‘We want to be citizens not charities’ say refugees

Published: 27/Jun/2006
Source: Mail & Guardian (South Africa)

Whenever we see a picture of a refugee it is always someone lying on the ground with flies on their face!” exclaims Dosso Ndessomin. Ndessomin (42) is tired of the portrayal of refugees as passive victims, with endless needs and nothing to offer. The reality is vastly different, he says, and he should know: he came to South Africa from Côte d’Ivoire as an asylum seeker in 1994, but was formally recognised as a refugee only in 2002.

A banker, he has been unable to work in his chosen profession, but that hasn’t deterred him from racking up an impressive list of achievements in his host country, including setting up an IT training centre in Soweto; being made director of the Alliance Française in the township; and most recently, being employed as head of finance and administration by an international trade union. In his spare time he offers French lessons to Congress of South African Trade Union officials and is the chair of the Coordinating Body for Refugee Communities (CBRC), an advocacy and lobbying group that represents refugee communities from 15 African countries. “Yes, we face difficulties, but we are humans with potential and all we need is room to be.”

Whites are never foreigners. 

It is a view echoed by Zonke Majodina, deputy chairperson of the South African Human Rights Commission, who says that while there is a need for awareness about refugees’ problems, there should also be increased awareness of their skills and attributes. “Research shows that the kind of people who take risks and leave their countries bring that resourcefulness and assertiveness with them.” These are qualities we should be capitalising on, not stifling, she adds, particularly in a country with a massive skills shortage. “And yet, we have highly skilled Africans sitting at home, because their qualifications aren’t recognised here, or they cannot afford to pay up to R6 000 to professional bodies to have them converted.”

While the law guarantees refugees and asylum seekers the right to work, many employers don’t understand this or won’t accept valid refugee status documents, insisting on a green South African identity document (ID) as a prerequisite for employment. In part this is a reflection of the xenophobic attitudes of many South Africans, which Majodina ascribes to a complex mix of historical, social and political factors, combined with our long isolation during apartheid.

The end of apartheid saw South Africa stop producing refugees, many of whom had been in exile in other African countries, and start receiving refugees from many countries suffering from wars and conflicts. It is a shift which has not necessarily been integrated into the nation’s psyche.

“The debate post-1994 has never gone beyond whether foreigners should be allowed into the country or not,” explains Majodina , adding that perceptions of foreigners are still largely racialised. Despite an influx of people from countries as diverse as Bulgaria, China, Pakistan and Russia “no one ever thinks of a foreigner as being white”.

These groups appear either to fly under the radar or obtain the much-coveted green ID book, which denotes permanent residence, with relative ease — a source of great resentment among African refugees, some of whom have waited up to 14 years for official documents.

She says black foreigners are quickly criminalised; although undocumented migrants who are detained should be placed under administrative detention, they are treated like criminals and are often included in police press releases on “successful” raids in crime hotspots, such as Hillbrow. This conflation of foreigners with crime is often fuelled by the media, particularly the tabloids, which “reinforce unfounded myths about foreigners and crime, HIV and unemployment”, Majodina says.

This leads to refugees becoming the target for expressions of other kinds of anger, such as the explosion of violence in Bothaville, Khutsong, earlier this month, when local mobs turned on Somali refugee families, looting their houses and burning their businesses to the ground. To date no arrests have been made.

“Refugees cannot get jobs, and in an environment of high unemployment they have to be resourceful,” Majodina explains. “So they create businesses and build themselves up, but then they become targets.”

Victims of success. 

Jama Dirie (36) fled the civil war in Somalia and runs a small shop in Fordsburg, where he has been on the receiving end of South African bitterness. “We ask them why they do this and they say we are taking their jobs and they say ‘you are eating what we are supposed to eat’. But we don’t understand this, because we actually create jobs — we all employ South Africans in our businesses.”

“We get no support from the government or international bodies, so we have to become entrepreneurs, but we don’t have IDs so we can’t open business or cheque accounts, we can’t buy property or invest in the proper way — we are stuck with informal businesses,” says Abdiwahab Sheikh Aboh.

Currently completing his PhD in conflict management at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, he has done extensive research on Somali refugees for his thesis. “Ninety-six Somalis have been killed here since 1994 — I think there has been one court case. Organised criminals target Somalis — we have lost R16-million in robberies and xenophobic attacks. These crimes are never properly investigated or prosecuted. We understand crime is a problem for everyone in South Africa, but we are totally ignored.”

Those who are physically fit and strong are often able to make it, but life is very difficult for those who have a disability, often the result of the conflict they have fled. Sahra Garane left Somalia three and half years ago, after her husband was killed and she lost her leg in a bomb blast. I am staggered when she tells me she is 32 — she looks at least two decades older. Garane says when she approached the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Pretoria for assistance in getting an artificial leg, she was told it was too expensive. Alone, without any family to support her, she travelled to Durban where she eventually managed to get a prosthetic leg at a government hospital. “I survive on the food I am given by other Somali people, I survive by selling a few cigarettes and chips on the street. I can’t go back to Somalia, because when war comes, I am unable to run away.”

Test of tolerance.

Over and over, refugees say the same thing: they are asking for fairness, not favours. They tell stories of how they arrived here with R50 in their pockets, slept under bridges, helped each other out when they could, and created their own opportunities. “We started from zero,” says Ahmed Abdi, an imposingly tall, bearded man in snowy robes and spectacles. “None of us are allowed to work according to our qualifications, so we have to make shops. I have no choice, I can’t get a job without a green ID, but I have built myself up and I have not taken anything from anyone.”

The conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo has seen almost four million people killed, with 2 500 civilians dying each day. Some refugees have ended up in South Africa, and, like the Somali community, are fiercely proud, enterprising and independent. Jacques Kikonga Kamanda, of the CBRC, takes us on a tour of Johannesburg’s eastern inner city, to places that demonstrate the refugee contribution to society, from hair salons to schools.

The Sheik Anta Diop College in Yeoville was founded by a former exile from the then Zaire and offers affordable private education both to refugee and to local children. The principal is South African and the school has teachers from Cameroon and Ghana, Congo and Zambia. “Last year this school had a 78% matric pass rate,” says Kamanda proudly. Down the hill in Bertrams is the Bienvenu Shelter for refugee women and children. The shelter, which is run by the Scalabrinian Missionary Sisters, offers recent arrivals a place to stay for a few months while they look for jobs and try find their feet in an often hostile city. A prayer room provides some privacy for the women who come to pray each morning for a better day. The walls are adorned with tie-dyed swathes of fabric and pictures of their children, the floor scattered with cushions. On one wall a laminated page from an old calendar reads “The test of courage comes when we are in the minority. The test of tolerance comes when we are in the majority.”

The shelter also runs a crèche to allow parents time to look for jobs and undergo the endless process of getting the correct documentation from the Department of Home Affairs. Despite being pressed for resources the Lovely Bears crèche makes a point of opening its doors to South African children whose parents would not otherwise be able to afford to send them to a crèche. “We welcome South African children because we don’t want to practise the xenophobia that we complain of ourselves,” explains Kamanda. “It is important for the neighbourhood to also benefit.”

Down the hall a poster issued by the Department of Home Affairs proclaims “Hope at the end of the rainbow” and extols the need to “be caring, compassionate and responsive” towards refugees. It draws a wry smile from Eulalie Mubalama, who works as a homework teacher at the shelter. Stamp of status.

Like every other person I interviewed, Mubalama’s greatest difficulty has been trying to apply for refugee status. She has been in South Africa for five years but is still an asylum seeker. This means that every month she has to stand in an interminable queue at home affairs to have her permit renewed. Each asylum seeker, and that includes all children in a family, is given a specific day on which to report. They may not arrive a day earlier or later, and this plays havoc with the adults’ ability to work, while children often have to miss school or exams. But they daren’t miss that vital stamp, in case they are stopped by the police and arrested.

“I really think they want to discourage refugees,” says Mubalama. While progressive policies are in place, and the top officials in the department are diplomatic, the average official is distinctly unhelpful, says Kamanda. “They say, ‘Who told you to come here? If you don’t like the way we treat you, go back to your own country.’ They always say ‘you people from Africa’ as if South Africa is not part of Africa.”

Integration not incarceration.

South Africa is a signatory to the United Nations and African Union Refugee Conventions, and passed the Refugee Act in 1998.

The Act guarantees refugees and asylum seekers the right to work and study; not to be returned to another country if doing so would place their life or security at risk; the right not to be arbitrarily arrested and detained and, when detained, to be treated in a manner consistent with human dignity. They are also entitled to health care and primary education. Asylum seekers are people who have applied for refugee status but whose applications have not been reviewed.

The Refugee Act requires asylum applications to be finalised with six months.

The Department of Home Affairs has a backlog of 100 000 undecided applications, some dating back to 1998. The South African approach is to allow refugees to be integrated into society, so they are not confined to refugee camps. Because they are deemed to be free to work and support themselves, they do not receive material assistance from the state or humanitarian agencies.

Public perceptions of the number of refugees in South Africa are often inflated.

Currently South Africa hosts 29 714 refugees and 140 095 asylum seekers. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Tanzania is host to 602 000 refugees while Uganda has 250 000. These figures exclude asylum seekers in those countries. Source: National Consortium for Refugee Affairs.

Inside out: A child’s world unpacked.

Imagine your child comes home from school one day to find that you are not there, writes Nicole Johnston, the house has been burnt down and everyone the child knows has fled. Imagine your 10-year-old son seeing you killed, and then being forced to run for his life, carrying his five- year-old brother on his back. Try to conceive of two little girls travelling all the way from Burundi to Johannesburg by taxi, by foot, by bus, swimming rivers, jumping over razor-wire border fences in the middle of the night, utterly alone. Imagine those girls arriving at Park Station, sleeping on the streets of Johannesburg in midwinter, not knowing where to turn for help, not knowing the language to ask in.

These stories may sound like the plot of a five-hankie Hollywood tearjerker, but unfortunately they weren’t dreamt up by a scriptwriter — they are all absolutely true and reflect just a fraction of the experiences of refugee children who arrive in South Africa unaccompanied or after being separated from their parents.

Their accounts are told in The Suitcase Stories, a collection of the artwork done by these children in a project that used old suitcases as the foundation for mixed-media art. “A suitcase is about a journey; all the children had taken journeys,” explains the project’s founder, Glynis Clacherty. “A suitcase has a face that is open to everyone to see and a hidden space inside that we can choose to expose or not.” The outsides of the suitcase represent their present lives, while the insides represent their pasts. The project aimed to provide psychosocial support through art and the children’s right to privacy was paramount: they decided how much of their story they wanted to tell (if any), chose pseudonyms to protect their identities and selected which parts of their work would be included in the book. Interestingly, none of them wanted to be identified as refugees, and considered themselves South African now. The result is a collection of stories that will have even the hardest-hearted, compassion-fatigued cynic among you weeping until you are ugly. The resilience of these children is nothing short of astounding. Their ability to go on, to maintain hope and a solemn dignity in the face of exploitation, alienation and abuse, is humbling.

Jenny’s suitcase.

Jenny was 11 when she and her younger sister, Françoise, left Burundi. The family had been displaced several times, and they had spent time in refugee camps in Zaire and Tanzania. With both parents dead they were handed from one distant relative to another and badly mistreated. “I wanted to go to South Africa because my daddy he was saying when I was small, ‘when my little girl grows up, I will take her to London’. So I was thinking South Africa is in London,” Jenny explains. Their epic journey began when they caught a taxi to Dar es Salaam and then continued by various buses to the South African border. “In the place where we began, they were speaking Swahili, but in the place when the bus ended up they spoke another language we did not know …“And then we gave our money to one person and he ran away. But there was another one who saw him and said he would help us. We went with the man and had to walk through the bush and walk, we walk, we walk, we walk, we walk, shoo, shoo shoo! And then we cross a river. And then when we cross that river, that man said ‘I have to leave you here now’. I was 11 and Françoise was eight. Two girls in the bush now, on our own with that man.”

Paul’s suitcase.

Paul was 10 when the genocide in Rwanda began. His father was too ill to leave but sent Paul, his little brother and their mother to Burundi. On the way, their mother was shot. They managed to send a message to their father, who despite being gravely ill, managed to find them amid the exodus. “We came to a house and we stayed there. That is where they come and take him away, my dad. My dad said, ‘if you see them calling me, don’t cry. Pretend you are not my child. You just walk away and save your small brother.’ They came at 6 o’clock.” Later Paul and his brother were separated when the younger child was taken to an orphanage in Kenya. “She said ‘Do you mind if we take your brother?’ I had no choice because Burundi was also at war and any time I could die. They can only take one of us.” Later in his story, Glynis finds him cutting out dozens of pictures of shoes from a magazine. He tells her: “They remind me that I walked. I walked and walked and walked. I was a small boy but I walked. They remind me that I was a survivor, that things were very bad and I was only 10 years old, but I walked and walked. And I survived. The shoes remind me of surviving.”

Pasco’s suitcase.

Pasco and his sister Aggie left the Democratic Republic of Congo after their mother died when they were very young, went to Zambia and then came to South Africa with their older brother. He is now married to a South African woman who will have nothing to do with them. Now teenagers, they fend for themselves on the streets of Hillbrow, where Pasco is constantly harassed by the police and thugs and Aggie has been sexually harassed and threatened with sexual violence. One of Pasco’s biggest problems is his lack of official documents. “Then I drew a picture of myself on a document. It is the document I want to have. It is the permit from Home Affairs. It is my refugee status permit. But I do not have it. I have a problem with papers. I cannot renew my papers. I am always going to Home Affairs and every time I go they tell me something different … I worry all the time that they will arrest me … Once we were in the street , there is a police car there another police car and everyone is running … There were four of us and they cock the gun like we are thieves, like we kill someone or are thieves … It is humiliating, because when they grab you from the belt, giving you a ‘wedgy’ and they hold you up, you can’t do anything. It makes you feel very bad, like you are nothing.”

Themes: Discrimination, Ethnic/Racial/Religious, Nationality and Refugees
Regions: Southern Africa, South Africa
Year: 2006