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World Refugee Day – then and now

  • Xenophobia1
Violence ripped through townships in the Western Cape 10 years ago, destroying the shops and homes of thousands of refugees, displacing many, leaving them nowhere to turn.
by TALI FEINBERG | Jun 21, 2018

A total of 180 victims of these xenophobic attacks found themselves stranded outside the Caledon Police Station in the freezing rain. The Treatment Action Campaign approached the SA Jewish Board of Deputies Cape Council to assist them, and what followed had an impact both on the community and refugees for years to come.

“On Friday, 23 May 2008, I lit my Shabbos candles knowing that there had been an increasing number of sporadic xenophobic incidents throughout the Western Cape that day,” remembers Judith Cohen. “As Provincial Head of the South African Human Rights Commission [SAHRC], my week had been consumed with engaging with government, the police and security services, disaster management and community organisations preparing for a possible scenario of xenophobic violence. The Disaster Management Centre had set up a notification system, and as reports of xenophobia came through, we were notified by SMS.

“During Shabbos dinner, what began as an intermittent ping from my cellphone became increasingly more frequent. At some point, the pings ceased as the reports were too many. By the following morning, it was estimated that more than 20 000 non-nationals had been displaced in Cape Town.

“During the course of the weekend, the Caledon Square non-nationals were taken in and cared for by Jewish and Muslim communities. Fear had immobilised many people, and only after negotiations and assurances that they would be escorted by the police and SAHRC officials, was the group prepared to walk from Caledon Square to a mosque waiting to receive them in Bo-Kaap,” says Cohen.

She also played the role of mediator when tensions flared between Somali refugees and other groups in a refugee camp in Ysterplaat at the time. Police were too afraid to go in, so Cohen took it upon herself to do so. The police wanted to escort her in, but she refused. She went in on her own, sat on the floor with the groups, and mediated peace between them.

“This is but one experience from those intense tragic days. However, what stands out is how Capetonians across the religious and political divide came together to assist those who were vulnerable. From a Jewish perspective, there was a definite connection embedded in understanding the experience of being refugees due to discrimination,” she says.

“We rallied around the issue because of its Jewish association, in terms of knowing our history in this country, and as Jewish people. Immigration, discrimination, setting down roots – it really resonated,” recalls the current Vice-Chairperson of the Cape Board, Viv Anstey.

She and a group of Jewish women worked to raise funds and provide shelter and daily provisions for the Caledon Square group, which was housed in the Herzlia Weizman School Hall in Sea Point. “About 20 to 30 people literally put their lives on hold to help people who had nowhere else to go,” remembers Anstey.

“We did not want them to land up in camps, and we lobbied everyone who could help us. So much value came out of working with others in the nongovernmental organisation sector towards a common purpose. To this day, we have amazing contacts and allies. The crisis brought our community together [to realise] our obligation as active citizens. It was an opportunity to live our Jewish values.”

As the refugees crammed into the school hall, “it took people out of their comfort zones and helped us realise our privilege”, says Anstey. At the same time, many volunteers, including herself, remain traumatised by the stories they heard of child soldiers and escapes from oppressive regimes. “Everyone was there for a reason, and had run away from something.” Witnessing the group fight amongst itself, while others rose up as leaders, was both harrowing and enlightening.

“A huge indignity was that there was no record of who these people were. Their papers did not record their names and professions,” says Anstey. Challenges emerged as refugees tried to get back on their feet after a long line of setbacks. Some remained dependent on the community for years to come.

For Dr Corinne Abel, the crisis would have a lasting impact on her family, as it chose to care for a ten-year-old boy who it realised had nowhere else to go once the xenophobic attacks had ceased. The child attended Herzlia school and Habonim camp, and faced many challenges as he grew up, “but for us, it was worth it,” says Abel. “We were guided by the Jewish ethos that we, too, were once strangers in a strange land, and it is incumbent on us as Jews to remember that.”

Along with providing temporary relief to the refugees, the community was able to facilitate the repatriation of 20 Burundi nationals, raise funds for refugee camps in the region, organise the collection of food and essentials, as well as reintegrate the group back into society. These efforts were recognised by an invitation to attend a seminar in Pretoria, hosted by the Human Sciences Research Council and the British Consul General, to review and discuss the crisis and its aftermath.

Ten years later, the Cape Board of Deputies is continuing to work for the rights of refugees. “On 20 June, World Refugee Day, we commemorate the strength, courage and perseverance of millions of refugees,” says the Board’s Liza-Jane Saban.

“This year, World Refugee Day also marks a key moment for the public to show support for families forced to flee. In 1951, when the United Nations passed its Refugee Convention, six global Jewish organisations were present. They were there because they had helped craft the treaty. Right now, the Cape Board is fighting for the reopening of the Refugee Reception Office in Cape Town, an essential government facility which ensures rights to those seeking asylum in South Africa,” she says.

Without an office in Cape Town, asylum seekers must travel to Durban, Musina, or Pretoria every two to six months to renew their papers. This is a journey which must be completed with every member of a family seeking asylum, again and again, until their final status can be determined. This process takes an average of five years, and in some instances, up to 18 or 20 years.

Last year, the Supreme Court of Appeal ordered the Department of Home Affairs to re-open the Refugee Reception Office by 31 March 2018, and while the office is neither open nor functioning yet, Home Affairs says it is waiting on the Department of Public Works to provide suitable office accommodation.

“We continue to monitor the situation with our civil society partners as this is something which we cannot accept. Ensuring the treatment of the stranger within our city is a demand of history and tradition for us as South Africans, and certainly as Jewish people,” says Saban.

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