Hong Kong – It was nearly midnight when Vanessa Mae Rodel, a Filipino asylum seeker living in Hong Kong, heard a knock at the door of her tiny apartment. She wasn’t expecting any visitors, but opened the door to see her immigration attorney, accompanied by a stranger.
The stranger wore camouflage khaki pants and was carrying a blue plastic bag filled with clothes. He was young, slender, a 20-something American, whose glasses poked out from beneath the brim of a baseball cap. Rodel was particularly struck by the troubled look on this unknown visitor’s face.
Little did Rodel know then but the visitor was Edward Snowden, fresh on the run from the US government. It was June 2013 and the American whistle-blower had just arrived in Hong Kong from Honolulu, the capital of the US state of Hawaii. Snowden, a former contractor with the US intelligence agency who had leaked classified information, was in desperate need of shelter while he plotted his next moves.
“I let them in my house and I didn’t know who he was,” Rodel told Al Jazeera. “He’s wearing strange clothes and he’s upset. His face, his face is so worried.”
Rodel’s lawyer, Robert Tibbo, was also Snowden’s lawyer, and it was his idea to hide Snowden in the last place the US government or anyone else would think to look: a cramped apartment in the densely populated Kowloon neighbourhood of Hong Kong.
At the time, Rodel was unaware of Snowden’s infamy. His leaks on US mass government surveillance were just making international headlines.
‘The most wanted man was in my house’
After Tibbo left, Rodel and her daughter were alone with their new, unexpected – and anxious – houseguest. Rodel offered her bedroom to Snowden and then walked to the nearest McDonald’s to buy a late-night snack for the American: an Egg McMuffin, French fries, and iced tea.
The next day, as Rodel was leaving her house again, Snowden had a request.
“Vanessa, don’t forget to buy an English newspaper for me,” she recalled him telling her as she left the apartment that day.
When she picked up a copy of The South China Morning Post from a convenience store, a familiar face stared back at her from the cover.
“I see a big picture on the front and it was Snowden,” she said. “The most wanted man, [was] in my house. I can’t believe it. I’m very shocked and I don’t know what I feel but I said, ‘Oh my God, [he] is in my house.’ I feel like my heart is on pause.”
Snowden spent most of his stay in the tiny bedroom, glued to his laptop, Rodel said. She became Snowden’s bridge to the outside world and during his fleeting stay, the unlikely pair became close.
Just days before Snowden boarded a flight for Moscow in late June, they celebrated Snowden’s 30th birthday with a pound cake. Rodel, a single mother, and Snowden, a former CIA operative and NSA contractor, were worlds apart, but they shared a common bond: they were both running from their past.
Rodel, who is in her 40s, is one of at least four asylum seekers in Hong Kong who took turns hosting Snowden, who, for about two weeks, hopped from one dingy apartment to another in the slums of the Chinese-administered territory.
“I took a strategic view that Hong Kong people would never consider that Edward Snowden, a man of great intelligence and enormous capabilities, would ever be living with people that are so looked down upon and downtrodden,” explained Tibbo, 53, the Canadian attorney, who has been practising in Hong Kong for 12 years.
Nearly four years later, Snowden is wanted by the United States on espionage charges. He is currently in Russia protected – at least for now – by the Kremlin. Russian President Vladimir Putin just extended Snowden’s visa until 2020.
Rodel is still in Hong Kong, her asylum case stuck in limbo. She said that she has moved apartments five times since she hid Snowden.
As an asylum seeker, Rodel is not allowed to work. Until recently, she and her five-year-old daughter, Keana, depended on subsistence payments from the Hong Kong branch of International Social Service (ISS), a non-governmental agency that provides asylum-seeking families a small allowance for rent, electricity, travel expenses and groceries. The NGO is directly funded by the Hong Kong government.
But these benefits have been frozen since November, leaving Rodel on the brink of poverty. She and her attorney Tibbo suspect that it is punishment for sheltering the US whistle-blower.
“I’m already cut off,” Rodel said, referring to the allowance she used to receive. “So I don’t have any assistance right now.”
Rodel’s role in Snowden’s Hong Kong stay was kept quiet until Hollywood director Oliver Stone’s blockbuster film, “Snowden” appeared in cinemas last year. In his research, Stone learned of Rodel and the other families who housed Snowden. They became characters in the film, their identities were exposed, and shortly after, Rodel’s problems began to spiral out of control.
Rodel fears her asylum claim might be denied because of her association with Snowden.
“For me, in my heart, I’m not feeling really safe in Hong Kong,” Rodel said. “I’m really afraid [of the] Hong Kong government because I know they have a power for whatever they want to do. I’m very worried that they just reject my case and send me back to Philippines.”
Before leaving the Philippines, Rodel was living in the Luzon region in the country’s north, working at a dress shop making wedding gowns. She declined to discuss why she fled her country, but Tibbo, her attorney, said that she left after she was abducted and raped by a prominent member of the New People’s Army rebels, an armed branch of the Communist Party of the Philippines.
She arrived in Hong Kong in 2002 on a work visa and worked as a domestic helper until 2007. Then she lost her job.
Rodel stayed past her visa’s expiry and was caught in 2010, when she raised her asylum claim.
‘He’s like my brother’
Supun Thilina Kellapatha, 32, a Sri Lankan asylum seeker, also hosted Snowden in 2013, and he and his family are now in a similar situation.
Kellapatha, his wife Nadeeka Dilrukshi Nonis, 33, and their two children, Sethmundi, five, and Dinath, 10 months, have seen their welfare benefits not fully met after the family refused to answer questions an ISS caseworker asked them in relation to Snowden.
“It’s very difficult,” said Kellapatha. “The accommodations, the immigration, the regulations – it’s a very tough situation.”
Tibbo believes that ISS, the NGO, was acting on behalf of the Hong Kong government in questioning Rodel and Kellapatha’s wife Nadeeka about Snowden. He suspects the questions were directed at the behest of the Security Bureau of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government.
“So the Hong Kong government has tried to question [them] about Mr Snowden,” said Tibbo. “They refused and were punished for that. These questions were directed from the government – somebody higher up in the government was saying you have to investigate. When [they] said, ‘No’, they were very upset. The Hong Kong government has no right to ask.”
The Security Bureau did not immediately reply to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment on the allegations.
Kellapatha said that Snowden had a sizable impact on his life, and his family, despite their short time together.
“He’s like my brother, my friend … ,” Kellapatha said of Snowden. “He’s always in my heart. I respect him more than anything.”
“He gave me hope. Today I’m here because of him and his advice.”
Kellapatha said that Snowden left $200 under the pillow he had been using before he left for Moscow.
“For me, it was like one million [dollars],” Kellapatha recalled, adding that he purchased food and earrings for his daughter, so they would have something to remember Snowden by.
Edward Snowden: These families ‘helped keep me free’
Snowden, who responded to questions from Al Jazeera through his attorney Tibbo, said he’ll never forget what Kellapatha and Rodel did for him., said he’ll never forget what Kellapatha and Rodel did for him.
“I think of them every day,” he said. “I’ve had to watch the little girls who kept me company underground grow up through pictures in the paper. Every time I look at the news, and the routine dehumanisation of people like the very families who helped keep me free, I question what it says about us as a species.”
“No matter whether you see immigration as a good or bad thing, these are people who have escaped actual rape and documented torture. And in spite of that, they’re still willing to risk their lives to do the right thing. If people like this still can’t get a ruling on their case after all of these years, it’s more than a failure of process. It’s an indictment of government.”
Kellapatha has been in Hong Kong since 2005. He says he was detained and subsequently tortured in Sri Lanka, after which he fled to Hong Kong. Tibbo suspects Kellapatha, a supporter of the country’s then-opposition party, was targeted because of his political affiliation.
Tibbo has been pressing the Hong Kong government to keep Rodel, her daughter, and Kellapatha’s family in the country for years now.
“It’s very disturbing and very upsetting,” Tibbo said. “The Hong Kong government should not be going around singling them out, targeting them. The government has created this horrific situation where these people have been subjected to inhumane and degrading treatment after their identities were disclosed.”
Citing privacy concerns, ISS declined to comment on Rodel and Kellapatha’s allegations or their individual cases. Connie Hui, a press relations manager with ISS, told Al Jazeera that, “humanitarian assistance will be given in accordance with the current eligibility criteria”, in reference to asylum seekers who come to them.
Rodel and Kellapatha’s problems have been compounded by the fact that Hong Kong has a low acceptance rate of asylum seekers.
Annie Li, a researcher at the Justice Centre Hong Kong, said that there were a total of 9,981 open cases for asylum seekers as of December 2016. But many of these claims stretch back several years.
Some 3,838 of those claims were made in 2016 alone, according to the Immigration Department of the Government of Hong Kong. Many of the asylum seekers are from Sri Lanka, Somalia and Burundi.
Li said that the acceptance rate of asylum seekers is 0.7 percent, and that each year, only a small handful of people see their claims granted.
Maya Wang, Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, says the Hong Kong government has become increasingly hostile in their rhetoric on asylum seekers in recent years.
“The conditions for refugees in Hong Kong is very poor and it’s a shame, really, for a place that is so wealthy,” Wang said. “There’s no reason these claimants have to wait for so long to go through the system and to obtain the protection they need, fleeing from persecution, war and torture.”
Rodel and Kellapatha now largely depend on donations to survive.
Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras – the two journalists who broke the Snowden story – as well as Snowden himself, donated $20,000 through the Freedom of the Press Foundation for both the families, according to the California-based organisation’s executive director, Trevor Timm.
A German journalist has also set up a GoFundMe page, for them, which has so far raised just over $40,000. Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who portrayed Snowden in the blockbuster film, has also made a plea via Facebook to donate to the campaign.
But donations might not be enough.
Asylum seeker Ajith Pushpa Kumara, a former soldier who fled Sri Lanka in 2003 during the country’s civil war, is also a client of Tibbo’s who hid Snowden. He and Kellapatha said that the Sri Lankan police have attempted to locate them in Hong Kong.
Tibbo said that family members in Sri Lanka have been questioned and threatened by the Sri Lankan police, military and government officials, although he declined to disclose whether it was Kellapatha or Kumara’s relatives, citing his clients’ safety.
Kellapatha fears he’ll be tortured again if he’s deported back to Sri Lanka. Or worse, killed.
“I’m afraid and very nervous and scared. Anything can happen. I’m also very afraid for my family in Sri Lanka.”
Priyantha Jayakodi, a spokesman for the Sri Lankan Criminal Investigation Department, said that the reports about his officers operating in Hong Kong have no merit.
“Sri Lanka police categorically deny this allegation and we are further denying that we have questioned any relative of these particular asylum seekers who are living in Sri Lanka,” he said.
However, Jayakodi did say that his department sent one officer to Hong Kong between November 28 and December 2 for “training” purposes with the global police cooperation agency, Interpol.
The police agency was unable to verify Jayakodi’s statement.
“Interpol cannot speak to the activities which police officers from a member country may or may not have undertaken,” an Interpol spokesperson said in an email to Al Jazeera.
Jayakodi equated the allegations to a publicity stunt designed by Tibbo to bolster Kellapatha and Kumara’s asylum claims.
Tibbo held a press conference in Hong Kong on February 23 calling on the Hong Kong Police to provide protection to the Sri Lankan families, and to investigate the alleged cross-border law enforcement activities.
“Law enforcement agencies outside of Hong Kong, such as law enforcement agencies of overseas, do not have the authority to enforce laws in Hong Kong,” said Nicolas Hui, a public relations officer for the Hong Kong Police, in a statement issued to Al Jazeera.
“If there is any illegal act, the police will handle [it] in accordance with the law,” Hui added.
The statement did not verify whether or not the Hong Kong Police are actively investigating the allegations.
Wang of the HRW said the accusations of illegal Sri Lankan police activity in Hong Kong are alarming.
“It would be a startling claim if it were indeed true,” she said. “The burden is on the Hong Kong police to investigate and find out if it is true.”
Meanwhile, both Rodel, her daughter, Kumara, and Kellapatha’s family are now considering Canada as a new home. On March 9, a team of Canadian lawyers travelled to Hong Kong to announce they had filed refugee claims in Canada for the three families
“I think I can start a new life and I have a freedom and I have a safety,” said Rodel. “I feel like if I go in Canada, I feel safe … so me and my daughter can start new life.”
For now, Rodel presses on, unsure what her future holds. Most days, she wakes up at 5:30am and makes a simple breakfast – typically peanut butter, toast and coffee. Her daughter, Keana, will usually rise an hour later, often insisting that Rodel do her hair.
After taking Keana to school on a particularly gray and overcast winter day, Rodel embarks on a hike through the mountains overlooking Hong Kong.
Hiking is one of her favourite pastimes, and one of the few escapes she’s allowed from the turmoil of her present reality.
“I love hiking,” Rodel said. “After I went to hiking, all my stress is out. I feel better. I feel relaxed and I feel so good.”
Rodel aspires to become a journalist and photographer. But such dreams seem distant, and are often interrupted by recurring worries over what will become of her daughter.
“I’m very concerned about her future because I don’t want [her] growing up like in my position right now,” said Rodel. “She’s growing up [with] nothing. I think it’s very unfair for her.”
Despite her current situation, Rodel doesn’t regret leaving the Philippines, or her decision to shelter Snowden, who she said changed her life, and her outlook on it, irrevocably.
“He did a very big risk of his life,” she said. “That really inspired me. He’s a hero. I learned from him, don’t give up.”
Additional reporting by Maria de la Guardia in Hong Kong.
Dorian Geiger is a Canadian journalist and an award-winning filmmaker based between Doha, Qatar and Queens, New York. He’s a social video producer and a freelance features writer at Al Jazeera English.