My story as a refugee

On the 20th of June each year, the world comes together to honour World Refugee Day. This year the day was marked under the theme “Every action counts” – a very relevant theme amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent anti-racism protests that continue to us how desperately we need to fight for a more inclusive and equal world: a world where no one is left behind. It has never been clearer that all of us have a role to play in order to bring about change. Everyone can make a difference. This is at the heart of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR’s) World Refugee Day campaign. This year, the UNHCR aimed to remind the world that everyone, including refugees, can contribute to society and Every Action Counts in the effort to create a more just, inclusive, and equal world.

As a person who was born and grew up as a refugee, I believe that my actions have made a difference in someone’s life.

My own experiences growing up as a refugee have shaped my dedication to support others who are dealing with trauma and seeking a brighter future.

My parents escaped the political instability of Burundi to eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. I was born and raised in eastern Congo, among the conflict and war that saw widespread attacks on civilians.

In my youth, I had a choice as to whether to respond to the violence with violence or peace. I chose the path of an activist, and when my family was resettled in Canada, I did not go because I felt that my work was not yet done in Africa.

Now living and working in South Africa, I work with the refugee population that has fled the violence in eastern Congo and other parts of Africa, providing different kinds of support services including interpretation, helping them join support groups, personal growth advice, capacity building, sharing different skills, and facilitating workshops for women dealing with the trauma of displacement and sexual violence. I help the women adapt to their new lives in South Africa and move past the trauma.

Under the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the government of South Africa has an obligation to grant protection to refugees and other persons in need of protection. Unlike other countries where asylum seekers are hosted in camps, South Africa does not have an encampment policy and has opted to rather issue renewable short-term residence permits to registered asylum seekers and recognised refugees, allowing them to move freely, study and work in the country, although what actually happens on the ground is not as easy as the policy that is written on paper.

A big problem that refugees and migrants face in South Africa is the xenophobia from South African nationals, which often results in violent attacks. In June 2010, I was a victim of a xenophobic attack by officials of Metrorail. I ended up in hospital, and until today I have a problem with my knee. Each year in June after that attack 10 years ago, I always remember the incident like it’s just happened now.

Despite the attack, I managed to integrate into the South African community, although I sometimes struggle with xenophobia or discrimination. In my work I promote social cohesion among South Africans and refugees.

I have been working with Sonke Gender Justice since 2010 as Co-ordinator of the Refugee Health and Rights Project, where I promote the health and rights of refugees in different communities and being the focal person within the organisation as the Gender and Conflict, GBV, Migration and HIV expert, thus representing the organisation on issues of refugees.

I have been leading a women’s support group composed of women from different countries who are survivors of sexual violence. The support group’s mission is to give hope and companionship, and to help women cope with the trauma they have undergone during displacement or war. All these initiatives are welcome in refugee communities.

With the little contribution I brought to the community, I have received an award of “Best Refugee Community Worker” as well as appreciation letters from the Department of Home Affairs office for refugees, the Legal Resource Centre and Women’s Legal Centre for the work that I have been doing to help refugees.

In 2018, I was nominated to be in the Advisory Committee on Refugees and Migration with the Human Rights Commission of South Africa.

The most role I played in the organisation is most to engage with different refugee and migrant organisations as well as different departments of government to propose new policy initiatives and monitor the implementation of relevant laws and policies, such as the Sexual Offences Act, the Refugee and Migration Act, the National Strategic Plan on HIV and AIDS, to engage with the departments of Justice and Police, on cases of SGBV, and human rights violations of refugees, especially the violations of women and children, to give guidance to the Refugee and Migrant Forum on Health, Gender and Social Cohesion, as the secretariat of the Forum. I was among the team which successfully convinced the Department of Social Development in 2011 to start providing social grants to qualified refugees.

I also assist refugees who cannot speak English with translations at clinics, hospitals, courts, police stations, and other service providers.

If I was not a refugee and I did not suffer the same pain that other refugees go through in South Africa, I doubt that I would be providing this contribution to uplift my fellow refugees.

In a world where violence forces thousands of families to flee for their lives each day, the time is now to show that the global public stands with refugees. Every minute 20 people leave everything behind to escape war, persecution or terror, according to the UNHCR.

Every action counts to assist these women, men and children.

This article was written by Micheline Minani Muzaneza