No home away from home

2010-08-19 00:00

PASTOR Samson Matabaro picks up his red South African identity book and says, “No one knows what this is. Banks... doctors... they all ask what is that, we only know the green identity book.”

He adds that refugees, who are issued this red book by the SA government, are not just foreigners who come to South Africa to find better opportunities, they are foreigners who have fled their countries in fear of persecution due to their race, religion and political opinion.

Matabaro fled Burundi because he was the offspring of parents from two different tribes: his mother was Tutsi and his father, Hutu.

During the 1972 mass killings of Hutu by the Tutsi-dominated army, Matabaro, only seven years old, watched his father and father’s brothers being killed during a family lunch. He ran to Tanzania and grew up in an orphanage.

“I had a very difficult childhood. I didn’t play. I didn’t enjoy my childhood like other kids did. I missed out on a lot. The families I lived with treated me as a worker,” said Matabaro.

During the time that Melchior Ndadaye, president of Burundi, was assassinated in 1993, Matabaro was shot in the arm. Red Cross International saved him and took him to Congo.

Matabaro married a Tutsi woman, but conflict arose between the couple due to their tribal differences and Matabaro’s wife told him that they could not stay together and that he must take his three children with him.

With his eldest child only five years old and his youngest just six months, Matabaro didn’t know what to do.

“It was painful. It was difficult to run with the children because I was wounded. I had to leave Burundi because I would be killed if I stayed. So I took the two older children. It was painful for them too. I told [my wife] to leave the six-month-old with my mother.”

Matabaro moved back and forth between Congo and Tanzania, constantly trying to contact his wife in Burundi.

Matabaro’s children needed a mother and he later married a Tanzanian woman. Two years ago, the daughter that he left behind in Burundi contacted him.

“It was painful ... we didn’t know each other,” said Matabaro.

In 2002, they came to South Africa, where Matabaro and his wife volunteered to assist at Joseph Baynes Children’s Home. Three years later, Matabaro­’s wife died while giving birth to their child, who also did not survive.

Key Ministry International

After his wife died, Matabaro dedicated his life to working with refugees.

“The Key Ministry International began in 1998 when I was a refugee in Tanzania. After finishing life ministry, I started doing research in the community in three ways — spiritual, social and economic, and I saw so many people in the community who are forgotten or unreached. After two years, I left Tanzania for South Africa because I did not get asylum with my family in Tanzania. The Key Ministry International started with three groups from different areas in the refugee community to educate them on how to help each other.”

The Key Ministry International is now a registered, interdenominational, non-governmental organisation operating in Pietermaritzburg. It aims at offering spiritual, social and economic services for refugees and local communities.

“People don’t know who refugees are. They are not immigrants or illegal immigrants. The Key Ministry International aims to go out into the community and explain to people why refugees are here.”

“We are not the reason for people not getting jobs in South Africa. We are not the reason for poverty. We are here because we fear for our lives” - Moses Kilozo.

Hardships faced by refugees

LIVING in constant fear, both in their country and here, is not the only hardship that refugees face despite being protected by the South African Bill of Rights.


Nyumba Sase, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), used to sell sweets on Church Street in an attempt to sustain herself and her two children. Sase said that locals often walked past and took sweets without paying.

Recently, a security guard told her that he did not want to see her selling there because she does not have a licence. When Sase applied for a licence, she was turned down and told that she was a kwere-kwere (a derogatory term used to refer to foreigners).

Health, welfare and rights

Sase is sickly and it is hard for her to work. “How am I meant to provide food and shelter for my children?” she asked.

“Even with disabilities, you don’t get help,” said Matabaro.

In terms of health care, Matabaro said: “Refugees are also unable to get antiretrovirals [ARVs], even though they should be provided to everyone. Doctors, nurses, mayors and counsellors, they say that they don’t know about refugees. They say that they only know the green identity book.”


Only three banks (First National Bank, Nedbank and Standard Bank) accept asylum seekers and refugees as clients.

Police and documentation

Berhanu Adane, an Ethiopian, said that refugees are often hassled by the police. “They come into your house and ask you for slips for everything that you have, implying that you are stealing. We often don’t have slips and they take our stuff.” He added that they are always stopped in places and asked for their documentation.

“I have an Asylum Seeker Temporary Permit. When I show it to them they ask what is it … or they say it is expired when it is not. Sometimes we carry copies of our documentation because we get robbed often. The police say this is not allowed. They say that we must choose between jail or [paying them]. Often we don’t have money. We have to have these IDs on us all the time.”

What the law says


Refugees and asylum seekers are legally allowed to work in South Africa. The Employment Equity Act protects immigrants from discrimination and the Labour Relations Act protects them from unfair labour practices and dismissals.

Health, welfare and rights

Lawyers for Human Rights representative, Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, says a limited number of social welfare grants are available, including disability grants and foster child grants.

However, Lee Stone, attorney of the High Court of South Africa and senior lecturer in the faculty of law at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, believes refugees should be entitled to full access to social welfare grants.

“The Constitution ... states that ‘the Bill of Rights enshrines the rights of all people in our country and affirms the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom’. Dignity is an especially important feature of our new constitutional dispensation and it would be completely outrageous for our government to deny refugees social welfare grants when they require such grants to live a dignified existence,” said Stone. She said the Constitution and the Refugee Act provide sufficient support for refugees to receive welfare from the state.

The United Nations (UN) also provides some funds for refugees, however, these are limited and distributed through non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

In terms of ARVs, Stone says that “legally, no hospital, doctor or nurse may withhold ARVs from refugees if they require these”.

Police and documentation

“Refugees do need to prove their immigration status,” said Ramjathan-Keogh, “but this does not mean that they have to carry it around at all times. They should, however, produce their documents when requested within a reasonable time.”

IF there are any refugees who have experienced great hardships and would like to talk about them to help and encourage the community, contact Pastor Samson Matabaro at 076 698 1936. Key Ministry International is situated in the Old Prison (Burger Street) and is open to people who are keen to assist the emotional and physical needs of the refugee community.

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