Abimbola Adeala’s big personality commands attention. The 20-odd women in her class sit still and listen attentively as she teaches them what products to use to relax hair and the process it entails.
“I love teaching,” she says after the class. “I actually really love talking,” Adeola adds with a big laugh.
Adeola, 42, is originally from Nigeria. She joined her husband in South Africa in 2010 and soon found work at a hair salon. She loved what she did, but in 2014 she found her calling: teaching other people everything she knows about working with hair.
“I take pride in seeing these women go out and become something. They are able to start their own businesses and that makes me very happy,” she says.
After a few years of teaching women how to do hair and the basics of working in a salon, Adeola joined the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) to teach hairdressing and salon work through the organisation’s skills development programme at its centre in Arcadia, Pretoria. The JRS also has a centre in Johannesburg.
“It’s difficult coming to a new country when you are running away from your own country,” she says. “There isn’t a lot of work and it’s difficult to find something, so it helps if you’re able to create your own job. It’s important to have skills.”
The JRS works with refugees and other displaced people in more than 50 countries worldwide. It offers a range of support that includes psychosocial programmes, education and livelihood programmes.
Tereda van Heerden, the manager of the JRS skills training centre in Arcadia, says the organisation offers skills development to roughly 200 women a year. “We’ve got the beauty course. That includes nails, massages, facials, waxing and those sorts of things. And then we have hairdressing as well as computer and English classes,” she says.
“If the women can’t speak English, they first have to go through that training course before they join the skills courses.”
Van Heerden says that since starting the skills development programme in Johannesburg, the courses receive more applications each year than the number of spaces they have available. The JRS doesn’t reserve spaces solely for refugees, she says, but allows migrants and a small number of South African women to register as well.
“This year we changed the approach,” she explains. “We made it a three-year cycle. So in the first year they do the full accredited training, in the second year they get training to develop business skills, or they go into internships. And then the third year, we just accompany them through the process.”
Following the change to the programme, the JRS has a target of around 400 people successfully completing the programme in each three-year cycle. Van Heerden says the simplest way of measuring the success of the programme is if the women are able to find employment or start their own business afterwards.
One of the difficulties the women face while attending the programme is finding accommodation, says Van Heerden. “Because of xenophobia, urban refugees prefer to stay in the city centres where the rent is expensive. And then it gets crowded with businesses as well.
“So say you have one street in Sunnyside and one in Johannesburg that’s just hair salons, so you need to find your own clients. The ones who have moved to townships and opened their own businesses are doing very well,” she says.
Despite this, Alina Mofokeng, 51, opened her hair salon in Pretoria’s central business district in 2019 after graduating from the skills development programme, and has been surprised at the growth of her business.
She now employs three migrants from Zimbabwe, Malawi and Burundi in her salon, which caters for men and women and offers nail and other beauty treatments. “It’s amazing. We are like one big family,” Mofokeng says.
“Business has been all right since I opened up the salon. However, while I was very excited, there was Covid and the shop was closed for three months. When we opened again, people were still scared of us and we were scared of them. But now I can say business is good,” she says.
Mofokeng used to work as a receptionist for another hair salon. She handled the bookings and was later promoted to manager. The idea of working as a beauty therapist slowly grew on her, although the cost of attending a beauty course was too high for her at the time. But she found out about the JRS course when a former student of the programme came to do their practical at the salon where she was working. And when the salon was sold, Mofokeng took a chance and joined the JRS.
“If something is in you, I had a baby inside of me. You know, I was pregnant with this beauty idea. Believe me, I didn’t care what I had to do to succeed. I told myself I want this. I was pregnant with this beauty idea and I need to deliver beauty one day,” she says of her desire to succeed.
“I was telling myself that I must study and listen to the teachers and do the assignments. I was staying alone and no one was bothering me. My son was at varsity and when I did my tests, I would take a photo and send it to him. He was happy to know ‘mama was doing well’.
“If he sent me a message at night and asked what I was doing and I said I was watching TV, he would say, ‘Mama, why are you not studying?’ So we encouraged each other a lot,” she says.
With this focus, Mofokeng was not only able to complete her course but she also played an active part in helping develop relationships between South African and refugee women taking part in the programme.
“I don’t want any of that nonsense,” she says, referring to xenophobia. “These people are my family and I am their eyes and ears. Whenever something happens in town, I tell them to avoid this and this part. I wish more people were like this.”