Asylum seekers in Hong Kong sheltered Edward Snowden in 2013
Hopes new movie will bring fresh attention to their plight
Vanessa Rodel says Snowden has a sweet tooth
Vanessa Rodel didn’t realize she was sheltering the most wanted man in the world until the morning after he showed up unexpectedly at her door.
Her houseguest from the United States had requested a newspaper. She discovered his high-profile identity when she recognized Edward Snowden’s face on the front page of the Hong Kong daily.
“I said ‘oh my God,’” Rodel told CNN. “The most wanted man in the world is in my house!”
Rodel – who fled the Philippines – is one of several asylum seekers in Hong Kong who are now going public with a secret they kept for years.
For weeks in 2013, these impoverished people took turns hiding the man behind one of the biggest intelligence leaks in US history.
“We are part of history because we did good things,” said Supun Kellapatha, an asylum seeker from Sri Lanka who gave up his family’s bed for Snowden.
Snowden’s unlikely shelterers have all lived for years in Hong Kong in a legal limbo. The city pays their rent and a small living allowance but it won’t allow them to settle permanently and work.
Underground in Hong Kong
The families and their lawyer are coming forward as their brush with history is immortalized in a new Hollywood movie.
The Oliver Stone film “Snowden” depicts the tense days when the NSA whistleblower went underground in Hong Kong, in a bid to evade US and Hong Kong authorities, as well as the world media.
Snowden made his first bombshell revelations about controversial US surveillance programs in an interview with the Guardian newspaper in a room in Hong Kong’s Mira Hotel.
The film includes a scene where a lawyer takes Snowden – played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt – from the hotel to a cramped apartment housing a family of Sri Lankan refugees.
“These are good people, they won’t talk,” the lawyer tells Snowden. “They’re stateless.”
‘Last place anybody would look’
According to Robert Tibbo, the Canadian lawyer who represented the real Snowden, the events depicted in the movie are accurate.
“The first priority was to get Mr. Snowden and remove him from where he was in the Mira Hotel, and to do so without the media and any other third parties following him,” Tibbo said.
The lawyer instructed Snowden to make an official refugee claim at the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Asylum seekers 'imprisoned' in Hong Kong
He then came up with an unorthodox strategy to hide the fugitive from the threat of possible rendition back to the US, where Snowden was branded a traitor.
“I advised Mr. Snowden it would be in his best interest to be placed with the refugee families in a populated area, as that would be the last place that anybody would look,” Tibbo said.
He took Snowden to several families who he has represented on a pro bono basis.
“Late at night they knocked on my door…they just told me that they need some help,” recalled Rodel. “I gave him my bed.”
The lawyer hopes the film will bring fresh international attention to the plight of an estimated 14,500 asylum seekers living in Hong Kong.
“People with the least to give, gave the most,” said Tibbo, referring to those who hid his high profile client.
Snowden’s sweet tooth
Rodel described how she and her daughter – who was a toddler at the time – slept on the kitchen floor of their one bedroom apartment for several days to make room for Snowden.
She left her home periodically to get equipment for his laptop and food.
“Mostly, [Snowden] liked sweets,” Rodel recalled.
Since sheltering Snowden in 2013, Rodel has moved to a new home. She now lives in a one bedroom apartment where she shares a bunk-bed with her elderly mother, her four and a half-year-old daughter, and another woman from the Philippines.
There is barely enough space for people to walk past each other in the cramped room.
According to Rodel and her lawyers, she and her family were forced to abandon their apartment on Tuesday, after Hong Kong authorities allegedly cut off all rental and utilities assistance.
Rodel’s lawyers submitted a long letter to the Hong Kong authorities this week, accusing them of suspending payments to Rodel “due to her refusal to answer questions about Mr Edward Snowden.”
“No we did not withhold any assistance,” Connie Hui, a spokesperson for International Social Service in Hong Kong, told CNN before Rodel left her apartment.
She said her agency had records proving all of Rodel’s payments had been paid.
Tibbo accuses the Hong Kong government of forcing thousands of asylum seekers to live in “inhuman and degrading circumstances.”
“The Hong Kong government is completely non-compliant to its international obligations towards refugees,” Tibbo said.
Hong Kong does not formally recognize the United Nations Refugees Convention. And the Hong Kong Security Bureau told CNN in an email that asylum seekers will not be allowed to settle here permanently.
The city authorities do provide monthly rent payments, as well as additional stipends for utilities, transport and food coupons.
But asylum seekers are barred by law from seeking employment in the city. Their children are also born here stateless, denied citizenship and passports.
“If I stay in Hong Kong, my daughter will grow up the same as me,” Rodel said. “She won’t have a future.”
After leaving Rodel’s home, Snowden fled to Moscow where his claim for temporary asylum was granted. The US continues to seek his return on charges of espionage and theft of government property.
Snowden is clearly grateful for the hospitality he was shown. According to Rodel, he has helped pay for her daughter to go to kindergarten.
“These were refugees who had nothing. They were living in incredibly precarious situations and they still are today,” Snowden said, speaking from Moscow in an interview with the New York Times last month.
“They didn’t hesitate to open the door. They protected me. They believed in me and but for that I might have had a very different ending.”