South Africa -- In my new role at the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town, time really passes quickly. I work two full days and the rest half days. I have trouble understanding how my predecessor managed to do this job working only half days. There is so much to do!
Each morning I make a list. By 10a.m., the list has at least doubled in size. I feel it lengthening and also expanding sideways. It’s hard to be contained. Today was one of the few days I managed to accomplish a number of tasks on it. It felt good.
While I’m working on finding paint donations for the newly renovated hall and checking in with the recently arrived Australian volunteer, people keep coming in to find out about English classes. To assess their level, I need to ask questions that show me what kind of comprehension and production they are capable of. I need to ask about the past, the present and the future. In previous jobs as an ESL teacher, my clientele were young international students. It was normal to ask why they’d come to Cape Town, why they wanted to learn English, what they’d done in their country, what their plans for the future were. This is not the most appropriate repertoire of questions for newly arrived refugees. Most of them make the journey because of traumatic situations and reasons beyond their control. Most of them didn’t have work yet, and needed the language to survive in this country. They aren’t doing anything except looking for work and trying to learn English. What they would do in the future? Who knew?
Today was particularly challenging. I felt myself running out of questions, and could already see that the Congolese man in front of me knew a bit of English.
“Where are you staying?” I asked, regretting the words as they escaped. It’s not a question I normally ask.
“Well, that’s the problem,” he replied. “Now I have no place. I’m just sleeping on the streets.” He regarded me with evident anxiety.
I felt my heart lurch. “Have you asked them over there at the Welfare Department?” I pointed to the open plan office next door where staff members were available to help with various logistics of being a new arrival.
“No, I went into this Anglican church. They said they could help me.”
“Good,” I said, trying to put as much encouragement as I could muster behind my response. He told me his phone number, which I needed to record for class registration, wasn’t working, because he didn’t have a phone yet. I suddenly remembered someone who’d recently dropped off a few items to donate. I pulled the old Nokia from the bag behind my desk. “Here. If you can get it working, it’s yours.” I fervently hoped he would be able to fix it. I rose to shake his hand and say goodbye. He’d be back on Thursday for his first English class. My heart went out to him. I hoped he’d make it here.
The other day another Congolese man came in holding his daughter. Multicoloured elastics held mini buns in place all over her head. She was eating an apple and looked at me discreetly through large, lowered eyes. He introduced himself. He’d worked in Human Resources in the Congo and wanted to find similar work here. I directed him to the Employment Help Desk, saying I only dealt with the English classes.
He sighed. “I need to improve my English.” I told him his English was pretty good but he was welcome to sign up for a class if he liked. He’d be in the intermediate level, which would only be starting next year. He made a face. “Yes, I can speak, but I don’t like English,” he told me. “You know…”
I did. I knew what it felt like to be in a place that wasn’t your home speaking a language that didn’t belong to you. He told me he was doing security here. He started at 6p.m. and ended at 6a.m. the next day. He was so tired. He stayed in my office for a while, just talking. We spoke in French, switching to English when I didn’t have the words. He came back the next day, first to my office. After seeing someone at the Employment Help Desk, he came in again to ask me to help translate his work experience into English. I looked at the CV form he was filling in, and was impressed that he’d taught art and culture in the Congo. He shrugged, explaining that anyone could be a teacher there. When he left to return to the Employment Help Desk, he assured me he’d be back to see me afterwards. Somehow my office had become a kind of haven, a place where he felt welcome, where he felt heard. It affirmed how the job I’m doing is so much more than just work. It means a lot to the refugees who walk through my office door, and it means a lot to me as well.