Refugees’ hardships strike a chord 'In My Shoes'

In her introduction to this heart-rending volume Kate Body writes, "My greatest hope for you the reader is that once you have read these stories, not to feel pity for refugees but, to rather see them in a new light. I hope in some form this is a call to action not to be complacent about the ill-treatment and exploitation of foreigners".

In My Shoes not only evokes a deep sense of sadness and frustration on behalf of the millions of migrants seeking refuge in this country but verges on anger on their behalf because of the bad deal most get in their host country.

The short but intensely personal accounts they give are just a small sampling of those who have fled conflict, war, terror, genocide, poverty and harsh economic hardship in their home countries: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Cameroon, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Comoros and other SADC states.

At the launch of the book held last week at the Book Lounge and published by members of the Scalabrini Centre, some of refugees read out their accounts and spoke frankly and emotionally of their experiences. Their message was simple and hard-hitting: escaping hardship in their own countries many have faced xenophobia; deal with a costly and complicated tangle of red tape and are forced to live in areas where fear is a daily reality. 

Andre from Rwanda: My decision to leave my country was because of war. I was not safe. ...My journey was very tough. I took a bus from Rwanda to Malawi. From Malawi to Johannesburg by truck.. After my arrival in Cape Town I had problems with the Home Affair papers.They were not issuing such papers in Cape Town. They were only issued in Durban, Musina or Johannesburg. As I did not have money to go there it made my stay more difficult."

Abdullah from Somalia: "My aunt and her son were killed by warlords ... who were fighting against my clan... In July 2011, the government was not strong enough to protect its citizens from the cruel Al-Shabab who were killing and bombing innocent victims.. I was then forced to flee for peace and safety before being persecuted. (Abdullah writes that it took him 26 days to get to South Africa. While he was initially granted an asylum seeker permit his renewal application was rejected and he was arrested in 2013.) 

Ana from DRC: "Just a few days ago my SIM card that I used didn't work anymore. I went to get a new one and they told me without a valid South African ID I couldn't get a new one. "

While the book also includes documented accounts by more privileged individuals who came to South Africa to get a better education and seek a better life (which most have achieved), the overriding feelings unpacked here are those of severe displacement. 

Said Luc from the DRC: "Life in Cape Town is not a piece of cake but a tough nut to crunch."

The Scalabrini Centre, founded in 1994, has helped many foreigners to adapt to their new lives, teaching them English and trying to ease their severe issues of finding their feet with a "Welcoming Programme", helping with integration and explaining the complicated and costly procedure of getting visas.

Miranda Madikane , the director of the Centre said at the launch, "We are working against the idea that migration is a scourge. We need to change the current rhetoric of an 'us' versus 'them'. Ideologically we need to focus on a humanity that rejects the human construct of borders."

The refugees' harrowing stories made a deep impact on the audience at the launch and one of those present said, "As a South African I feel very ashamed of the xenophobia."
Body commented, "This is the story of incredibly brave people. We ought to have a common humanity in not fearing refugees but rather helping them."

Govinda added, "We are hoping that this is not a once-off project and that it becomes a spring board for development. We really want to get the people we help to use this as a platform to share their stories."

* The book costs R250 and is available at the Scalabrini Centre or the Book Lounge. For more details email [email protected]

In My Shoes —  40 Original stories from refugees, asylum seekers and migrant workers.  Edited and published by Melanie Govinda, Kate Body and the Scalabrini Centre