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The challenge: Finding someone who will listen

Refugees 1.jpg
Photo by Sarah Kinney.

By Rachel Goldberg

Dozens of refugees line the towering green fence that surrounded the Department of Home Affairs. They peer through the rusty green fence at those who were lucky enough to make it through on their quest to obtain proper identity documents. Without them, they could be arrested and deported back to their home country.

"Sisters, are you from the U.N.?" a man desperately shouts at the group as we approach.

As young students from the United States, with notepads in hand, eager to ask questions and rapidly scribbling down notes, we instantly attract attention.

"What questions do you want to ask me?" says a refugee from Ethiopia. He appears determined to share his struggle and the struggle of those around him who are seeking asylum in South Africa.

Escaping persecution and oppression, these men and women say they fled to South Africa for a better future. Nevertheless, they find themselves waiting in massive lines along the Home Affairs fence day after day to receive their papers.

His candor and openness is striking. With frustration and passion in his eyes, he describes perpetual police brutality and harassment. His eyes widen with anger and his arms wave in exasperation as he recounts the endless review periods, the bribery and the staff discrimination that occur on a daily basis.

He is eager to be heard and have someone listen. We are treating him as a person, an individual with a story, a message, and a voice.

Crushed cans and loose papers scatter the dirt floor, and orange dust fills the air. Women sit on plastic lawn chairs selling citrus fruit under the blazing sun while others pace the length of the fence. For many, this becomes a temporary home.

In 2013, South Africa had the largest number of refugees seeking asylum in the world at approximately 233,100 individuals, of which only 67,500 received refugee status, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

For many, the adjacent parking lot becomes a temporary home. Nevertheless, despite the ongoing struggle, they appear to have developed a community and comradeship that remains strong and hopeful.

Although we cannot provide any support for attaining identity documents, we can listen. For many, this is in itself empowering.

So we stand, pen in hand, vigorously scribbling down every word they speak.


Posted by South Africa Group on May 18, 2014 3:26 PM
Category: South Africa 2014


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