Refugees (in South Africa)

I am sitting in a room with a man.

He can speak multiple African languages, he can speak French. I can only speak English. His brother is here. His brother smiles often when he is upset and trying to figure out what to do. His brother is smiling a lot right now. I am still trying to figure out if they are really brothers. When his brother speaks to us, in English, he sits in silence. His brother is translating for him. There is a wonderful geography to the man’s face, cheekbones vertiginous, lips fixed, eyes rimmed red and low. He is so quiet, even in movement, and so devastatingly present, like I can feel the presence of his mind.  Later we will ask him if he wants trauma counselling, later, that is, when we have finished asking him the usual litany of questions, these like “tell me your life story” and “what legal assistance do you require?” On the intake form, beneath the question “what do you need help with?”, he has scribbled, in all capitals, “TO SAVE MY LIFE”. He is a refugee. He wants refuge in South Africa. Like the bare beating human heart seeks refuge on this great African continent in the wider Earth and something about how we are all seeking refuge on this strange planet and that refuge is in the heart, the heart which beats on.

And then their stories. My days here, the hours, they pass rapidly. One after another, they come to recite their lives, as they had before, in immigration offices, then with the Home Office, which is not so curiously incompetent somehow, which so curiously rejects them one by one, rejects a common humanity then again, and now, the refuge-seekers recite their lives again meticulously, carefully, with us. After him, there is a woman wearing a full headscarf. There is a man in a purple shirt, glowly telling us of his three children, but this as if only an afterthought. We are trying to ensure his refugee status.

A man throws his head back, scars on his neck- “my whole wife’s family”, he says, “they are dead.”

Another man. “I was a political activist”, he tells us, “the government wanted to kill me. So I rented a boat, crossed the river, escaped the country.”

“My son, he is disabled. They won’t let him have an education..”

“I was deported. They destroyed my shop, sent me back. I came back to South Africa a month later in the back of a truck.”

“I am gay. They threw stones at me, beat me up whenever they saw me. I was afraid…”

“And now I am here.”

“How long have you been in South Africa?”

“Thirteen years.”

“Twenty days.”

How long have I been in South Africa? A week maybe. I’ve wandered through Braam with some lovely Bardians, thrilled by the South African youth who walk the streets, all of them in bright jackets, flaunting their clothes- later they would frequent the clubs on weekend nights. I’ve not gone far, though. Locals warn me not to cross the Mandela Bridge, to not walk alone at night, to not wander outside of the university and the nearby streets that comprise Braamfontein. We essentially live in a compound, with limited internet and the strange cold of the African winter nights. But there is warmth in the recesses. There is warmth, mostly in the people. The South Africans are notoriously friendly.

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