MAVERICK CITIZEN

Stranger in a strange land – my refugee life in South Africa

By Laury Ling 26 May 2020

In the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, mental health is one of the greatest casualties of the universalisation of insecurity, uncertainty, hunger and hopelessness. (Photo: meduim.com / Wikipedia)

‘I started looking for employment. I started with tutoring jobs and would go for the interviews only to be told that I can’t be hired because of my refugee status. I applied for every job on the internet and still could not find employment. I now knew what it meant to be a foreigner.’

My parents lived in the Democratic Republic of Congo under very dangerous circumstances and decided to immigrate, my father first and then my mother. They met in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1992 and after a miscarriage in 1993, they finally had twins in 1996 and another baby girl in 1999. 

Being a refugee, unlike a migrant, is simply the difference of choice – migrants have a choice, but refugees don’t. South Africa gained freedom and in the same year, my parents applied for asylum seeker papers and were granted it, and later granted refugee status, so they planned to make SA their permanent home. 

We lived between Berea and Yeoville in the early 2000s, and I started and completed my pre-school at Cozy Cots Corner at St Georges in Yeoville. In 2003, I then started primary school at Houghton Primary School. I knew I was different because I often got teased for my dark skin. I did not, however, know I was “foreign”, I had always known SA to be my home. 

In 2006, my mother really wanted to get us documented, so she went to a group that helped with documentation, called “RCP” and they took us to the Refugee Reception Centre in Rosettenville. We were put under her file, my siblings and I legally became refugees in SA, I did not know what that meant, I continued with my schooling , I was very diligent and did well – I had big hopes and dreams of becoming successful. 

In 2010, I started high school at Waverley Girls High School – these were honestly some of my best years, being a teen was fun as I did not have many issues or problems, the teasing stopped. I had self-esteem issues, but was smart so that made up for that. When we were born, my parents were not able to get us birth certificates, they tried and tried for years, but the Department of Home Affairs would always confuse them. Luckily, however, in 2011, Home Affairs came to Yeoville and was documenting children and my parents were able to acquire our unabridged birth certificates.

It was in my matric year that I finally understood what I really was, a foreigner. Home Affairs had come to our school to register people for IDs and I went up to the official and I presented him with my unabridged birth certificate and clinic card, and he said I am not liable to apply for an ID because my birth certificate was unabridged. He then showed me an abridged birth certificate and I was shocked at how different it was. He told me that my parents had to apply for permanent residence and that way I would attain citizenship. 

I went home to my parents and they explained that although I was born in South Africa, because they were not South African, I could not get citizenship. I asked them about the permanent residence and my dad told me he was approved by a standing committee in 2006, but did not have the money that was needed for the applications. My dad had never had stable permanent income because he could not get a job. 

If this year there are no changes, I don’t see myself living past this year. I will take my life.

Despite that, I wrote my exams using my refugee status and I passed matric with a bachelors pass and a distinction in history. I really wanted to go to varsity and the universities that I had applied to accepted me. I then had to come up with the registration money, but because I was a foreigner, I did not qualify for any scholarships or bursaries despite my good marks. I was forced into taking a gap year. I started doing promo work in 2015 and I saved up for registration for the following year. In 2016, I started a degree at the University of Johannesburg in journalism. 

My university years were the hardest years to date. I was severely depressed and had major anxiety issues because of university fees. I had no income and could not apply for funding because of my refugee status. In second year, I was financially excluded because I had not paid my first-year fees. 

I cried for days, I loved school and was doing well, I thought my life was over, but luckily a lady at UJ put me in contact with a man that got me unblocked because I had good grades. Still, that year I was not well mentally, I started going to the Centre for Psychological Services and Career Development at UJ often – they offered psychological services as I was struggling with depression and anxiety. 

In third year, despite owing over R50,000 in fees for first and second year, I managed to apply for the Student Representative Council student fund and was granted the fund which had me unblocked to register for my final year. 

Despite not seeing my marks because I owed too much in fees, I still had hope that I would get employment after I graduated so I could pay off the debt. In December 2018, I passed and had acquired my first degree. On 3 April 2019, I graduated despite not getting my certificate because of unpaid fees. 

I started looking for employment. I started with tutoring jobs and would go for the interviews only to be told that I can’t be hired because of my refugee status. I applied for every job on the internet and still could not find employment. I now knew what it meant to be a foreigner. I was in a really bad place mentally in 2019, and went to Hillbrow Adolescence Clinic and I was again diagnosed with depression and anxiety. 

At the beginning of 2020, I promised myself that I would try. I have already applied for many jobs and again been rejected because I do not have an ID. If this year there are no changes, I don’t see myself living past this year. I will take my life. This is not life and I desperately need help. I want to be able to change the situation of my family. We are currently staying in one room – all four of us – but I have a degree. I need help, please help me. DM/MC

Laury Ling is a pseudonym as the author has chosen to remain anonymous.

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