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.
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.”
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