Christmas comes to Zim refugees in SA

BY SOKWANELE Tiny hands, none of them chubby, clapped and each child bobbed a polite curtsy as pink and white marshmallows, Liquorice All-Sorts and crunchy biscuits appeared in front of their astonished eyes. A few of the smallest hesitated briefly: making choices is something refugee and asylum

seeker children from Zimbabwe are no longer accustomed to.

Clutching a big, red teddy bear in one hand and a Barbie doll in the other, the grandson of a blind lady could not contain his enthusiasm. His granny had to feel each toy carefully and discuss its merits. Eventually the teddy took pride of place on the chair next to her and the doll was returned to the pile.

Although his grandmother could not watch the festivities, she took great pleasure in the children’s laughter and the attentiveness of her son and daughter-in-law. Soon she was tucking into a plate of briyani and chatting to a friend. For a brief moment she could forget the traumatic journey from Zimbabwe, the worries of surviving in a foreign country, and do what ordinary grannies around the world do: enjoy a Christmas party with family and friends.

Zimbabweans are by nature hospitable people. Those who work with the refugees find it inspiring that, even though they now live in demoralising and often squalid surroundings in South African cities and towns, they have retained their dignified politeness and concern for one another. The unspeakable violence perpetrated on Zimbabweans by the Mugabe regime through its armed forces and youth militia does not reflect the intrinsic character of the Zimbabwean people.

Despite extensive international coverage of the horrific demolitions and the publication of a damning report on “Operation Murambatsvina” (Operation Drive Out the Filth) by the United Nations, the destruction continues at an insidious, low profile level.

Finding a means of earning a living is the biggest challenge refugees face. Thousands of new arrivals go for days without food, shelter or even a change of clothing. Many have been tortured or beaten up by the Mugabe regime and are in dire need of medical attention. Some have been held in youth militia camps and raped repeatedly.

Schooling presents a significant problem for parents who have brought children with them as they are usually desperate for their youngsters to resume some form of education. Most parents whose children have been left behind with family members because of the uncertainties presented by life in a foreign country struggle to send money home for rapidly escalating school fees.

At Lindela, thousands of Zimbabweans continue to be held prior to deportation, and a steadily growing number has died. The overnight train from Johannesburg to Mussina, hauls vast numbers of illegal migrants back to the Zimbabwean border every couple of weeks. Since the detainees are so fearful of returning to the hunger, oppression, disease and hopelessness they face back home, many risk serious injury or death by jumping from the moving train.

Detainees who are handed over to the Zimbabwean police at the Beit Bridge border post are frequently beaten before being dumped penniless at the roadside outside the small, drab, dusty town, with no means of getting home.

If people in South Africa and further afield realised the depth of the refugees’ pain and the extent of their struggle to survive and overcome homesickness in the face of widespread xenophobia, offers of help would doubtless pour in. Every act of kindness, however small, can make a difference to Zimbabweans who, through no fault of their own, find themselves destitute in a foreign and often hostile land.

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