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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move - N° 87, December 2001


A House of Stories

Rev. Fr. Frans THOOLEN, S.M.A.
Official of the Pontifical Council 

The sun is shining. A neighbourhood in Johannesburg. Streets and houses packed with refugees. Thirty thousand. We drive through the streets. People on the roadsides are selling items. We are greeted right and left. At last we stop in front of a house. Children are playing. They run to our car and greet us, anxious to see who is coming, what is going to happen. A few women are sitting on a low red wall in front of the house.

I sit down and start talking with a teenager. Change into French when I discover that Paul is from the Republic of Congo. Since two years ago in South Africa. He does not attend school. This is not allowed for persons being processed for asylum. What does he do the whole day? Nothing. Life is boring. It is not beautiful. He throws some pebbles to the ground.

I turn to my left. A young woman with a baby John. She tells her story. Last year she was raped. That’s why the baby. I am silent. Yes, she loves the baby. She cares for him. One day he will take care of her. She describes her situation as desperate. No work, no activities. Nothing to do. Silently, I sit by. 

I enter the house. Two Scalabrini sisters show me around. A shelter for sixty refugee women and children. They can stay for a maximum of six months. I see a central kitchen, hear about the rules and the timetable of the day. Some women are here, but their husbands are staying somewhere else. They are not allowed to stay here. The sisters dream of getting accommodation for families. 

I am introduced to Jeannette. The two of us sit down in the common room. Her husband is in the army in Congo/Zaire. Several times she had been interrogated and maltreated by the rebels. One day she left with her five children. She was hidden in the back of a truck. The truck’s trip ended in South Africa. That was five years ago. Her oldest daughter is now sixteen years old. She is concerned about her future. There is so much violence in society. In this centre she arrived five months ago. A boy of five is sleeping next to her. She does not know whether her husband is still alive, where he is at present; she has lost all contacts. She worries about what will happen next month. Then, she has to leave this home. She does not have any work. How can she survive?

I have to go on. My flight is waiting. A half-an-hour stay. A different world. The sun is shining.