‘The Crisis Could Be With Us For The Unforeseeable Future’
The tear-inducing image of a young boy washed up on a beach in Turkey last year dominated headlines for weeks. His small, lifeless body had finally presented the true picture of the greatest crisis of our times. His death became a metaphor of the desolation and helplessness faced by the millions forcibly displaced.
The boy was later reported to have been on a boat with his family from his hometown Kobani in northern Syria, a country torn apart by war for years. He was one of 11,000 children reported as displaced every day, the victims of forced migration.
His father would later explain to reporters that their boat suddenly capsized as they were making a final and desperate attempt to escape the conflict-ridden state by sea.
This illustration is but one of many that has continued to grab headlines over the years. The refugee crisis is real and the biggest casualties are children.
Antonio Guterres, the former United Nations High Commissioner for refugees (UNHCR), highlights in the UNHCR Global Trends 2014 report: “We are witnessing a paradigm change, an unchecked slide into an era in which the scale of global forced displacement as well as the response required is now clearly dwarfing anything seen before.”
Children form an overwhelming majority, at least about half, of the world’s total refugee population upwards of 60 million.
Chaos has long descended on the world but the lack of political will by global leaders is robbing children of their childhood, families and identity.
On a recent visit to Johannesburg, British politician, activist and author, Professor Peter Hain, the Lord Hain of Neath, said the refugee crisis is a calamity for women and children.
“This global phenomenon capitalizes on the shortcomings of states, adequate political standards need to be established in order to create change,” he told FORBES WOMAN AFRICA.
While governments are not as willing to initiate processes to mitigate the rising numbers of refugees, particularly children, Amnesty International earlier this year conducted the Refugees Welcome Index; the global survey revealed that government refugee policies and citizens are on opposite ends, with the important call to integrate the refugees into economies.
The fight continues for children, though. They are more vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation in unfamiliar, often crowded conditions they have no control over.
Mosa Moremi, national child rights and advocacy advisor of SOS Children’s Villages South Africa, tells us processes to integrate children into society are very difficult.
“In my experience, sometimes children are brought into the country by parents who have migrated and then they are later abandoned. They are left with nothing.”
She highlights that giving these abandoned or unaccompanied children adequate care becomes challenging and the system is riddled with layers of red tape.
Professor Hain echoes this sentiment, stating that the crisis which manifests in “a seemingly impotent international system led by the United Nations could be with us for the unforeseeable future”.
It’s no comforting thought that one estimate suggests that 80% of the world’s refugees are in developing countries and yet less than 9% are hosted by six of the world’s richest nations. And, the rise of right-wing populism ideas, as Professor Hain stresses.
This means that many will continue to face racism, xenophobia and discrimination, imposing an unprecedented new burden on children who often have little understanding of the social, political and economic discourse of a society.
In the pages that follow, FORBES WOMAN AFRICA speaks to three young migrants in South Africa, who now live in a limbo, hurt and homeless.
Sarah (16) and Kudzai (15) Mathe
One night in 2009 when Sarah and Kudzai Mathe, nine and eight respectively, were asleep after another long day selling tomatoes, onions and fruit, their stepfather returned home drunk as he did everyday but this time, he attempted to rape them.
Sarah was able to break free from his grip. She grabbed all her courage, and the money she had saved on the day with Kudzai, and together, they ran, not knowing where they were headed.
As they ran, Kudzai looked back. In the blackness of the night, she could see the house their mother raised them in fade into the distance, never to see it again. The girls had spent their early years with their parents in a small town in Harare, Zimbabwe.
“Our parents got divorced when we were still young. Our stepfather didn’t even hide that he didn’t love us,” they say.
Shortly after their mother’s new union, they stopped attending school.
“He told us he didn’t have money to pay for school fees and that’s when we started selling fruit and vegetables on the street.”
Whilst other children walked to school or waited for the bus in the mornings, Sarah and Kudzai would set up their stall.
“The other kids would laugh at us because we wore rags and sometimes had no shoes.”
Things got worse when their mother fell ill and passed away in 2009.
“There was no longer place for us in that house. Our stepfather just brought in different wives every night and spent most of the money we would make.”
The day after they ran away from home, as they wandered the streets, Kudzai suggested they go to South Africa.
“I heard about it and thought we could get on the bus and just go.”
They arrived at a bus station and spoke with one of the drivers who directed them to the bus that would take them to South Africa.
“When we got onto the bus, the driver asked us how much we had and I pulled out all of our savings and he grabbed it and said we should find seats,” Sarah says.
“We were so hungry and the lady we sat next to on the bus gave us an apple each. We ate them like we’d never eaten before.
“After a few hours, the bus made a stop at Beitbridge; the driver told us to get off and that he would be back for us.”
They waited for the bus driver for two weeks. He didn’t come back for them. And they were only nine and eight years old.
When it dawned on them that the bus driver was not going to be back for them, they found work handing out flyers to travelers passing by the border bridge. They were paid R30 ($2) each a week and saved that up to pay malaicha, which Sarah explains means carriers. The malaicha would help them get to South Africa.
“We paid the R200 ($15) we’d saved and we were on our way.”
With Sarah and Kudzai were five other men.
“As we walked through the forest and then the Limpopo river, what scared us the most was that any one of the men could rape us, we were the only girls and the night our father almost raped us was fresh in our memory,” recalls Sarah.
Kudzai does not say much apart from a nod or a sigh throughout the interview. But she says now: “We really thought South Africa was so far.”
After over 12 hours of walking, they found themselves in Messina, the northernmost town of Limpopo.
“We looked for work but no one would hire us.”
In time, they found an old woman who paid them R50 ($3.6) a month to clean and do the laundry. “It wasn’t that hard for us because we were used to working.”
They used the money to pay for a lorry ride to Johannesburg in September 2009. They were two of the lucky ones. When they got to Johannesburg, they were directed to the Methodist church in Braamfontein. They have since been moved and “life is good”.
“We are back in school and I love maths but I’m not that good at it,” Kudzai giggles.
“We also have each other and that’s what matters,” says Sarah, her smile brightening up a face hardened by experience.
Maqhawe Garikayi (17)
When Maqhawe Garikayi was arrested by border security for attempting to illegally cross over into South Africa from Zimbabwe in 2012, he was not discouraged. Shortly after he was released, he tried again, and succeeded. He was 13.
Four years on, Garikayi barely looks up as he tells his story.
“I never knew my birth mother and I don’t know if I have any siblings. All I had was a stepmother who saw me as her worker, not her child. She just didn’t love me.”
Garikayi couldn’t get along with his her. At the age of 13, he was questioning his existence and toying with the idea of running away from home. Thoughts of where he would run away to and how he would survive were secondary as survival instincts compelled him to get away from what he describes “a toxic environment”.
As a young boy who was not attending school and knew no stability, he was left with little choice.
“I left home with nothing but the clothes I was wearing. I had no money. I had no documents. I heard about South Africa and how it was the land of milk and honey so that was where I was going to go.”
The second time he tried to cross the border illegally, he was able to sneak past security.
“After [hitch-hiking], I walked through a forest and then through the forceful waves of the Limpopo river. I just followed other groups of people I assumed were also on their way to South Africa.”
Trouble awaited young boys like Garikayi in Messina, where he was robbed of his clothes, and beaten. He had to cover his nudity with a discarded blue overall he found.
“I cried, I thought I was going to die.”
Garikayi mustered strength and made his way to a filling station in Messina. He spent the night there and the following morning, wandered into a suburb and knocked on doors for food and some clothes. Eventually, he was handed a pair of blue shorts, sandals and a T-shirt. After a few days, he was able to make his way to Johannesburg, in a pick-up truck.
Garikayi remembers spending almost eight months on the streets, surviving on whatever he could find in trash bins.
“It was funny the way I always found KFC in the bins, a lot of people wasted that,” he says with a hint of a smile.
Garikayi has since been taken in by an organization that is currently sending him to school, clothing him, feeding him and ensuring he has a warm bed to sleep in every night.
His dreams of being an accountant and having a family of his own have a fighting chance but he sobs and whispers: “My greatest wish is for a mother, I don’t know why God gave me this life.”
Wasithanda Hadziperidzega (21)
On April 28, 2014, Wasithanda Hadziperidzega decided to leave home in pursuit of a better life, a life he thought he would find in South Africa.
But sadly, the journey and destination were a far cry from his dreams.
Originally from Ghana, Hadziperidzega moved to Zimbabwe to live with his mother, a single parent raising four young children, a common scenario in the African narrative.
His mother worked in the public sector and could not afford a decent living.
Many, if not all public service employees, were left for weeks and even months at a time without income, left to live at the mercy of a government mired in turmoil.
“My mother would never tell us that she was struggling financially but I could see; I can see things.”
One day, at the age of 18, Hadziperidzega left home as he did every day for soccer practice. After the game, he listened to his peers talk about how tough life was in Zimbabwe.
He made up his mind.
“… The grounds [were] the only place we could talk about the country’s situation and Mugabe. It was safe. After we talked, I decided then that I was going to leave. All I needed was $53 for a passport and $30 for the bus,” says Hadziperidzega.
He never returned home.
Hadziperidzega remembers it took him no longer than five minutes to decide his new fate. The task was now to make the money.
He had heard about how he could collect a small fortune in Mashonaland West, another province in Zimbabwe. The opportunity presented itself in the form of an illegal gold mining job. The word out on the street was that it was lucrative. After months of struggling to infiltrate a mine called Toppers, he was finally in.
“All I needed was a hammer, a short chisel and that torch you put around your head; it’s dark in those mines, there’s no sun,” he laughs, but there’s pain in his eyes.
After months of hard and treacherous work in the depths of Zimbabwe’s gold pits, he was able to save up $120.
He applied for his passport and used the rest to buy a bus ticket to South Africa.
“I arrived in South Africa at around 11PM at Park Station. Have you ever been to Park Station?” he asks. “There is a huge waiting area and I just sat there and pretended to be waiting for someone.”
People came and went fetching their relatives who had come through from different parts of the continent but no one came for Hadziperidzega. And it was the dead of night.
He hides his sorrow with a nervous chuckle, saying: “I knew no one was coming for me but I was just being silly and hoped someone would fetch me but I knew no one, I didn’t even understand where I was, all I knew was that I was in South Africa.”
For days, Hadziperidzega wandered the streets of Johannesburg looking for some validation that he had found in South Africa the social and economic salvation he couldn’t find in his home country, anything to convince him that he had made the right decision.
All he would encounter were other young foreigners collecting rubbish, “looking horrible”.
Nothing was easy to come by, not even scraps of food.
“I would eat anything just to make my tummy happy but not my tongue,” he shrugs.
Over the past two years, he has moved jobs trying to earn a decent living.
He says he has survived police harassment and several death threats because of his nationality.
But Hadziperidzega has not stopped dreaming.
His mind in still in the football fields of Zimbabwe; and he hopes to one day become a soccer star.
“I definitely don’t want to further my education, my whole family is educated and look at them, they are all poor and they will die poor. When you have money everything is easy and that’s all I want,” he says in conclusion.