Student Spotlight: Assisting refugees in South Africa

Danielle standing in front of Parliament before going to sit in on the Department of Home Affairs Portfolio Committee Elections and meeting.

Danielle Harris is a junior in the undergraduate Human Rights Program and studies history and political science. This summer, she worked for ten weeks with the Legal Advocacy program at the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town with funding she received from the Charles E. Scheidt Family Foundation Summer Internship Fellowship. The Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town’s mission is to foster the cultural, social and economic integration of migrants, refugees and South Africans into local society. Perceiving migration as an opportunity, the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town is committed to alleviating poverty and promoting development in the Western Cape while fostering integration between migrants, refugees, and South Africans. Below is Danielle’s reflection about her experience.

When I first saw Scalabrini, a building with an orange, red, and yellow facade, it looked like a place of hope in a grim area. For refugees, Scalabrini is exactly that — a safe haven. During my orientation, the facilitator asked us staff to traditionally introduce ourselves while also including a description of our daily commute to the office. There was a mixture of straightforward and convoluted paths, causing us all to approach our work differently upon arrival. When I began to meet with refugees, I understood just how much our respective paths shaped us, especially since refugees took even more intense paths to get to South Africa.

This discussion prompted me to consider how, unlike my journey from the United States, others were packed onto boats in conditions reminiscent of the Middle Passage, hidden under covers in trucks and buses, and had walked hundreds to thousands of miles to get to South Africa. Somewhere along the way, the clients learned about Scalabrini and they landed at my desk for me to either tell them comforting or unfortunate news. I would give a variety of responses to essentially tell someone that the journey they made to South Africa was for naught because they were not recognized as a refugee in terms of the 1951 Refugee Convention, or that they would have to travel for hours to a dysfunctional, homophobic, xenophobic office to apply for asylum.

As an advocacy intern, it was my job to assist clients with applying for asylum, preparing appeals, representations, and assisting with other legal issues that arose (i.e. hospital xenophobia, school registration, family joining). During my first week at the office, I sat with a colleague to shadow her during the client intake process. From 9am-12pm, we would individually meet with clients to hear their stories and problems, and offer advice on potential solutions. During the first interview I sat in on, the client stated that he would rather be dead than to continue to walk about with an asylum or refugee permit, because they meant very little in practice. This first client quickly showed me what taxing work I was joining.

Throughout my ten weeks at the Scalabrini Centre, there were many heartbreaking moments: I met with people without refugee claims who literally carried their children in their hands and asked for help but could not be assisted; I had to tell people from Zimbabwe and other countries with economic and other claims that are not recognized by the Convention, and that they had to return home. But there were also many uplifting moments: translating for French-speaking clients and seeing a smile on their faces when they realized that they could be heard in their native tongue; assisting clients with certifications for permanent residency; and playing checkers (and getting beat) by men at a culture celebratory event on World Refugee Day. I coped with work by finding beauty in the struggle and learning more about the clients’ lives outside of being a refugee, as well as hearing stories about their children, and talking with colleagues who had been at Scalabrini for years.

A colleague of mine kept the following quote on her desk, “Helping one person may not change the whole world, but it may change the world for one person.” These words pushed me through times when I felt like I failed refugees because I could not directly or quickly change the problems within the refugee system or within their countries. Johnny Clepp’s song “Asimbonanga” also kept me going by reminding me of how many seemingly insurmountable battles South Africa has overcome, and that the battle for refugees here in South Africa can also be won. I came to South Africa seeking a better understanding of the praxis of international law. Organizations like Scalabrini have shown me the necessity of on the ground work. As I return to the States, I will take with me the faces and resilient stories of many refugees. The country where Madiba stood tall in the face of injustice has taught me a lot of lessons on how to better the long walk to freedom for refugees.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019