Johannesburg – After months of accounting behind a screen in the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) international office in Rome, it was finally time get some field experience. My first mission was to the Southern Africa regional office. For my first full day, my colleagues sent me to see our urban projects in Pretoria, South Africa’s capital city.
At our first destination, the Arrupe Women’s Skills Centre, refugees train in cosmetology, massage, waxing, and as nail technicians. I made rounds to speak with each of the teachers, and even had the opportunity to sit in on some classes. I was greatly impressed by the teachers and staff who are dedicated to helping refugees access these opportunities. The students’ dedication to better themselves and desire to be an active part of their new community was inspirational. My new community has welcomed me warmly, and I was left wondering if I had taken this for granted as many refugees encounter hostility and xenophobia in their adopted homes.
We then conducted home visits, first offering psychosocial support to a 43-year-old man who contracted HIV in prison. Despite the many challenges he faced, it was clear he has not lost his passion for life.
We also met a Congolese refugee who suffered a stroke shortly after arriving in Johannesburg. South African families traditionally expect the man to be the breadwinner, so his poor health had an impact on his mother and son as well. The JRS social workers provide counsel to alleviate stress and physical therapy to help him walk. I was then able to share a meal with the home visit team, and we reflected on the important work being done. We felt honored that the refugees accepted us in their lives, even after being excluded from their own community. They allowed us a chance to understand their difficult situations, and I was able to understand the importance of the services JRS provides.
Through all of this I was quickly able to develop a deeper understanding of and connection with those I am serving. Refugees face immense challenges after being uprooted from their homes and forced to search for a new one. Seeing their reality made me realize the scope of the hurdles they face like a lack of medical rights, xenophobia, and excessive and deterrent bureaucratic requirements, and xenophobia. In a world where every force seems to be working against refugees, I am glad to be a part of an organisation that is actively supporting them.
After South Africa, I travelled to Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital city, to get a sense of how JRS works in a rural area and to learn more about refugees living in camps. The camp in Dzaleka hosts 34,000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, and Burundi. We first visited a digital learning lab where refugees learn front-end coding like CSS and HTML to earn a living online. This is extremely beneficial as refugees are not allowed to work inside the country, and many depend on digital opportunities to earn a living. We also had the opportunity to sit in a primary school class where the students were learning how to measure angles, and a secondary school classroom where they were reading Macbeth. I witnessed an immense passion to learn. The primary school alone hosts 4,000 students, and another 4,000 are in need of a place in school.
Dzaleka is well established and has several restaurants and markets. I sat down for another meal, but with a new hunger to return to the field and confront the many unjust challenges refugees and asylum seekers face, including those of the refugees I met. The lack of emotional and integration support that many refugees deal with could be addressed with something as simple as a conversation over a meal.
The calling is simple, to share food, but the conversation can be profound. By discussing what we each can do to support refugees, we are able to listen and digest, taking the first step towards a world where everyone can attain protection, opportunity, and participation.