Inclusion of South African women in refugee skills training project benefits all involved

Refugee access to livelihoods and the labour market through maintaining harmonious relationships with the host population in urban settings, is an objective to which UNHCR is committed.


South African, Sarah Morobane (right) holds her tray of ginger biscuits, the first she's baked as a student of JRS's Loyola Business Centre Refugee Skills Training Project.   © UNHCR/Pumla Rulashe

Pretoria, South Africa - Sarah Morobane’s excitement at attending her first class as a student at the Arrupe Women's Centre in early February is still evident in the way her eyes light up and the smile the spreads across her face.

She is a South African enrolled in the refugee women’s skills training project run by Jesuit Refugee Services, a partner of the UN Refugee Agency, (UNHCR) in Pretoria, the country’s capital.

The skills training project is part of UNHCR’s work in urban centres, which is based on a commitment to uphold the social and economic standing of refugees, particularly by means of education, vocational training, livelihoods promotion and self-reliance initiatives.

Similarly, the Agency encourages refugees and their locally-based hosts to interact in a positive manner which not only promotes UNHCR’s objective to combat discrimination and xenophobia but in so doing, ensures that the services it provides to urban refugees bring benefits to other city-dwellers, especially those belonging to low-income segments of the population and those, who live in closest proximity to refugees. Of the 335 women trained last year in basic computer skills, cosmetology, hairdressing, sewing and baking in 2016, 48 of them were South African. 

Catching a mini-bus taxi from her home in Atteridgeville Township in Pretoria West to the Central Business District and back home again, makes a severe dent on her family’s meagre financial resources. However, she sees it as an investment in her future as a home-based entrepreneur. 

Forty nine year old Morobane is determined to make the most of the three month long training programme never having had the opportunity to participate in one that is also free of charge.  

Morobane heard about the programme from a neighbour she had a habit of commiserating with over their lot in life, as part of the township’s unemployed with no apparent prospects of generating or earning an income sufficient enough to lift them out of their socio-economic hardship.

Unlike her prideful friend, who said that she could not stoop so low as to be a part of a training programme for refugees, Morobane grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

“I had nothing to lose,” says Morobane. “I was too desperate to let an opportunity like this pass me by and would have been foolish to.”

Morobane, her equally unemployed husband and their eight year old son are residents of a township of over 200,000 people many of whom are unemployed and living on or below the poverty line. Unfortunately, this scenario mirrors that of many refugees in South Africa, who have very little means of sustaining themselves or their families in a consistent manner.

According to Tereda van Heerden, JRS Business Manager of both skills training projects, “This is why the programme caters to the socio-economic needs of the most vulnerable of vulnerable refugee women.”

By this, van Heerden is referring to refugee women, who would not ordinarily qualify for the financial support to start a business, women who may not have the ability to come up with a business plan and even women unable to speak English.

With the exception of the ability to speak English, Morobane identifies with the socio-economic position of refugee women at the skills training project.  

To make a living, she and her husband have rented out their home to a financially better off foreign couple for 1000 Rand per month (approximtely USD 77) a month. It is from these proceeds that Morobane and her family survive. Now that she is a student at the training skills project, she uses half of the money received for transport to and from Pretoria, something that initially didn’t go down well with her husband.

“I explained to him that though we would struggle a little more over the three months that I’d be attending classes, we would reap the benefits from the training, when I start my own small-scale business at home. He gave in and here I am!”

Morobane is maximizing her time on the training programme by studying basic computer skills and baking. She is one of ten  South Africans in the first intake of 2017, which also includes 21 refugees.

The skills training project takes approximately 300 people a year, 200 in Johannesburg and 100 in Pretoria. Through a selection process that includes an assessment of short-listed applicants by JRS social workers, approximately 30 individuals are trained over a three month period in the year.

UNHCR  supported the programme, which began in 2013 as a livelihoods project, however, when it became clear that refugee women with extreme critical specific needs, who did not qualify for this initiative and were falling into poverty and despair, in April 2015, the skills training project was launched as a safety net to help those with specific needs make a contribution to their households.

“What we found is that most women and their families live on the small income earned by husbands or partners working as car guards in shopping malls and other vehicle parking locations, often insufficient to cover the basic necessities of the average household,” says van Heerden.     

“With the skills they acquire here, they should be able to supplement the household income and take responsibility for some of its expenses by putting into income-generating practice the skills acquired through the project.” 

UNHCR supported the programme this year by investing approximately USD 16,300 into the programmes, which include sewing material, baking ingredients, hair-dressing and cosmetology supplies.  After successfully completing their training, women are provided with a start-up kit to help them set up their business to generate income.

Van Heerden says that JRS has plans to improve the services to women by upgrading the basic computer skills to increase their employability.

 “We will be providing training in some of the computer software programmes used in local supermarkets so that the women’s potential for employment is enhanced,” she says. “We are also going to introduce cosmetology and hairdressing in Pretoria this year as this generates high returns for little investment, if implemented correctly and professionally.”

Another positive outcome of the skills training project is the facilitation of local integration and the promotion of tolerance between refugee and South African women in the programme, which then translates into better relations at community level in terms of social cohesion.

“When we first included South African women into the project, many refugees didn’t understand why and were quite upset,” says van Heerden, “however when we informed them that their clientbase was predominantly South African and that they had to learn to get along with their hosts, neighbours and clients, they understood and relented.”

Similarly, the exposure South African women have to refugees is proving not only very educational but essential to breaking down myths and stereotypes that lead to discord and xenophobic violence.

“When one of the women told me the story of her flight from the DRC,” says Morobane, “I couldn’t sleep that night. We have had it hard in South Africa, but I couldn’t believe the level of brutality she escaped from her country.”

In just the three weeks that Morobane has spent four days per week in the company of refugees, she had become more open-minded and understanding of the plight of refugees. She is even trying to convince her standoffish neighbor, whose pride and anger with foreign nationals has paralyzed her into inaction, to apply for the second quarter of the training project.

For Morobane, the opportunity to participate in the project has encouraged her to think big again and to dream about the future she wants for her family.

“Who could have thought that the dreams I had for my family’s future could be reignited by enrolling at a refugee women’s skills training project?”