John Zhang: #LearningPlanet Youth Voices

Meet John:

Mr. John Zhang, aged 18, is the leader of a Hong Kong-based and youth-led refugee empowerment organisation – Second Strings. The organization’s services center around community and soft-skill development through education and directing arts as a medium for advocacy, to fill current unmet gaps in local refugee support.

Link with John via Instagram (@zhangjohn117) and LinkedIn.

Would you like to work with KIDsforSDGs on the upcoming Learning Planet Festival – January 2022? If so, what would be your ideal contribution?:

Yes – a potential showcase of Second Strings and its grassroots impact in our local communities. By Using arts as a medium, we can display the work that our direct education has achieved on students, while also highlighting key advocacy projects such as our documentary and arts show.

What was the first moment of enlightenment that encouraged you to take action for the society you live in?

When taking over Second Strings at the start of Junior year, I remember being driven purely by improving my organization’s image, rather than understanding the needs of those receiving our service. As I directed my efforts to expansion rather than the quality of our social impact, this led to the organization almost shutting down: one of the biggest failures I’ve experienced.

Reflecting on this, picking up a book on Hong Kong’s refugee situation completely changed my perception of this community. I learned about the “limbo” refugees face created by Hong Kong’s own screening system, inadequate living conditions created by the prevention to work and minimal subsidy payments.

When I learned that refugees were not allowed to receive the COVID vaccine, this sparked my first advocacy initiative starting a petition to the government. Just like how universities like Stanford promote direct collaboration with ASEAN leaders in their annual Summer Institute for International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, I believe in eventually establishing a similar form of communication with the Hong Kong Government.

What are the projects you are currently working on? What are the challenges you and your organisation are facing today?

Throughout the past year, Second Strings is currently preparing a documentary to humanise the refugee community through the lives of two refugees, as well as preparing an arts exhibition and concert garnering participation from both school students and refugees. In total, more than 100 students across 3 schools are performing or involved in the organising process. In our mission to help refugees integrate, we believe this starts by rectifying the perceptions that refugees are all criminals, here for economic reasons, and cannot contribute back to society. In fact, in a 2019 collaboration between the UNHCR, Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels, and The Repulse Bay, two refugees were hired to help at the respective firms and competently completed their work period.

Being a service originating from school requirements, a big challenge was working around school and “service” regulations in the initiatives we wanted to start. Since then, though, I’ve taken most of our Second Strings initiatives outside of school confines and engaged with regional youth initiatives such as the UNITAR Youth Ambassador Asia Pacific Program; I genuinely believe that the mission statement is what should drive a youth initiative, rather than school and the limitations that come with it.

How can we make intergenerational collaboration between young people and decision-makers happen?

Oftentimes, young people do not realise the unique advantages only they can bring to the table. For example, in a recent initiative where I had reached out to a local refugee NGO’s call for dentist connections on South China Morning Post, I never would have imagined that because Second Strings as a student group had so much exposure to other organisations around Hong Kong, we were able to establish an official referral program between NGOs for in-need refugees to receive the proper dental treatment. As refugees cannot work legally, they do not have the funding to afford more serious cases of dental care beyond what public facilities provide; I was especially motivated by the story of Annie, a refugee who had to endure seven years of severe toothache before receiving any treatment.

This, as a whole, taught me to not undermine the impact we think our ideas may have in shaping our social cause; by taking the initiative to communicate your ideas with change makers, we can fill in the “gaps” that may be present in their work.

How do you think we can involve young people who want to make an impact but do not have easy access to opportunities of getting involved (because of language, lack of network, difficulties to access and use technology tools…)?

I’d say that everyone faces circumstances and limitations to some extent – initiative comes from adapting what you have to offer into positive social change. When organizing our volleyball program for refugee children, a major roadblock was the lack of sports facilities: public courts were always booked full, and we needed a location that also suited transportation. To solve this, my co-leader Timothy Chan and I bought a makeshift volleyball net and set up lessons in a public park. Playing on an open field with enough space and nice weather was an experience in itself: more importantly, though, it exemplified that solutions can always be found through creatively adapting to the situation you are given.


Ultimately, the Hong Kong refugee issue that Second Strings attempts to address is far from just a local issue – across the Asia Pacific, many countries including Thailand, Indonesia, and South Korea have yet to sign the 1951 Geneva Convention protecting the rights of refugees. Low acceptance rates of refugees occur even in countries that have ratified the convention, such as Japan (1%) and South Korea (1.5%). Youth, across the region, have to collaborate and take the initiative to address this stigma. I would encourage everyone to do so by honing in to their interests – the Arts, STEM, or humanities can all be effective mediums for change. As our organisation continues to grow, supported by community groups such as KIDsforSDGs, Second Strings aims to become a platform to amplify the voices of these initiatives.

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