Drug use on the fringes
Research shows that ethnic minority youths are most vulnerable to drugs. Shirley Zhao looks at the problems they face
Gurung Milan is a Hong Kong-born Nepalese. After the 38-year-old finished high school here, he went to university in Nepal but dropped out and came back to our city to work. When his friends approached him with ‘cough syrup' a year later, he just couldn’t resist. He started getting into it and, later, he progressed to heroin. Soon he was spending $400 every day on drugs. Then he quit his job and his life was on a downward spiral. “It was very painful at that time,” says Milan. “You just can’t handle it – not only your job, but relations and other things too. You just fail them. It takes you to that point where you can’t get things straight – and it just goes on and on.”
Some people may turn a blind eye to it – but there is a problem with young teenagers from ethnic minority backgrounds getting into hard drugs in the SAR. And stories like those from Gurung Milan show just how long that problem has been a part of our society. A recent study conducted by non-governmental organisation KELY Support Group shows that compared to Chinese and English-speaking youths, young people from ethnic minority backgrounds are the most vulnerable to the pressures of drugs. According to the research, about 58 percent of minority youths know very little about drugs, 32 percent don’t know where to seek help for their problems, 26 percent show a tendency to accept drugs offered by friends and 18 percent wouldn’t mind trying drugs. These rates are the highest among the three groups.
Milan is not surprised by the findings. He says it’s usual for minority parents to send their children back to their home countries to study for a certain period of time before bringing them back to Hong Kong. “When they’re back, they face a lot of obstacles like getting into university,” he says. “Even for those who have been to secondary school here, they face the same problem. At that particular age, they can’t go forward, so what they can do is get stuck while they’re hanging out with friends. That’s why it’s easy for them to start drugs.” It took Milan 10 years to quit the drugs – not in Hong Kong but in Nepal. Now he is a peer educator helping minority people with drug problems.
Fermi Wong Wai-fun, executive director of Hong Kong Unison, a non-governmental organisation focusing on minority groups, says the findings also coincide with her social working experiences. “I’ve worked around 300 cases on minority youths under the age of 21 who have drug problems,” says Wong. “Although all youths could be attracted to drugs out of curiosity, minority youths are especially vulnerable. They tend to use drugs to escape reality and to feel the happiness that they find it difficult to feel in real society.” According to Wong, marijuana, methamphetamine (ice), cough medicine and heroin are most commonly used by young minorities.
Wong tells Time Out that there are three major issues leading minority youths to drugs in Hong Kong. Firstly, ethnic minority groups have a strong sense of brotherhood and culture of sharing, thus are more susceptible to start using drugs due to ‘peer pressure’. Secondly, the language barrier makes them feel defeated in schools and later at work. They feel it is hard to fit into Hong Kong’s education and society, so they become more likely to turn to drugs for relief, says Wong. Discrimination from the ‘mainstream groups’ is another reason she cites, as this makes it hard for minority youths to get an early head-start in life. Subsequently, she tells us, the young people feel lonely and lost, and fall for drugs.
Another noticeable phenomenon, as Wong points out, is that almost 90 percent of the 300 cases she dealt with involved Nepalese youths – and most of them used heroin, which is strong and ‘efficient’, but is often deemed as ‘outdated’ among Chinese and English-speaking drug users. According to drug abuse statistics from the government’s Narcotics Division, in 2010 there were 258 reported Nepalese drug abusers – the highest among all ethnic minorities.
Fung Ho-kwan, a social worker at the Society for the Aid and Rehabilitation of Drug Abusers, has been reaching out to minority drug users in Yau Ma Tei. He says most of the drug users who go to his organisation’s methadone clinic in Yau Ma Tei are Nepalese. “I feel that Nepalese people are especially closely united,” says Fung. “If one of a group of 10 Nepalese gets into drugs, it’s highly likely that the rest will be influenced. And they find it hard to integrate into the local society. That further strengthens their community ties.
“But, in fact, all minority people face the same difficulties in Hong Kong, so they are equally vulnerable. What we know are just the cases we can reach. Nepalese people are more friendly and approachable, so it’s not surprising that the amount of Nepalese drug users which has been reported is actually more than other ethnic minorities.”
Yuen How-sin, co-ordinator at the Society of Rehabilitation and Crime Prevention, believes there is a lack of community support for young minority drug users. “Many drug prevention and education websites are only in Chinese and English – and some sites are not even bilingual,” she says. “There are not enough NGOs doing the community outreaching either. Many minority people have limited social connections. They don’t know where to look for help and have little access to relevant information.” Yuen also says a number of drug rehabilitation centres are Christian-based, while most minority people have their own religions and refuse to go to those centres.
Yuen urges the government to provide more active, ‘culturally-sensitive’ support to the minority drug users – and to support social organisations to recruit more minority social workers who can tend to the special needs of the minority groups.
Gurung Ganesh, 39, got into drugs when he was just 16 years old. A year later he decided to quit – but, he says, it took him more than 14 years to succeed in that mission. “My health got worse very quickly after I started to do drugs,” Ganesh tells us. “It also caused a lot of frustration in me. I didn’t have good friends. I also made Nepalese people in Hong Kong look bad. I ran out of money and had to do various illegal activities to buy drugs. I was really frustrated at that time. So I decided to quit.”
Ganesh says he found it difficult to find help in Hong Kong. “At that time I never met any social workers,” he recalls, “and no officer from any rehabilitation centre came to tell me where I could find these centres. I knew a methadone clinic and some counselling services only through my Nepalese friends who were ex-users.”
Eventually Ganesh returned to Nepal for his rehabilitation and succeeded. “You need to understand a programme to succeed,” he says. “Back in Nepal at least I could understand the language when joining in the programme. Now I don’t smoke, I don’t drink and I don’t take any chemicals,” he smiles. Ganesh is now a peer educator reaching out to Nepalese drug users. And his story is strikingly similar to Milan’s. “In fact, all minority drug users’ stories are similar,” he says. “We face the same problems. We go down the same path.”
While the Society of the Aid and Rehabilitation of Drug Abusers and the Society of Rehabilitation and Crime Prevention have started to recruit minority social workers, KELY Support Group believes education and prevention is also important. The group is co-operating with schools on drug prevention programmes targeting minority students, as well as combining drug education into classes.
“But it really depends on the school’s curriculum,” says Rebecca Tan, project co-ordinator of the group. “A lot of schools are very busy. But once they understand the need to carry out the programmes, they’ll be willing to join. That’s why we conducted this research so we can try to present the findings to different schools.”
Delia Memorial School’s Kwun Tong branch, a school attended by many minority students, is one of those participating in the programme. “I think students use drugs because they are curious but they don’t know what drugs will do to them,” says 14-year-old Muskan, a Form 2 pupil at the school. “I really wanted to know how drugs affect people and now I even teach my parents about drugs.”