South Africa--He looked at me pleadingly. “Anything. I’ll do anything.”
It was Friday afternoon and I was supposed to have already left the office when there was a knock at my door. Mildly annoyed, I called out, “Yes?”
He entered, apologizing for bothering me. The more I listened, the more sorry for his situation I became. He was from Zimbabwe. A refugee. He seemed quite well spoken. He said he’d worked for Chevron there. He had now been in Cape Town for a few months and still hadn’t found a job. He was willing to do anything. He just needed a job. I felt terrible as I looked at the frown on his long, thin face, his pleading eyes. I directed him to the Employment Help Desk next door, where Scalabrini staff helped refugees with job hunting, working with them on their CV’s and directing them to potential job opportunities. I told him not to give up.
His visit brought home the reality of the many difficulties refugees face in South Africa upon arrival. This week, I attended an information session given by one of the experienced staff members at the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town, my new place of employment. She explained that the South African government’s philosophy is to give rights to refugees, but they put the responsibility of integrating on the refugees themselves. While this welcoming policy towards refugees looks good in theory, in practice, it poses many problems. In order to integrate, the refugees have to find work, learn the language, and connect with the local community. But what services are in place to foster this process? None provided by the government! So Scalabrini and other NGO’s were created to fill this gap. Scalabrini provides many services to new arrivals: the Welcoming Programme which includes food parcels and donated clothes, free employment help, English lessons, and reasonably-priced computer classes.
Before being eligible to receive protection from the South African government, people entering the country, either legally or illegally, have to present their case at a Refugee Reception office. There are four in the country and the process takes place within two weeks. At one stage, it was almost impossible for someone to have their case heard within this time frame because of the number of people in line at these offices. It was common for new arrivals to sleep outside Home Affairs to try to get in. We were told about a case where a Zimbabwean refugee had actually starved to death while waiting. I was shocked at the callous behavior of our government towards people that had already been through more than enough trauma.
If a refugee is able to present their case to the Reception Office and it is approved, they are granted a Section 22 permit, which allows them to live, work and study in South Africa. However, this needs to be renewed every three months, an evident obstacle to finding permanent employment in the country. These basic rights were only granted in 2000, and since Home Affairs has not had the competence to edit the permit on the computer, they simply handwrite “Granted” over the section where the rights were previously denied. They then place a stamp somewhere on the document, making the permits resemble self-created ID’s.
I’ve spent the past week adjusting to my new job: managing the English school, volunteer programme and communications for the Scalabrini Centre. The very first day, a student walked into my office needing a letter confirming he was a student at Scalabrini to give to his employer. He barely spoke a word of English. I realized then that my French would be a valuable asset. Without it, I would have probably had a difficult time communicating with most of the students. On the contrary, Home Affairs does not employ translators. If there are applicants who cannot speak English, the officials rely on others waiting in line to facilitate the translation process. I was stunned to learn just how ludicrously the department is operating.
On the other hand, I have been awed at many of the refugees who have come in to see me this week, some already students at Scalabrini, some wanting to take classes. They are warm, friendly and above all, they project a humility that is rare to see. I feel lucky to be able to help them in an integration process, which is anything but easy, and I’m grateful to finally work with a team of people truly committed to humanitarian service.