By Stephanie Chan
When the fire came, Christian Action Centre for Refugees (CFR) was already at a low point in its 17-year history.
COVID-19 had forced the center—the only place in Hong Kong offering direct, drop-in assistance to refugees and asylum seekers—to curtail many of its services. Its clients were staying home, causing further isolation among a population that already existed on the margins of Hong Kong society.
Then, the morning of Saturday, August 29, 2020, a blaze caused by a malfunctioning AC unit swept through the center’s office on the 16th floor of Chungking Mansions in Tsim Sha Tsui. The rooms where caseworkers counseled trauma victims and distributed clothing, diapers, baby formula and other necessities were now blackened shells. No one was injured, but the entire community was in shock.
Into the breach stepped Rob Farrall, an unassuming Brit who had been volunteering at the center for about a year.
A Midlife Reinvention
For many expats, moving to Hong Kong offers a rare chance for midlife reinvention. It was the same for Farrall when he moved here from London in 2012.
The American bed company where he worked had been acquired, prompting Farrall to take redundancy. At the same time, his wife, Pippa, assumed a Hong Kong-based role for UK grocery chain Tesco. In a welcome role reversal, Farrall became the stay-at-home parent to their two children.
In the summer of 2019, he was introduced to some Christian Action staffers at a going-away party. By that time, the kids were older and needed him less. Farrall promptly signed up to help a few days a week.
He started out slowly, answering phones and helping to find jobs for eligible refugees.
“I Can Help.”
At the emergency meeting following the fire, Farrall recalls, “They were in a huge shock, in a burnt out shell. I said, ‘Look, guys, I can help.’”
Farrall had studied building surveying at university, and had also worked in insurance and for an office furniture company. Gratefully, Christian Action accepted his offer to lead the fundraising and renovation campaign. Together with CA’s head office, Farrall put together a cost estimate—HK$800,000—for the renovations. That goal was quickly surpassed, and the campaign eventually raised HK$2.3 million.
Farrall met with a variety of stakeholders—architects, contractors, donors, management, staff, clients—throughout the rebuild. Jeffrey Andrews, a longtime caseworker for CFR, recalls a sometimes contentious process that could easily have gone off the rails without Farrall’s calming presence.
“Had he not been there, I don’t think we would have had the center today,” Andrews says.
In fact, a few months after the fire, several longtime employees left CFR in a state of discontent. Morale sunk even further.
Rebuilding the team, it was clear, would be as important as rebuilding the center. As interim manager, Farrall helped the staff learn to work together again, improved relations with the head office, and got the center’s programs up and running again.
With the additional money raised, Christian Action was able to renovate not just the damaged space, but also its other two units in Chungking Mansions.
“The old center before the fire was a bit disparate,” Farrall says, with team members scattered over two floors and three units. The offices had been jury rigged together over 17 years. “We had sticking tape holding up cables…electrical sockets were way overloaded,” he remembers. One room was filled with items donated by well-meaning people over a period of years. “We had to clear out so much that we’d accumulated. No one knew what was in there.”
The contractors started work in January and moved quickly, with the first office completed by Chinese New Year. Farrall struggled at times to communicate with the builders, but with help from Andrews and Cantonese speakers in the CA head office, “We got there.”
A soft opening followed a few months later. Finally, in June 2021 the center—bright and clean, with a fresh new kitchen and flexible spaces for counseling, classes, meals and children’s tutoring—formally reopened.
“You Think You Have Problems.”
In December 2021, Farrall received AmCham Charitable Foundation’s Ira Dan Kaye Community Service Award for “outstanding service to the Hong Kong community.” Introduced in 1986, this annual award recognizes individuals who have performed outstanding service to the Hong Kong community on a voluntary basis. Recipients of the award receive a check for HK$30,000 for a charity of their choice and an engraved silver plate.
The accomplishment caps off a life-changing nine years in Hong Kong. The Farralls, now empty-nesters, will be moving back to the UK in March.
Hearing the stories of asylum seekers who have come to Hong Kong to keep their families safe from persecution, war and violence has left Farrall with a new understanding of the world and his place in it. He hopes to continue working with refugees in the UK and is even contemplating going back to school to earn formal qualifications.
“My wife says I’m now a little bit more relaxed,” he says. “What it teaches you is that you think you have problems—but actually, they’re not really any cause for concern.”