How Hong Kong refugees who sheltered Edward Snowden found a new life in Canada

Two of the 'Snowden refugees' have a new home in Montreal. What about the others?

Pale skin, worried eyes and one plastic bag—this is what Vanessa Rodel remembers seeing when Edward Snowden appeared in front of her for the first time in June 2013.

He needs sleep, Rodel thought.

In the days leading up to Snowden landing at Rodel’s Hong Kong flat—a dark, 250-sq.-foot space in Kowloon’s refugee slums—he had become the most wanted man in America. Working with reporters Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill and film director Laura Poitras at the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong, Snowden—a 29-year-old computer programmer—had been leaking classified documents detailing global surveillance under National Security Agency-backed programs like PRISM and XKeyscore. On June 14, the U.S. government had charged him under the Espionage Act. On June 21, the U.S. requested his extradition from Hong Kong.

“From the moment that Laura’s video of me was posted on the Guardian website on June 9,” Snowden writes in his newly released book, Permanent Record, “I was marked. There was a target on my back. I knew that the institutions I’d shamed would not relent until my head was bagged and my limbs were shackled.”

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But that day on her doorstep, Rodel didn’t fully grasp the notoriety of her new visitor. She hurried to change the sheets on the bed. Then she went to McDonald’s to buy Snowden a sausage McMuffin and lemon iced tea. When she came back, Snowden turned to her and said, “In the morning, wake me up. I’d like your help.”

The next day, Snowden asked Rodel to buy him an English-language newspaper. When she arrived at the newsstand, she looked down and paused. On the cover of the South China Morning Post was a picture of the man she’d met only the night before. As she walked home clutching the paper, everyone around her was talking about Snowden. What? she kept asking herself. And he’s staying with me?

Every morning, Snowden asked for a copy of the South China Morning Post. Then, he writes in his book, he would perch in corners of the flat, skimming Wi-Fi from hotels using a special antenna. Rodel gave him privacy, but she often had to remind him to shower and eat.

One day, a chocolate cake was delivered to the flat. “It’s your birthday?” Rodel exclaimed as she presented it to him. For the next several days, Snowden ate the cake—slice after slice—until it was gone.

It was a time of exhilaration for Rodel, a change from her life in Hong Kong, where she was viewed as a second-class citizen. Snowden gave her a sense of purpose; she wasn’t fearful or wavering. “There was nothing to lose,” she says. “I had nothing.”

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Then Rodel got a call from Robert Tibbo, the lawyer who was helping her apply for asylum in Hong Kong, the man who had brought Snowden to her door (and who was also Snowden’s lawyer). Snowden was leaving, Tibbo told her. Soon, the thrill of days spent with the American would fade.

Snowden didn’t forget Rodel, or the others who lived in the flat where he stayed. He writes about them in Permanent Record: “Though their resources were limited—Supun, Nadeeka, Vanessa and two little girls lived in a crumbling, cramped apartment smaller than my room at the Mira—they shared everything they had with me, and they shared it unstintingly,” he wrote.

Supun Kellapatha is the father of Rodel’s child, Keana, who was a year old when Snowden camped out in her home. Kellapatha also has a child named Sethumdi with Nadeeka Nonis. The girls were born three months apart. The couple, along with Vanessa—all of whom fled to Hong Kong to escape torture in their respective countries—relied on each other. They lived together as a family.

“It pains me that, all these years later, the cases of Ajith [Pushpa Kumara, another Sri Lankan who housed Snowden], Supun, Nadeeka and Nadeeka’s daughter are still pending,” Snowden continues, referring to the Sri Lankans’ efforts to emigrate from Hong Kong. “What gives me hope, however, is that just as this book was going to press, Vanessa and her daughter received asylum in Canada.”

Rodel and her daughter Keana in Montreal on Sept. 29, 2019 (Photograph by Dario Ayala)

Rodel arrived in Montreal on March 26 of this year, and six months later, she’s rushing past other moms and dads on a brisk fall afternoon. Wearing an oxblood jacket and navy pants, she blends in with the crowd. Her long black hair gleams in the sun. It’s 3:35 p.m. and she’s late to greet Keana, now seven, who just started at a new school.

Keana is excelling here, she says. Back in Hong Kong, people always asked why her daughter is so “dark.”

“Here, no one cares,” Rodel says.

Rodel grew up in a small village in Quezon province, about four hours southeast of Manila in the Philippines. Her father was an educated man who worked as a secretary for the local government. Her childhood was like that of most middle-class children in Quezon. She remembers the mangoes—numerous cultivars—that she and her cousins plucked from trees and ate with vigour. After high school, Rodel started a sewing business from her parents’ home, making gowns for proms, weddings and beauty pageants. She was the only one in her village who could make these dresses, and she dreamed of having her own shop one day.

In the summer of 2000, when Rodel was in her early 20s, she attended a friend’s wedding. There she met an officer from the New People’s Army (NPA), the guerilla arm of the Communist Party of the Philippines, considered a terrorist group by the Philippines, U.S. and EU. The officer, who was at least a decade her senior, pursued her intensely. For five months after the wedding, he’d turn up at her home. The more Rodel denied him, the more he persisted. In November 2001, the officer abducted Rodel from her home and took her to one of the NPA bases in the hills, where he raped her repeatedly and forbade her from leaving. Rodel became pregnant and gave birth to a son.

Sensing it was the key to her survival, Rodel worked to gain her abuser’s trust, and over time, he allowed her to have contact with her parents. Her father devised a plan for her to move abroad on a domestic helper visa—leaving her son would be the only choice. To this day, Rodel doesn’t know what’s become of him.

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An estimated 81,000 Filipinas work as nannies in Hong Kong. Rodel arrived there in October 2003. She secured work with a family of four in Kowloon, on the southern part of the mainland, cooking, washing clothes and caring for their newborn. Her boss was cruel—forcing her to stay inside the house so she didn’t make friends and insisting that she cut her long hair short—and after a year, Rodel found work with another family.

But here, too, there were problems. Her second employer’s boys adored her, and she treated them like her own. Her boss became jealous and angry, and after two years, they decided to part ways. Rodel was stripped of her work visa.

For four years, she moved around the homes of other Filipinos. Sometimes, she’d stay for one or two nights; the longest she’d stay was a month. Most of the time, she slept on their floors. She did whatever they told her in exchange for shelter and food. One morning in April 2010, Rodel was walking in Kowloon when she spotted an armed “side-cap”—the nickname refugees use for the Hong Kong police. As they crossed paths, their eyes met, but the side-cap kept going. She exhaled with relief. Before thinking, she turned around to see if the side-cap was still behind her. Their gaze met for a second time.

“You,” he shouted. “Come here.”

Inside the Castle Peak Bay Immigration Centre (CIC), there were Pakistani, Indian, Filipino, Indonesian, Sri Lankan and Vietnamese refugees. Each room was locked like a jail, and unlit; windows let in only slivers of sunlight. At 6:30 every morning, the guards pounded their batons against the door to wake the 15 women in Rodel’s sleeping quarters. They folded their wool blankets on top of their steel beds and waited as their numbers were called—Rodel was RBCL/1148/10. She made her way to the showers, where she was given a face towel to dry her entire body and dish detergent to wash her hair.

In the main hall were four long tables that sat about 50 people. Two hundred refugees spent their entire day there, most of them undocumented immigrants with no access to attorneys. Rodel was constantly scared. She was so timid that the CIC workers nicknamed her “moy moy,” “small girl.”

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She knew she couldn’t go back to the Philippines, where her abuser would find her. Then she learned about the one pathway to seek asylum in Hong Kong—the United Nations Convention Against Torture. Ten weeks later, her application was filed and she was released by the CIC, thrust into Hong Kong’s International Social Service program (ISS).

It can take up to a decade for Hong Kong to process asylum applications. While refugees wait, they’re forbidden to work. If they do, and they’re caught, they risk being jailed for at least two years. From 2005 to 2019, the number of torture claimants recorded by the Hong Kong government was 34,145. Currently, 36 per cent of those are pending, and there is no indication whether the other 64 per cent that were “determined” were rejected or approved.

Every 10 days, Rodel lined up for HK$1,000 in food rations, delivered to refugees through Indian and Bangladeshi food distributors. They passed off their scraps—browning greens, spoiled frozen fish, freeze-dried coffee. Rent allotment was HK$1,500 per person, paid directly from ISS to the landlord. In a city where the average rent for a 250-sq.-foot flat costs between HK$5,000 and HK$8,000, the areas where refugees like Rodel were forced to live were shantytowns, reeking of festering rubbish and urine.

Each flat had a living room that only fit one chair; kitchens were located right beside built-into-the-floor toilets; and bedrooms—the only part of the home with a window—were coffin-like. To survive, refugees lived in groups, packed like sardines in units without proper light, plumbing or ventilation. Rodel lived with Kellapatha and Nonis, whom she met through friends.

In 2011, both Nonis and Rodel became pregnant. They each had a daughter—Sethumdi and Keana—born in October 2011 and January 2012, only three months apart. The girls grew up together, as sisters. Like all children born to refugee parents in Hong Kong, they were born stateless.

Just three months after Keana was born, Kellapatha was detained by the CIC. It happened during a monthly sign-in required of all Hong Kong asylum seekers. When Kellapatha presented himself, he was told that his case had been rejected. While in detention, Kellapatha heard about Robert Tibbo, a Quebec-born human rights lawyer practising in Hong Kong, who was writing letters to Hong Kong’s director of immigration, and helping refugees get out. Kellapatha instructed Rodel to find him, and in May 2012, she showed up at Tibbo’s door.

Tibbo had some 100 refugee clients, 75 per cent of whom he represented pro bono. Rodel was amazed when only a few days after meeting Tibbo and telling him about Kellapatha’s case, he was able to get Kellapatha released. The group—Rodel and Kellapatha and Nonis—trusted Tibbo instantly. They all became his clients as they sought asylum in Hong Kong.

People cross a street in front of a monitor showing file footage of Edward Snowden in Hong Kong on June 23, 2013 (Bobby Yip/Reuters)

When Tibbo brought Snowden to their door, he knew what he was asking of his clients. “I was very clear,” Tibbo says. “‘You don’t have to [do this] if you don’t want to.’”

Seven days prior, Tibbo had received a call which altered the course of his life forever. He, along with another local Hong Kong attorney named Jonathan Man, became the men in charge of helping Snowden escape Hong Kong authorities. They were tipped to Snowden by Greenwald’s Hong Kong readers as attorneys who helped refugees.

The first challenge was finding a place where Snowden could evade arrest. Tibbo knew that checking Snowden into a hotel or renting him an apartment wasn’t possible with Hong Kong’s complex CCTV network. Then it clicked: Snowden could stay with other refugees. Hong Kong police, says Tibbo, would never have imagined that someone with Snowden’s status would be staying with poor, ethnic minorities.

Tibbo had confidence in only a handful of his clients—Rodel, Kellapatha, Nonis and Pushpa Kumara, a Sri Lankan ex-soldier. Throughout the year that he’d known this group, Tibbo had seen their extreme empathy. They always opened their doors to new refugees, offering them a place to sleep, feeding them and teaching them how the asylum application process works.

“The solidarity they showed me was not political. It was human and I will forever be in their debt,” Snowden writes in his book. “They knew all too well what it meant to be forced into a mad escape from mortal threat, having survived ordeals far in excess of anything I’d dealt with and hopefully ever will: torture by the military, rape and sexual abuse. They let an exhausted stranger into their homes—and when they saw my face on TV, they didn’t falter.”

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After Snowden boarded a flight to Moscow on June 23, Rodel and the others continued living without status in Hong Kong for three years—signing in to the CIC every month and waiting on immigration to screen their cases.

Then, in September 2016, Oliver Stone’s movie Snowden was released. For the first time, the public learned that Tibbo had hidden the whistleblower with other refugees. Hong Kong authorities worked to access Tibbo’s client list. As a group, the refugees decided to go public. Rodel, Kellapatha, Nonis and Ajith Pushpa Kumara—along with Keana, Sethumdi and Dinath, Kellapatha’s and Nonis’s one-year-old son—became known as the Snowden refugees.

With their identities revealed, Hong Kong’s director of immigration—who had sat on their cases for four years—abruptly requested a screening. Tibbo hurried to get the paperwork together. But on May 11, 2017, all their asylum applications were rejected.

Meanwhile, Tibbo had reached out to a colleague and immigration lawyer called Marc-André Séguin, who was based in Montreal. Through Quebec’s immigration legislation, it was possible for an NGO to privately sponsor the group to come to Canada, and For the Refugees was formed. This not-for-profit—run by Séguin and two other Montreal lawyers, Francis Tourigny and Michael Simkinmade an application to sponsor all seven of the Snowden refugees to settle in Montreal, with the intention of paying for their expenses while helping them integrate.

On Oct. 16, 2018, before the Snowden refugees walked into the Canadian embassy in Hong Kong to be interviewed by caseworkers, Rodel repeated a mantra in her head: “Your future is in your hands.” With the help of her lawyers, she spent 72 hours recalling dates and memories from the past—the torture in the Philippines, the racism and poverty in Hong Kong.

At 10:30 p.m. on Jan. 3, 2019, her phone buzzed as she was getting ready for bed. It was Tibbo: “Urgent,” he wrote.

She called him back. “Canada accepted your application for asylum,” Tibbo said. Rodel was in shock. Her eyes welled with tears.

(Left to right): Lawyer Robert Tibbo; Supun Kellapatha, Nadeeka Nonis and their children Sethumdi and Dinath; Vanessa Rodel
and her daughter Keana; and Ajith Pushpa Kumara (far right) in July 2017 (David Wong/South China Morning Post/Getty Images)

When Rodel thinks about her life in Hong Kong, she can’t believe she’s alive; she can’t believe she made it out. Everything is different in Montreal—her apartment is bigger (“too big,” she says), vegetables taste better, the air is clean. But she’s still grappling with her new freedom.

Her family, the people she lived with in that tiny flatKellapatha, Nonis, Sethumdi and Dinath, who is now four—are still in Hong Kong. In February 2017, when the Hong Kong government shunned the Snowden refugees and cut off their rent and utilities, Tibbo initiated a crowdfunding campaign to cover their living costs. Now they live off the $174,716 raised by For the Refugees.

The last time Keana saw her sister, Sethumdi, was March 24, 2019, when she told her she was leaving for Canada. Sethumdi didn’t understand—why was her best friend moving away? She handed Keana her pink teddy bear. “Take it so you’ll never forget me,” she said. Keana, also confused, asked her father, “Does this mean I won’t see her again?” Kellapatha didn’t know how to answer his daughter’s question.

In the days following Keana’s departure, Sethumdi refused to leave the flat. At school, she’s bullied for her dark-brown skin and broken Mandarin. Dinath was recently denied entry into public school because he too is a Snowden refugee. Over the past few months, tear gas has filled the family’s home during the Hong Kong protests.

Séguin and Guillaume Cliche-Rivard, the Canadian attorneys of record of Kellapatha and Nonis and their children, as well as Pushpa Kumara, cannot disclose the reason why Rodel and Keana were accepted into Canada while the others were not. The lawyers, along with Tibbo, who was exiled from Hong Kong on Nov. 30, 2017, have repeatedly written to Canada’s minister of immigration, Ahmed Hussen, urging him to take action and allow the rest of the family to come to Canada. Currently, their applications are open but undecided.

The last significant correspondence from Immigration regarding the cases was March 2017, in the form of a letter stating that they’ve received the lawyers’ request for expedited processing for the permanent residence of Rodel, Kellapatha, Pushpa Kumara and their family members. The letter also confirmed that sponsorships for the group had been approved on the Quebec side, issued by the Ministère de l’Immigration, de la Diversité et de l’Inclusion, and that the applications were “actively being processed by Canadian visa officials in Hong Kong.”

Maclean’s reached out to Hussen’s office to ask for an update on the cases of the remaining Snowden refugees in Hong Kong. A communications officer at Immigration said they “cannot comment on specifics of a case without the applicant’s consent.”

“I’m of the view that political pressure has come down on Trudeau from other countries such as the United States,” Tibbo says. “There is absolutely no rational reason why Trudeau [has stalled], because his government does have powers to expedite processing of these cases. Why has there been this delay? Why have you separated a little girl from her father and her sister?”

Sethumdi and Keana talk on video chat every week. Sethumdi asks Keana to go to the window or to the sidewalk in front of the apartment—she wants to see what Montreal looks like.

In July, after Séguin returned to Montreal from a trip to visit his clients in Hong Kong, he presented Keana with a letter:

“Dear Keana,” Sethumdi wrote, “I really miss you. I like the T-shirts you sent me, and our brother likes the dinosaur, he plays with it every day. I hope now you can speak French. After I come to Canada, can you teach me French? And can you show me around Canada? I really want to come to Canada and play with you on snow. I also want to make snowmans with you. Good luck [in the] future. From sister, Sethumdi.”

This article appears in print in the November 2019 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Taking care of America’s most wanted.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.