Welcome Irene Kainda as a neighbor, not as a stranger

What are the borders of being-a-refugee? When does one stop being a stranger and become simply a neighbor? Irene Kainda wants to know.

Irene Kainda is 21 years old. She lives in Cape Town. She has lived in Cape Town continuously since 1998. She used to live with her mother and her brother, Felipe, who is two years younger than Irene. In 2006, Irene and Felipe’s mother abandoned them. The two children spent three years in a homeless shelter, and then were taken in by some good people. Now Irene is in college and so is her brother, thanks to Irene’s hard work. In many ways, this is, or could be, a tale of great promise, a tale of a young woman who keeps on keeping on.

Irene and Felipe came to South Africa as refugees, and there’s the rub. The civil war in Angola is officially at an end, and the situation is both improved and improving: “Angola is a nation of bright minds, brilliant writers, exceptional musicians, and a civil society that, almost 11 years after war’s end, is ready to have its voice heard.” Of course, there’s much room for improvement, but that’s true everywhere.

Recently, the South African government decided to `encourage’ Angolan refugees to return `home’. The `invitation’ to `apply for repatriation’ is universal. Everyone has to `apply’. Hundreds of thousands of people, call them Angolans who have sought refugee status, live in South Africa. Many of them have lived there for twenty years. For many of them, South Africa is the only home they really know. Irene Kainda notes, “I came to South Africa when I was seven. I don’t remember Angola, I don’t know where I am from and who or where my family there is.”

What are the borders of being-a-refugee, and how does gender inflect those borders? Women and girl refugees haunt the world. According to the most recent UNHCR Global Trends Report, at the end of 2011, 42.5 million people were displaced. Of them, 15.2 million were refugees. Women and girls made up 49 per cent of persons “of concern to UNHCR.” According to the UNHCR, 48 percent of refugees are women and girls. Further, “in 2011, UNHCR submitted some 92,000 refugees for resettlement. Ten per cent of all submissions were for women and girls at risk, the highest percentage of the last six years.” The next UNHCR report comes out in a month.

The civil war in Angola saw massive, programmatic and widely acknowledged violence against women and girls, and yet the processes and structures concerning demobilization altogether avoided women and girls as a distinct group. Thus, no resources were dedicated to their specific needs. And now it looks like South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs will do the same, avoid any recognition of the specific situations of Angolan-born women and girls living in South Africa.

Meanwhile, more than one study has noted that xenophobia is the dark side of the new supposedly democratic South Africa: “Intolerance is extremely pervasive and growing in intensity and seriousness. Abuse of migrants and refugees has intensified and there is little support for the idea of migrant rights.” Sometimes the abuse was directed specifically at Angolan refugees in Cape Town: “The City of Cape Town, like many other cities, has seen a number of xenophobic attacks on foreigners…The most well-publicised conflicts have been those in Danoon, Doornbach in 2001 and in Joe Slovo Park in 2002. Perhaps the most publicised incident was in Joe Slovo Park, where four people were killed in clashes between Angolan refugees and South Africans.”

Irene Kainda is an Angolan-born young woman who has lived and grown up, and raised her younger brother, in Cape Town in a very particular historical period. She has labored through abandonment, homelessness, xenophobia, violence against women, and more. At every step of the way, she was supposed to fail, and take her younger brother down with her. Instead, she succeeded, and took her younger brother up with her. And her reward, if the South African government has its way, is to be shipped to a `homeland’ she doesn’t know?

That cannot be. The State cannot punish Irene Kainda who has spent almost all her life engaged in Cape Town in performing the labor of survival with dignity, hope, and humor. Rather than deport Irene Kainda, reform the State. Institute a statute of limitations on being-a-refugee. Take responsibility for being a haven. Stop treating Irene Kainda as a stranger and welcome her as a neighbor.

 

(Photo Credit:Mail & Guardian)

 

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.