'Our lives also matter' - World Refugee Day marked at Cape Town's Covid-19 isolation sites

  • The refugees and asylum seekers who lived in and around the Central Methodist Church commemorated World Refugee Day on Saturday.
  • They are still living in tents at two sites in Cape Town.
  • They say they do not know how to go about claiming the R350 Covid-19 grant for refugees and asylum seekers.

"If you don't stay right up here," said refugee Serge Kande tapping his temple with his index fingers, "you will end up there".

"There" is the Maitland cemetery, opposite the tent one of two groups of refugees have lived in after being moved during the Covid-19 lockdown after a long spell of refuge at the Central Methodist Mission in Cape Town's city centre. 

Speaking through a blue mask handed out to protect themselves from Covid-19, Kande said the only thing protecting them during the pandemic, was mental fortitude. 

Tied to the fence around the giant marquee, words hand-painted onto a sheet read: "You just drove past 790 refugees stuffed in 1 tent", to highlight how difficult it is for them to practice social distancing. 

After being removed from the church in light of Covid-19 gathering regulations, the available sanitation infrastructure comprise a row of communal portaloos, gallons of hand sanitiser, and mobile showers provided by the City of Cape Town.

Kande is one of the refugees and asylum seekers who had slept on the floor or in the pews of the church from 30 October after being removed from a sit-in at the Waldorf Arcade, also in the city centre.

The church's Rev Alan Storey had offered them a place to stay.

The Waldorf Arcade sit-in had occurred parallel to a sit-in in Pretoria where they had hoped that the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) would relocate them to a third country, citing xenophobia and mistreatment by officialdom and communities who blamed them for taking jobs and business opportunities.

The UNHCR said it was not possible, and the months-long impasse was marked by hostility, long periods of inertia, and eventually when the Covid-19 pandemic struck, they and a breakaway group were moved to giant tents - one in Kensington and one in Bellville.

Kande has colour back in his face and a Greenmarket Square hotelier gave him a new guitar to play after hearing that his old one had been broken during their removal. 

Asked how he was doing, he said "fine". But added later: 

In our culture we will always say 'fine' when people ask how we are, but we are not fine.

He said they do not even know how to go about applying for the R350 Covid-19 grant that many are entitled to.

World Refugee Day highlights the needs and experiences of an estimated 79.5m people displaced by the end of 2019 globally, and this year their plight is made even more complex by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

But for one day there is an air of festivity in and around the tent in Maitland, with children participating in a dancing competition, and an art exhibition by students in the tent being taught by artist Ces'art Kinsumbo.

A recent collector was Springbok rugby captain Siya Kolisi who paid a low-key visit with the Nelson Mandela Foundation, and wrote in their A5 black and red visitor's book: "Keep strong and positive. Keep telling your story through your art work."

The struggle for money is ongoing.

The Gift of the Givers charity has returned to provide one meal a day, after being chased away at the church during a hostile period.

One special resident is Alich By-Law Mvondo, so named because his mum Shirena went into labour on a pavement while they were being removed from a park near the Cape Peninsula University and Technikon - for violating bylaws that prevent sleeping in public after they were removed from outside the church.

"He gets sick now and then, but he is fine," said a beaming Shirena. 

Baby Alich By-Law Mvondo's mom Shirene went into labour during a removal.

Kande implored authorities to not ignore them or to forget them, as they sleep in small donated tents, or on mattresses. When the roof of the marquee "sweats", moisture drops on them and the winter rains flood them. 

A steady communal fire smoulders outside near a little market of fruit, vegetables and toilet paper set up on a hand-made wooden table. People take turns to put their cooking pot on the fire to make food, or to boil hot water for washing. 

They also have to be on the lookout for snakes that crawl in from the veld of the Wingfield Military base next door - four so far. 

In another corner, the Refugees Judo Class students go through judo throws and capoeira that Blaise Momili teaches in case their students ever need to defend themselves against an assailant.

An old tractor tyre is dragged over and Farayi-Masudi Gregoire takes a run-up and jumps off the tyre to practice flips to supportive applause. 

Further afield, in Bellville, a second group's camp forms a triangle with the Bellville taxi rank and the Middestad Mall. They too are commemorating World Refugee Day with song and dance by the children, and a theatre piece re-enacting the journey of a refugee.

Many are still wearing the purple blankets first given to them by the Gift of the Givers at the church, and have turned them into gowns, capes, and in one case, an elaborate outsized head scarf. 

The highlighting of the many perils they had encountered - of fleeing to a border, to being mistreated by officialdom, their problems at the Department of Home Affairs to get documentation, and having their small businesses attacked and looted by thugs, have people shaking their heads in agreement and applauding. 

READ | Bleeding, chaos as police arrest 100 foreign nationals outside UN refugee offices in Cape Town 

Some who fled the military as rebellions formed in their countries of origin, dressed up in fake camouflage with toy binoculars and walkie talkies, and epaulettes made of leaves.

One man carried a "machine gun" made out of a strip of old wood, a sling fashioned out of a chain of sticks and string, and the "scope" made out of an old hand sanitiser bottle tied to the end.

They posed for selfies in a moment of levity, as the large group joined in on songs about the plight of refugees and made a fuss of the children who had presented a dance routine.

Leader of the Bellville group, Aline Balous of Women and Children Concerned, told the gathering: "We know that the UNHCR around the world is taking measures around the world and so we need them to count us in because we're also the most vulnerable and we deserve help and protection like other refugees around the world." 

Balous' husband Jean-Pierre is still in custody following a series of events which culminated in him making a break for freedom from the dock of the Cape Town Magistrate's Court when a second warrant of arrest was served on him. 

WATCH | Pandemonium in courtroom as refugee leader, 2 others arrested in alleged escape 

The leader of the other group, Papi Sukami, is out on bail and is not allowed to be in contact with them so was not seen at the Maitland site. 

Said Balous: "We know that we are going through a lot. It's not so easy to celebrate when you are going through sorrow and so on. But, we need to create our peace for today in order to remember our fellow brothers and sisters who died in [xenophobia].

"And our theme today would like to ask the international communities and the governments that support refugees and that work hard to support refugees to remember us and to know that our lives also matter. 

"I repeat it again ... don't leave us behind because everybody can make a difference."

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