the former NSA contractor by taxi.

EXCLUSIVE: Whistle-blower Edward Snowden talks to South China Morning Post

I helped protect him while he was here and at the time I was very happy, because I was useful,” he says. And I think he is a good guy. He did not forget us. He is still not safe, but he still speaks up for us.”

US whistle-blower Edward Snowden now lives in Russia. Photo: Nora Tam

US whistle-blower Edward Snowden now lives in Russia. Photo: Nora TamShare:

Snowden landed in Moscow from Hong Kong in 2013. He ended up stranded in Russia – where he still lives – while he was in transit to Latin America, after the US revoked his passport.

The lives of the asylum seekers and their children dramatically changed in 2016, when their role in helping the former CIA analyst was revealed to the media.Their names and photos were plastered all over the world press shortly before the release of filmmaker Oliver Stone’s Snowden biopic.

Tibbo, who advised Snowden while he was in Hong Kong, argued that their identities were revealed to ensure their safety – but some lawyers and experts criticised the move.

Stone wrote this week on Twitter: Two of the Snowden Refugees (Vanessa and Keana) are now safe in Canada. But the remaining five are still in danger in Hong Kong. It’s time for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to bring them home.”

Snowden also made a similar appeal on his account. After so many years, the first of the families who helped me is free and has a future,” he wrote in French. But the work is not over – with solidarity and compassion, Canada can save them all.”

Pushpakumara talked on the phone with Rodel just before her plane took off on Monday. I told her to be happy and take care. ‘You are now a free bird, you can do your own things’.”

He hopes that such a day will come for him too – so he can enjoy freedom, provide for his daughter and help others, he says.

Every day, I dream about this. ‘Maybe they will call me tomorrow’. Then, I see the phone: no call, no messages.”

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