Hong Kong social worker and politician Jeffrey Andrews has lodged a public appeal for donations after the office of his affiliated NGO was severely damaged in a fire.

The Centre for Refugees in Tsim Sha Tsui’s Chungking Mansions was incinerated on August 29 after an air conditioner short-circuited, laying waste to furniture as well as computing and telephone systems. The building was evacuated after a caseworker detected smoke emanating from the unit, organisers of the crowdfunding campaign said.

Jeffrey Andrews NGO centre refugees
Photo: Rebuild our community Centre for Refugees crowdfunding campaign.

Christian Action set up the Centre in 2003 as a drop-in community centre for asylum seekers and refugees. Its workers provide support to almost 1,000 people each month, including during evictions, medical emergencies and funerals, according to its online description.

The office’s kitchen and counselling rooms survived the blaze and no injuries were sustained. However, cabling and IT systems were razed, racking up a bill of HK$800,000, according to campaign organisers.

“It is hard to put into words what it means for this community for every month that the centre is closed. It feels like a big hole in our hearts. This is the place where clients wait to see their caseworker, where their kids play, where they share snacks, catch up on news, chat, get to know each other, our staff and volunteers,” they wrote.

“This is where moms get comforted when they struggle to find hope for their kids’ futures in Hong Kong, where families facing tragedies comfort each other, where we celebrate birthdays and practice holiday songs, where our clients can feel at home when they are far from their homes.”

Andrews, a senior social worker at the Centre, is the city’s first social worker of Indian descent and, in July, unsuccessfully ran in the democratic primaries to select candidates to run in the now-postponed legislative election. He told HKFP over the phone that he was shocked at the damage to the office: “It could take months to repair.”

“I’m still devastated that this home away from home could be destroyed like this within minutes. I still wake up and hope this was all a dream, but it’s not and we really need all your help to rebuild, recover and renew our community Center,” he added on Facebook.

There are around 800 active clients at the Centre, which will continue to operate out of the two remaining building units. The third will require extensive renovation.

“Where else in Hong Kong will a landlord say ‘yeah, you’re going to host a refugee community centre, sure’? And, to be honest, Chungking Mansions – we’re in the heart of Kowloon. It’s where people come to find shelter and food,” Andrews added. “Also, the rent we’re paying in this place, it’s affordable. We’ve only got seven staff, and we don’t get government funding.”

The crowdfunding initiative has raised close to HK$450,000 as of Friday evening.

Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.