Drug-addicted minority teens rebuilding their lives at HK school

Hong Kong _ Like any other morning at Christian Zheng Sheng College, 17-year-old Niraj is dressed in a white school T-shirt and has joined teams in the courtyard listening to the custodian Chung Wing-fat’s lecture, “Save your toothpaste please. You live here for suffering, rather than enjoyment!”

Nepalese Niraj never thought there’d be days like this, back 10 months ago when he hung out all day and took marijuana, ketamine and cocaine with his street friends.

“I got bored with those days, doing nothing good,” Niraj said, who is one of the four ethnic-minority students at the school, all of them former drug abusers. “I want to change my life here.”

These teenagers’ cases are not rare. Drug problems exist among South Asian juveniles groups in Hong Kong, especially those from Nepal. Although illicit, cannabis cultivation and consumption is common in Nepal related to Hindu religion. The psychotropic drug abuse like Methaqualone is increasing because of easy availability and low price, according to “Alcohol and Drugs in Nepal” published by Child Workers in Nepal Concerned Centre. Some teenagers are drug addicts before coming to Hong Kong.

“Many drug rehabilitation centers are unwilling to accept the minority drug addicts because of language barrier and limited resources,” Wong Hong said, who is professor in the Social Work Department at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

But Zheng Sheng took them in, as the only school in Hong Kong with a rehabilitation function, founded in 1998. Most students are former drug addicts, with others having committed varying crimes. Three years ago, more than 20 ethnic-minority students studied here while the number in 1999 was zero, according to Jacob Lam Hay-sing, supervisor of Zheng Sheng College.

Rather than a treatment center, Zheng Sheng College is operating as a regulated secondary school. Students may take part in competitions with other secondary school students. “Our students were once marginalized as drug offenders. Now we try to push them back to society as students,” Jacob Lam said.

Leila Chan Hiu-lui, author of the book “Life is Good: Interviews in Zheng Sheng College,” visited Zheng Sheng 10 years ago when teachers shared cold showers with students. “It makes students feel God and others care about them,” Chan said.

Naraj started on drugs at 14 for curiosity and fun, although his parents told him not to. He dropped out of school in Hong Kong after two-month study.

Pakistani-Filipino Atteeq drifted between Hong Kong, Philippines and Pakistan. Hong Kong police caught him stealing cell phones for money to purchase drugs.

Niraj was sent here by his uncle. Ritham and Atteeq, both 17, are on probation orders to stay. 19-year-old Nepalese Raj was persuaded to come here by Fermi Wong from the Hong Kong Unison. They all received medical treatment before entering Zheng Sheng.

These minority students describe themselves as “brothers.” Jacob Lam said, they need to learn the Hong Kong culture and Cantonese, or they will have a hard time after they get out.

Ritham didn’t like Cantonese food at first. His mother and brother bring him Nepalese cuisine once a month. “Life here is boring without my friends and phone,” he said. Now he grows to like fried eggplant, a typical Cantonese food.

Before lunch, students pray. “The Bible teaches my mind to be patient,” Atteeq said. “I read John, not bothered by other things like drugs.”

“How do you like today’s lunch? I’m on duty to cook,” Niraj said, handing out a bowl of soup. He cooked catfish, green beans and Chinese cabbage with several local boys.

They seem to get on well with local students.

“At first, I thought Ritham was a Hong Kong guy because of his look and accent,” his roommate Yan Chun said. “He really sticks to his work and often encourages me to hang in there.”

Canadian Cory Pchajek, one of only two foreign teachers in Zheng Sheng said, “They questioned me, ‘how do you know it’s true what’s in the Bible.’ They are more skeptical than Hong Kong students.”

Besides learning regular courses such as Chinese, math and English, students have opportunities to learn skills like graphic design and film making. Ritham also learned how to care for baby goldfish.

After a quick lunch, students are out to work. Atteeq painted a room, while others carried bricks and tiles from the quay for a new house. Mastering skills and laboring will be helpful for them to find a job, according to Jacob Lam.

“It requires a close relation to guide mental rehabilitation, more care from teachers and social workers,” said Joanne Chan, minister of South Asia Network Ministry in the Mission to New Arrivals, “Zheng Sheng did a good job, but it’s still a long way to go considering problematic minority teenagers outside.”

This summer, two Nepalese students left Zheng Sheng to re-enter society, while these four boys remain here trying to change themselves. They have to stay for two years, or more if they want to finish the secondary school curriculum.

A photo of 30 former students is stuck on Ritham’s locker, most of whom have found a job. “We cannot guarantee that students never take drugs outside,” Jacob Lam said. “To some extent, it depends on their own determination.”

“I don’t think I will take drugs again because I’ll be changed here with more than one year left,” Atteeq said.




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