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Prof Chung Man Cheung’s “life-changing experience”: Delving into refugee trauma near the battlefield

“Just call me Man,” the door flew open, and Prof Chung Man Cheung extended his hand. Two chairs have already been arranged in his office as a warm welcome.

Man is a Professor of Educational Psychology at CUHK. It so happened that an East Rail Line train derailed the morning of our interview. Fortunately, we were all unaffected and arrived on time. “It was such a headache last time though,” Man recalled another incident in July when an engineering train derailed near University Station. It was mayhem in Sha Tin where commuting crowds fought (verbally, thank goodness) for a seat on the shuttle buses – the author took four hours to get to office.

“Couldn’t grab a taxi at Sha Tin Station. Bus stops were heaving. And I was in a hurry.” A wild thought came into mind, “Why not cycle my way back to CUHK? It’s just $40, cheaper than a cab ride.” A mere 20 minutes and Man made it to class. On the uphill sections, Man, as fit as a fiddle, commented, “a piece of cake.” Living in Tai Wai, he was prompted to consider biking to work from then on.

Prof Man Cheung (middle) and Prof Harold Chui (right), Research Assistant Gloria (left) and Prof Angela Siu (not in photo) teamed up and initiated a psychological education programme for refugees in Hong Kong. (Photo: ORKTS)

Easing the pain of local refugees with psychological health resources

Man probably grew to become relaxed and versatile from his years of living overseas. After high school, he pursued further studies in Canada and the UK, graduating with PhDs in Psychology and Philosophy. Having taught in the UK and United Arab Emirates (UAE) for over a decade, he joined CUHK in 2015.

In stark contrast to his radiant smile and uplifting pet phrases (“Interesting!” “Fascinating!”), Man’s long-term research topic is heavy. He looks into “post-traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD), a recent buzzword in local news, in particular relation to murderers, accident witnesses, and war-fleeing refugees. “Following funding approval, I’ll fly to Jordan and Turkey for my research on refugee psychology.”

He and his team are being funded by CUHK’s Knowledge Transfer Project Fund (KPF) to design a set of psychological well-being training materials for refugees and asylum seekers in Hong Kong, in the hope of alleviating their trauma. Man’s interest in refugees as a subject stemmed from his encounter with an Iraqi student when he taught in the UK.

“I had an Iraqi PhD student. Chatting with him, I realised I was clueless about the Islamic faith and Muslims. His experience was really interesting to me, with drastically different customs, behaviours and thoughts compared with those of the Chinese or British. Really fascinating.” Iraq was then being bombed by the US and UK, countless citizens were fleeing the country, “I heard a lot about the war from his (the student’s) account.”

Instead of residing in Turkish refugee camps, many Syrian refugees are scattered in the surrounding construction sites or makeshift tents. (Photos: provided by Prof Chung)

Stability in exchange for adventure: A new chapter in the Middle East

While most keep a safe distance from uncertainty, Man appeared eager to get out of his comfort zone.

“Came across a job ad from a university in Abu Dhabi. Thought it’d be interesting, so I submitted an application, kind of for fun.” A notice for an interview two days later caught Man by surprise, and soon enough, he nailed the position. “For sure, I struggled. My job in the UK was so secure, I would have been fired if only I broke the law. That versus a three-year contract in an unfamiliar nation? Who wouldn’t have second thoughts?”

The appeal of a novel culture finally won Man over. He took up the challenge and began a five-year chapter in an Arabian country. “It’s a life-changing experience,” he recalled the sun-filled days from 2010 to 2015, eyes gleaming with excitement.

New environment, fresh experiences. The country follows Islamic laws, meaning students of the opposite sex are to be physically separated. “I taught a psychology class – all-female – I was so uptight! Once I had to pass a tiny USB to one of the students. My hands were actually shaking, for fear that I touched her by accident.”

Man shot this on the Turkish border, “beyond the lighthouse lies Syria.” (Photo: provided by Prof Chung)

The brilliance of humanity amid the refugee crisis

The Syrian War broke out during his stay in the UAE when the refugee crisis was brought under the spotlight. “Crowds were making off to Turkey and Jordan, countries in the vicinity of the UAE.” “So I applied to conduct research on psychological trauma these refugees are suffering from. I went to Sweden on top of Turkey, the former being the European country receiving the most Syrian refugees at that time.”

“I still vividly remember how I was driving in Turkey one day, a woman knocked on my window with a baby in her arms, asking for food. My student offered her a sandwich.” Man observed from his car. The woman returned to her tent next to a ditch, immediately turning to feed her child. “She was not asking for money, just a bit of food, for her own flesh and blood.” It was a sight he could barely bear to watch.

Man then recounted two Syrian men refusing the small remuneration for receiving an interview. “As needy as they were, they insisted not to beg.” Even as a Christian, Man grew respect for Islamic believes and ethics.

Man’s team was surveying in Turkey near Syrian borders, finding it commendable that a number of them refused their remuneration. (Photo: provided by Prof Chung)

Longing for a multicultural ambience

Roaming far from home for the majority of his life, having such a fantastic time teaching in UAE – what took Man back to Hong Kong in 2015? “Frankly speaking, had it not been for CUHK’s employment letter, I would have stayed.” He stressed his fondness of the comfortable, sunlit and international country. “Imagine enjoying breakfast on the beach at Christmas!”

The UAE is an immigrant state, with 80% of its population foreign. Naturally, Zayed University, where Man taught at, was itself a UN. “Very multicultural, I learned loads. The University was bold and supportive of research. Obviously one couldn’t criticise the government nor Islam.” Despite the excitement-filled days, Man decided to go home in 2015, taking into consideration of his ageing parents and CUHK’s charm.

Back in Hong Kong, Man continued his research on Syrian and Iraqi refugees, while extending his interests towards underprivileged Pakistani kids, Kazakh university students, Chinese murderers, on top of asylum seekers in Hong Kong. He and his team applied for KPF in 2018, partnering with local organisations to design psychological training materials for refugees. They are working towards empowering this community in relieving their trauma.

His fourth year in CUHK, Vice-Chancellor’s Exemplary Teaching Award 2018 winner Prof Chung seems to be having fun, “just lacks a bit of the multicultural element here.” He pines for the campus back in the UAE, where different cultures mingle and meet. (Photo: ORKTS)

Prospects beyond a scholarly pursuit

On his upcoming plans, the theory-enthusiast who delights in writing papers hoped to further his research, while giving thought to the possibilities of helping PTSD patients, “now, especially.” He was referring to the restless summer of 2019.

“In Trieste (a city in north-eastern Italy), the local government shut down its psychiatric hospitals and instead, sent the patients to community centres to take part in crafty activities like painting and gardening. Their mental health gets improved in the process.” He believes in the feasibility of setting up a similar space in Hong Kong, where public members in need may co-create and sell their products, building a sustainable business model. “If we could do something like this in the future, wouldn’t it be interesting?”

Epilogue: Gardening and “Kung fu fighting” with patients, for research

By Kary Wong@ORKTS
English translation by Cathy Wong@ORKTS