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Speak Up And Talk About Mental Health

We have Mr. Jeffrey Alterin, ANDREWS,
The city’s first registered Hong Kong-born Indian social worker

Written by Michael Au-Yeung

Once we stepped through the gate of Chungking Mansions – a well-known complex and gathering place for the ethnic minorities in Hong Kong, a few Indians approached and invited us to try out their curry restaurants. We told them we were almost late for an interview with Jeffrey Andrews, an Indian social worker. Apparently, a stand-out figure in the community. They knew who we were talking about and gave us the directions to his office right away.

Jeffrey was already waiting for us when we arrived at his office. After settling down, Jeffrey began telling his story. “I was born in a traditional Indian family in Hong Kong as the 3rd generation. As an ethnic minority, we did not have a chance to receive education in the same classroom with the locals.” Jeffrey was not an academic person and he dropped out from school in his teens. He began hanging out with some gangster friends and he was caught for a theft not long after. At the police station, he tried to make calls and asked for help. However almost all of Jeffrey’s old friends were not willing to give a hand except Fermi Wong, a social worker who had long been trying to approach Jeffrey, but every time, he gave her the cold shoulder.

“Her kind act was life-changing for me.” Jeffrey said she picked up his call from the police station at 4 in the morning and she came the very same night to help with the procedure of bail. She made countless calls to asked for petition letters. Knowing that some of his friends were still in jail at that time, Jeffrey knew this would be the only chance for him to reform. That day onwards, Jeffrey vowed never to let his loved one worry about him anymore. He would like his experience to become a lighthouse to guide those ethnic minorities not to take a wrong path as he did and that was why he strived to be a social worker afterwards.

To become a social worker in Hong Kong, one must speak and write fluently in Chinese. However, Jeffrey could only speak Chinese. Fermi, once again, helped him and liaised with some schools before she succeeded in persuading one to waive the Chinese writing prerequisite for the first time ever in Hong Kong’s history. After 4 years of study and internship, Jeffrey managed to get his certificate in social worker at last.

Jeffrey has been focusing on helping the ethnic minorities and refugees since then. COVID-19 has brought a challenging time to them. In early 2020 when the pandemic just began, there was a wave of misinformation spreading in their community. “At that time, some people thought that curry powder could cure COVID-19!” exclaimed Jeffrey. Some faced difficulties in learning the latest epidemic measures thus they preferred staying at home to avoid being caught and fined. Others may have lost their jobs and worried that going out means spending money. What’s worse, all of these could easily lead to mental health issues.

One of Jeffrey’s clients, who became jobless during the pandemic, chose to hide himself at home in which the toilet was dilapidated and bed buds made him suffered. Jeffrey assisted to look for a new home and a new, clean bed. Despite of this, Jeffrey thought he should do more to help his clients. “By counselling, you have to give them a purpose.” Jeffrey invited his client to contribute his effort to others in need and now his client has become one of the staff in Jeffrey’s centre.

“Don’t teach a man to take a fish, you need to teach the man how to fish.” This old saying represents the philosophy behind Jeffrey, how he empowers his clients and deals with some of their mental health issues too. Jeffrey brought us to a conference room where a group of people was having Zoom meeting. “The one in front of us is Professor Gordon Matthews, one of our volunteers here and he regularly hosts online debate for the refugees. Some of the refugees only spoke broken English when they first came here.” Teaching them to speak English better connect them to the community.

“We are also grateful to have community partnerships with a number of NGOs.” At the beginning of the pandemic, we partnered with another NGO to distribute masks, PPEs, dining coupons, etc. Recently, a career workshop was co-hosted with JCI for the refugees to look for opportunities in the job markets. “Most participants are inexperienced and some of them attended the mock interview with their CVs in handwriting and came with their slippers on!” Jeffrey described. “After a series of consultation and effort to link up with the corporates, out of our expectation, 4 participants got a job offer finally!”

There is still no sight of when the pandemic will end. Here in Hong Kong, there maybe people being laid off and forced to look for another job; there maybe travel lovers being forced to stay in Hong Kong during holiday. But as a Hong Konger living here for almost 4 decades, Jeffrey witnessed a lot of ups-and-downs. Resembling our JCI RISE initiative, Jeffrey thinks that everyone in Hong Kong will just rise and stand up again soon, as long as everyone is out supporting one another, holding hands as we walk past obstacles over obstacles again.

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