Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Population


Moyiga Nduru

JOHANNESBURG, Jun 15 2006 (IPS) - Conflict in Rachael Mukoma’s country, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), made it impossible for her to stay there. At the same time, it was very difficult for her to leave.

“We were young, penniless and desperate to get to South Africa,” Mukoma told IPS this week, describing how she and her friends became refugees.

Drivers operating on the routes between the DRC, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa were unsympathetic to their plight – refusing free rides, but offering to take sex as payment for transport.

And once in South Africa, Mukoma found herself confronted with new difficulties.

“One night I was raped and when I went to the police station the following morning I was told that it was too late to report a rape,” she said.

Life in the financial centre of Johannesburg was also dismal in other respects.

“I ended up going places and sleeping everywhere. I slept at friends’ places and in the houses of people I know. I had no choice; I had to survive,” Mukoma recounted.

“I was arrested and detained three times at Lindela (a deportation centre).” At the time, she was just a teenager.

“We used to be ten in the family. The others were killed in the war. Now only three of us are left: me and my two younger brothers,” said Mukoma, who has since turned 21. She spent a month in Zambia before making it to Zimbabwe, and finally South Africa.

Unhappily, her experiences are far from unique as concerns young refugees, says Glynis Clacherty – a South African researcher who initiated an art therapy programme for unaccompanied refugee children called the Suitcase Project, five years ago.

Children from Ethiopia, the DRC, Rwanda, Burundi and Angola have taken part in the programme, which has enabled them to decorate suitcases in a way that reflects their experiences. Suitcases were chosen in part because they symbolised journeys, something all refugee children have undertaken.

Accounts of several children’s experiences – including those of Mukoma – are now available in a book, ‘The Suitcase Stories: Refugee Children Reclaim Their Identities’, launched in Johannesburg Wednesday ahead of World Refugee Day on Jun. 20.

A Burundian refugee broke down while reading her life story at the event, obliging Clacherty to chip in and finish the reading.

“There are not many unaccompanied refugee children in South Africa, but they are very vulnerable; they are on their own,” Clacherty told IPS.

“A lot of their basic needs are not met. They don’t have money for food and for school fees. The girls are more vulnerable because they are young and live alone.”

Clacherty plans to use revenues from the book to help refugee children in South Africa. She also hopes it will ensure their experiences do not remain hidden from public view.

“I realised that these children are marginalised: they don’t have a voice, they are a voiceless community. I thought it was important to record their voices. Some of their stories were told in one day. Some took time because of the pain involved,” she noted.

These words were echoed by Eder Katende, an 18-year-old from the DRC.

“Refugees have something in their hearts that they want to express. We want to show our feelings and what type of people refugees are, in the book,” he said.

Children make up about 49 percent of refugees in the Southern African countries of Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Angola, Mozambique and South Africa, a spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told IPS.

The UNHCR estimates that there were 8.4 million refugees globally at the end of 2005.

Adult refugees who try to make a living often find themselves competing in a tight job market, with resentful locals.

“There is a lot of hatred and xenophobia against foreigners in South Africa,” Katende told IPS.

Noted Clacherty, “Discrimination and xenophobia are a big problem – and so is getting refugee papers…Even if the refugees do, they are still harassed by the police.”

In addition, “‘They are harassed at school and in the communities,” she said.

Prejudice of this sort takes a toll. “I’m shy walking in the street. They call us all sorts of names like ‘makwerekwere’ (a derogatory term for a foreigner in South Africa),” Mukoma said.

But, observed Clatcherty, “They (locals) should see them as people, not as refugees. They are survivors.”

For all that they have experienced in the past, the children featured in ‘The Suitcase Stories: Refugee Children Reclaim Their Identities’ have hope for the future.

“I want to go to Australia, and I will take this suitcase…because it tells my history,” says one child, in the book.

Mukoma would like to work with children: “I want to be a teacher…I love it very much.”

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