Story highlights

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

Hong Kong CNN  — 

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!”

The next Snowden arrested?

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.

Vanessa Rodel pictured in her one bedroom apartment. In 2013, she hosted Edward Snowden in a different apartment slightly smaller this.

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.”

Supun Kellapatha and his   family housed Edward Snowden in 2013.  Both his Hong Kong-born children are effectively 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.

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.

Hong Kong attorney Robert Tibbo, right, hid Snowden for several weeks with the families of refugees he has been representing pro bono.