CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Sunday, 1 September 2019

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A proud celebration amidst a shameful reality

HONG KONG (SE): Bethune was an eight-and-a-half-year-old girl in 1986 when she was hit by a taxi in Kowloon Tong. The daughter of Cynthia and Jun Abdon-Tellez was dead upon arrival at hospital.

In the same year the Bethune House Migrant Women’s Refuge opened its doors on September 21 and the board chose to name the shelter after their daughter—Cynthia Abdon-Tellez is today the general manager of the Mission for Migrant Workers which sponsors the project.

But Bethune is also a famous name in China. A Canadian doctor, Norman Bethune, brought his medical skills and innovative mind to China in 1938. With a background in the Royal Navy and as an on-the-ground medic during the Spanish Civil War, he did what he loved most, tended the wounded in their fight against oppression.

He had done pioneering work in the development of mobile blood clinics to tend wounded soldiers in the field and had also been involved in innovative treatment in curing his own tuberculosis.

In China, the army of Mao Zedong was like a magnet to him and he spent the rest of his days in the service of the men and women wounded on the battlefields. Mao later wrote an essay about him, which is still read in China today.

Bethune once wrote, “Medicine, as we are practicing it, is a luxury trade. We are selling bread at the price of jewels... Let us take the profit, the private economic profit, out of medicine and purify our profession of rapacious individualism... Let us say to the people not ‘How much have you got?’ but ‘How best can we serve you?’”

These words have been embraced by Bethune House, which celebrated the 30th anniversary of its foundation in Li Hall at St. John’s Cathedral on September 30.

When Bethune House was set up, migrant domestic workers, mostly from The Philippines, were beginning to come in numbers to Hong Kong. Problems soon appeared, with the throwaway labour often finding itself discarded in what could be heartless space.

It is a refuge for those wounded on the battlefield of the workplace and truly a home of welcome, as like the Canadian doctor, it believes that healing should not be a luxury available only to the rich.

Its ambition is not just to protect, but to inject creative new life into the lost souls that come its way so they do not just go away whole, but with new life and the spirit of independence and leadership.

And so it has been for 30 years. The anniversary was celebrated at a simple meal and fund raiser, as the director of the centre, Edwina Antonio Santoyo, explained its services have now expanded to counselling and legal advice for any migrant worker in trouble.

It is also a place of education, learning new skills and languages, teaching cooking and sewing, as well as art and handcraft. It sells the products, mostly at charity bazaars and around Churches to raise money to pay the bills each month.

With changing demographics, Bethune House has for many years taken in Indonesian clients as well and apart from giving legal advice, mediates with employers, does advocacy for workers’ rights, negotiates with government departments and in immigration issues, as well as having an education outreach among the wider population.

It accepts internships from local students, especially those doing social sciences at Hong Kong universities and institutes, an important work in promoting an understanding in society about people that often society does not want to understand.

It is self-funded, relying on donations and the income gleaned from the sale of products made by the clients.

At the 30th anniversary dinner some photographs of beautiful paintings by one of its star graduates, Janet Pancho Gupta, were up for sale, partly to raise necessary funding and partly to show what careful nursing of the human spirit and coaxing of the creative juices can achieve.

Bethune House is governed by a trustee board made up of representatives from the Anglican Church, the Asia Monitor Resource Centre, the Union Church, the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission and the Mission for Migrant Workers Society.

While 30 years of service is something to celebrate with pride, the dream of Bethune House is to live to see the day it can really celebrate, when the shameful reality of abuse is no longer and its services are not required.

But in a city where increasingly abuse of domestic workers is being reported and the number knocking on its door are on the up, that day may well be a long way off.

However, in the spirit of the sympathy expressed in the memory of little Bethune and the same spirit that inspired the Canadian doctor, when a knock on the door comes, the only question asked is, “How best can we serve you?”

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