Silence

Refugee children at the Central Methodist Mission, Johannesburg/Photo by Sokwanele

The experiences of meeting and talking to various people and seeing different places are stunning me into silence. On one hand, not much of what I see and hear is different from what I have seen and heard before, nor is it different from what I expected. On the other hand, I am once again saddened by inhumanity. The inhumanity that forces people to leave their homes and the inhumanity they face in search of peace and security. I asked a wonderful human rights lawyer we interviewed today why refugees/asylum seekers/immigrants are pouring into South Africa in recent years. She told me that they perceive South Africa as an economic success, tolerant, open, welcoming. It is seen as “Mandela’s country,” she says. I asked her what happens after they arrive and she shook her head. “It is very difficult,” she said. “There are success stories but they are few and far in between. And there has been lots of progress, but still lots of frustration as well.”

Mandela’s country. I ponder that later as we meet and talk to a Congolese refugee working as a parking lot attendant, a wonderful Zimbabwean asylee who runs a community based organization helping his fellow Zimbabweans, and finally as we stand inside the Central Methodist Mission in downtown Johannesburg in early evening hours as hundreds of men, women and children, young and old, healthy and disabled, start pouring in to spend the night at the only shelter they can afford and will not evict them or turn them down for lack of paperwork or money. We hear the stories of missing family members, split families, struggles to find work, housing and even food, poor or denied access to health care and housing even with proper papers. And I am stunned into silence. I have nothing to say. I travel back through my own war and refugee journey and, as my insides start burning with familiar pain, all I want to do is tell them that it will get better. And I want to do something – anything – that will make their situation better. But I don’t know that it will get better. And I feel powerless to make a significant change.

Mandela said: “There are few misfortunes in the world that you cannot turn into a personal triumph if you have the iron will and the necessary skill.” How many of the people we met today will be able to do that in Mandela’s country?

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