When 46-year-old Vanessa Mae Rodel first met Edward Snowden on the doorstep of her run-down apartment, she saw herself in him — a refugee looking for safety, comfort and security in one of the most impoverished areas in Hong Kong after fleeing his country
“He looked very upset and worried,” she recalled. “I said it’s ok, he can stay in my home. I feel like we are the same as asylum-seekers so I should help him.”
Rodel’s lawyer, Robert Tibbo, who provided legal advice to Snowden during his time in Hong Kong, explained to her what the NSA whistleblower had done and how he urgently needed a place to hide.
“I saw the front of the newspaper, I was really shocked. The most wanted man was in my house.”
Snowden had just left the luxurious Mira hotel where Glenn Greenwald interviewed him. The interview had aired on the Guardian and journalists all over the world were scrambling to find out more.
But it was only the morning after when Rodel went to pick up French fries and muffins for her new guest when she realized the magnitude of his actions.
“I saw the front of the newspaper, I was really shocked. The most wanted man was in my house,” said Rodel.
Rodel, an asylum-seeker from the Philippines and her four-year-old daughter are among the three refugee families who sheltered, fed and looked after Snowden during his two-week stay in Hong Kong before he fled to Moscow in 2013. Others include Sri Lankans Ajith Pushpakumara, Supun Thilina Kellapatha, his wife Nadeeka Dilrukshi Nonis and their two small children. The three children were born stateless.
Their identities were only revealed last year in September, by their Canadian lawyer Robert Tibbo, in an effort to raise awareness for their cause prior to the release of Oliver Stone’s film ‘Snowden’. The movie features a scene depicting the refugees with Snowden in a small, cramped flat in the city. The whereabouts of the former NSA contractor’s stay in Hong Kong were shrouded in mystery until last year when the stories of these families received international attention.
“I am living in fear. What I’m looking for is a place where I can live in peace.”
Now the families are fighting for a chance at a new life in Canada. Hong Kong based newspaper South China Morning Post revealed last week that a group of Montreal lawyers filed a refugee claim on behalf of the families in January. They are urging immigration minister Ahmed Hussen to expedite the process. Snowden himself has weighed in on their plight telling Ricochet media that their situation is “vulnerable and destitute” and urging on Twitter that Canada “protects them in kind.”
Marc-André Séguin, Francis Tourigny and Michael Simkin first urged the Canadian government to grant the families sanctuary in Canada in November of last year, citing poor living conditions and safety concerns in Hong Kong after their role in the Snowden saga was revealed.
“Canada prides itself in its track record in welcoming refugees and asylum seekers from all over the world and we feel that they would be great candidates for that and bring a significant contribution to our communities,” said Séguin. “Everyone has in a way moved on and these families are left behind and we refused to let that happen.”
The refugees say that International Social Services, a government contractor responsible for providing welfare to asylum seekers in Hong Kong, have harassed them by slashing their welfare benefits and interrogating them about their time with Snowden. In a place where asylum-seekers are banned from seeking employment, they are completely reliant on government provisions.
“They’re supposed to provide assistance so that the basic needs of the family are met in full, but they have not don’t that,” said Tibbo, who has represented the families since 2010 and been in contact with the three Montreal-based lawyers.
In an effort to cover their living expenses, Séguin, Tourigny and Simkin launched a fundraiser — “Canadians help Snowden’s guardian angels” — last November to provide financial assistance to the families.
Officials from International Social Services did not respond to a request for comment.
The three families have waited for several years for their protection claims to be screened by the Hong Kong government. They have little hope that their cases will succeed. Less than one percent of claims are approved in Hong Kong, rendering it among the lowest in the developed world.
“Until now I have no results,” said Ajith. “I am living in fear. What I’m looking for is a place where I can live in peace.”
Ajith, a former soldier, fled to Hong Kong in 2004. He says he was abused by his superiors and tortured in Sri Lanka. Fellow Sri Lankan Supun filed a refugee claim in 2005 after he says he was also tortured. His partner, Nadeeka, is a former seamstress who filed her claim in 2007 after a man from an influential family sexually abused her in her homeland. Rodel came to Hong Kong on a domestic worker’s visa in 2002 and filed a claim in 2010. She says she is a victim of rape and abduction.
While Hong Kong is not a signatory to the United Nations’ refugee convention, it is still bound by the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. After the screening process, claimants deemed to be at risk of persecution are referred to UNHCR. They are then resettled to a safe third country.
Tibbo said that the families did nothing wrong since Snowden had no warrant for his arrest in Hong Kong when he was hiding with the families. He also believes that the families have little chance of succeeding in Hong Kong and therefore should be resettled in Canada.
“I don’t have confidence in this system here at all,” said Tibbo. “Their living conditions here are really dire, they don’t have a support system here. If they were in Canada, they would have all sorts of organizations helping them,” said Tibbo.
When asked whether they regret sheltering the former NSA analyst, the refugees say they believe Snowden did the right thing.
“He came to my house, Nadeeka cooked for him,” said Supan.”I have very sweet memories with him.”