Devoting her life to helping the poor |
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Devoting her life to helping the poor

Published on Thursday, 17 May 2012
Sze Lai-shan
Community organiser, Society For Community Organisation
Photo: May Tse

Sze Lai-shan moved to Hong Kong from the mainland at the age of 11. Not knowing a word of Cantonese, or even being able to list the 26 letters of the English alphabet, she found living here a struggle. However, thanks to her exceptional effort, she won a university place to study social work, and on graduation joined the Society for Community Organisation (SOCO). Now in her 17th year at SOCO, Sze says being a community organiser is all about helping the needy of Hong Kong and building a better society for everyone.

Why did you join SOCO?
Coming from a grassroots family, and having lived in a congested sub-divided unit for most of my childhood, I am determined to do something to help society. When I was studying at university, I learned about SOCO through my teacher.

I think it is a hands-on organisation which has close contacts with the public. I also feel that it can make changes for the better.

However, my family was not very supportive. My father was rather conservative and thought I might get into trouble because I constantly had to stand up for others. I did not dare tell them about my work, but they soon found out about it from the news.

Now they are more open-minded but still nag me when I get home late because they worry about my safety.
What do you think is the root of poverty in Hong Kong?
The poverty we have is unacceptable, considering our city’s economic development Cross-generation poverty is the main problem. I managed to climb out of poverty, thanks to hard work. But in today’s Hong Kong, it is much tougher for lower-class people to move up.

The government may have pledged to provide 12 years of free education, but that does not necessarily translate into an opportunity to escape poverty. Education demands  cash. Poor families have no resources to support their children for tuition classes and other learning resources, making it hard to compete for university places.

Even for the handful of outstanding individuals who manage to get a degree, it does not mean they are able to escape poverty. They sometimes are forced to do low-paying jobs which is a problem faced by all university graduates, because they have to repay the government grant and loan that had helped fund their university studies. They cannot do much to improve the lives of their families.

What inspires you to keep going despite all the obstacles?
I love my job because I love helping people.  I value the relationship I have with the residents. Throughout the years, I have seen boys and girls whom I have helped grow into capable men and women. Their success fuels my desire to continue to help.

I knew that change cannot happen overnight, and that government policies have their limits. But this will not discourage me from helping people in need.
What do you think of the perceptions of locals on new immigrants?
The general public does not have hard feelings towards new immigrants, but there are a small number of extremists who think new immigrants take away their resources.

New immigrants are part of our society and should not be discriminated against. The government should not have policies highlighting that new immigrants are different. But disappointingly, they do have such policies. Last year, the HK$6,000 giveaway policy did not benefit new immigrants. This is sad, as the government was sending message to the public that new immigrants are separate from the rest of society.
What can the public do to help build a better society?
If Hong Kong people could become more loving, and care less about money, society would be much more harmonious.

One bad thing about Hong Kong people is that they are far too money-minded – they rate your success only by the amount of money that you have made. If society cares only about money, everyone will end up functioning like robots and inter-personal relations will no longer exist.
Are you worried about the lack of new talent in your field?
I don’t think my career is attractive to young people, or to others. I work 12 hours a day, from 10am to 10pm, seven days a week. My to-do list is endless – making home visits, attending meetings with residents and government officials, conducting research on the needs of residents, speaking to the media and many more. But if you are passionate about helping others, you can overcome anything. 

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