UNHCR funds crèche course in caring for refugee tots in Durban

News Stories, 13 April 2011

© UNHCR/T.Ghelli
Congolese refugee Jeannette Kasongo plays with the children she cares while their parents work.

DURBAN, South Africa, April 13 (UNHCR) The sound of children laughing and singing echoes through the dark corridors and the stairwell of a dilapidated eight-storey residential block in central Durban.

The babble of happiness, which seems out of place in such a dreary place, is coming from an apartment on the fifth floor, where visitors are warmly welcomed by a small group of excited youngsters aged between two and six years old.

This is a crèche with a difference one of 51 so-called "home-base care" centres set up around the coastal city to help refugees with children. Funded by UNHCR and Oxfam Australia, these centres both protect young refugees while their parents work and provide employment to women like Odette Mulongo, from the Congolese province of Katanga, who lives in the lively fifth-floor flat.

Under South African law, refugees enjoy many of the rights of the country's citizens, including the right to travel, to education and to earn a living. But taking up employment is a challenge for those with children in an urban environment.

"We realized that there was a huge child protection issue. Parents needed to go to work and their very young children were being left at home, sometimes alone, since they had no place to leave them," explained Yasmin Rajah, director of Refugee Social Services (RSS), which implements the project.

The RSS, accordingly, launched a pilot home-base care (HBC) project in 2007 and this was expanded the following year. It started by inviting refugee women who were interested in child care to apply for places on an 18-week training programme, including lessons on child safety and early childhood development. To date, some 70 of the most vulnerable women have been trained.

Those who passed were advised on how to maximise the space in their humble apartments to create a crèche for a maximum of six children and also given a start-up kit, including colourful plastic chairs and tables, ingredients for play dough, crayons, markers and paper goods.

Parents must pay fees of between US$40 and US$50 a month for each child left with the carers. They are also asked to help keep costs down by providing items such as tissues for their infants as well as some foodstuff. Some lower income South African families are also benefitting from the programme.

Many of the parents work odd hours, but because the HBCs are in their apartments, it's much easier for parents to pick them up their children when they finish their shift and go home at night or early in the morning.

At the crèche run by Odette Mulongo, a 24-year-old Burundian refugee drops off her 15-month-old son at three in the afternoon. She will be back to pick him up around midnight, after finishing her work as a waitress.

"If it weren't for Odette, I don't know what I would do," she told UNHCR visitors. "Sometimes, when I am short of money, she even lets my son stay here for free," added the grateful woman.

Another care centre manager, Jeannette Kasongo, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said the programme had really helped her. Before joining, she used to make ends meet by selling small items on the streets of her neighbourhood. The 39-year-old said she had to take her infant daughter with her because she could not afford to pay for day care.

But now she earns more than she did as a street trader and also gets to stay at home with her daughter. What's more, she's learned a lot about child care. "Before, if a child was sick, I would think just to give him some medicine. Now, I know to contact the parents to request permission and make sure that the child is not allergic to any medicine."

Yasmin Rajah says the home-base care centres fill a niche. "We have found that the overall environment for the children has improved and the women who are enrolled in the programme are truly committed to doing a good job. "

By Tina Ghelli in Durban, South Africa




UNHCR country pages

South Africa's Invisible People

In March 2011, UNHCR initiated a project with the South African non-governmental organization, Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), to tackle the issue of statelessness. The specific goals of the project were to provide direct legal services to stateless people and those at risk of statelessness; to engage government on the need for legal reform to prevent and reduce statelessness; to raise awareness about stateless people and their rights; and to advocate for the ratification of the 1954 and 1961 UN conventions on statelessness.

LHR had conceived the project a year earlier after noticing that large numbers of Zimbabwean-born asylum-seekers were telling its staff that they faced problems getting jobs, studying or setting up businesses - all allowed under South African law. They told LHR that when they applied for Zimbabwean passports, necessary to access these rights, they were informed by consular officials that they were no longer recognized as Zimbabwean citizens. This effectively made them stateless.

Since the project's inception, LHR has reached more than 2,000 people who are stateless or at risk of statelessness. These people came from more than 20 different countries. It has identified numerous categories of concern in South Africa, both migrants and those born in the country.

The following photo set portrays some of the people who have been, or are being, helped by the project. The portraits were taken by photographer Daniel Boshoff. Some of the subjects asked that their names be changed.

South Africa's Invisible People

South Africa: Searching for Coexistence

South Africa is one of the few countries in Africa where registered refugees and asylum-seekers can legally move about freely, access social services and compete with locals for jobs.

But while these right are enshrined in law, in practice they are sometimes ignored and refugees and asylum-seekers often find themselves turned away by employers or competing with the poorest locals for the worst jobs - especially in the last few years, as millions have fled political and economic woes in countries like Zimbabwe. The global economic downturn has not helped.

Over the last decade, when times turned tough, refugees in towns and cities sometimes became the target of the frustrations of locals. In May 2008, xenophobic violence erupted in Johannesburg and quickly spread to other parts of the country, killing more than 60 people and displacing about 100,000 others.

In Atteridgeville, on the edge of the capital city of Pretoria - and site of some of the worst violence - South African and Somali traders, assisted by UNHCR, negotiated a detailed agreement to settle the original trade dispute that led to the torching of Somali-run shops. The UN refugee agency also supports work by the Nelson Mandela Foundation to counter xenophobia.

South Africa: Searching for Coexistence

Surviving in the City: Pretoria, South AfricaPlay video

Surviving in the City: Pretoria, South Africa

Living in Pretoria as a refugee or asylum-seeker is challenging. Most either live rough on the streets or in cramped apartments in townships. There are also tensions with locals because of the perception that foreigners get a better deal than South African citizens.
Top business partners renew supportPlay video

Top business partners renew support

Executives from Manpower, Young & Rubicam, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Microsoft visit UNHCR operations in South Africa, Mozambique and Namibia.
Zimbabweans in South AfricaPlay video

Zimbabweans in South Africa

While Zimbabwe's main political rivals have agreed to hold power-sharing talks, there are continued reports of instability and violence in the country. The flow of Zimbabweans seeking asylum in neigbouring South Africa is growing, rather than ebbing. The UN refugee agency reports that there are more and more women and children joining the exodus.