Homeward bound: Congolese refugees in South Africa opt to restart their lives in Kinshasa

Six hundred Congolese refugees in South Africa are seeking help from UNHCR to return home this year.

South Africa. Refugees from DRC prepare to return home from South Africa

Grace, her mother, husband Inanga and 18 month old daughter wait at the refugee reception office in Pretoria to receive papers to return home to DRC.  © UNHCR/Laura Padoan

The last time Yanis Thsibangu was in the village of Salongo, on the outskirts of Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he thought he would never see his childhood home again. His mother had received threats that her life was in danger because of her work for the DRC’s independent electoral commission. A single mother, she made the decision to flee to South Africa with Yanis, then aged 14, and his younger sister Grace.

Now aged 27, Yanis has returned to Salongo with his family in happier circumstances. He has been selected to play for DR Congo’s national rugby team and later this month he will represent his country of birth at the World Cup qualifiers in Uganda.

After leaving Kinshasa, Yanis was determined that the label of refugee would not limit his ambitions. On his first day of school, he set out to entertain his classmates and, despite speaking little English, was elected class representative. His talent for sport was nurtured by the school rugby coach, and he went on to play rugby for the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg. Yanis credits Nelson Mandela, who promoted rugby to bring together black and white South Africans, as his driving inspiration.

“There have been setbacks but through my education I have been able to discover who I am."

“Sport has the capacity to make you feel at home,” he explains. “You are part of a team where you are all sharing the same goal and the same objectives. Sport made it easy for me to integrate and to adjust. It builds a bond and connection between people which is very unique.”

Graduating with a degree in media, Yanis has also developed a portfolio career as a photographer, model and part-owner of one of the city’s hippest club nights, The Don Lounge, where he brought together his wide circle of friends, both South Africans and young people from the diaspora community. Accessorized with a bucket hat and tortoiseshell glasses, he cuts a stylish figure.

South Africa. Refugees from DRC prepare to return home from South Africa

Yanis Tshibangu attends the refugee reception office in Pretoria to receive papers to return home to DRC.  © UNHCR/Laura Padoan

“For me, South Africa has been a learning experience,” he beams. “There have been setbacks but through my education I have been able to discover who I am. A big part of that is giving back, mentoring young people in the townships – South Africans and refugees – through photography. One of them is now working as a professional photographer.”

Not all refugees have been as fortunate. Yanis’s sister Grace decided it was time to return home after struggling with documentation to access services and experiencing discrimination. Fearful of the  increasing number of attacks on foreign nationals, she decided that she did not want her daughter Andrea to grow up without citizenship in South Africa.

“I don’t know where to start when I get to Congo,” she said, “but I know I’ll make it in the end.”

The Tshibangu family was part of the first group of around 600 Congolese refugees living in South Africa who have opted to take up voluntary repatriation this year. There are around 57,000 Congolese asylum-seekers and refugees in South Africa. Individual reviews carried out by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, ensure that all returns are voluntary, and that refugees will only go back to areas of the DRC that are considered safe. Returning families are given a transport allowance and cash assistance to help them restart their lives. 

“UNHCR helped us with the repatriation process and made sure everything went smoothly when we got to the plane,” says Yanis, who would encourage other Congolese refugees to consider returning. “In the end we were very excited to come back home, very optimistic and full of joy, of positive expectations.”

Their mother, who has worked as an English and French teacher in Johannesburg, intends to open a school in Kinshasa. Yanis also aims to bring his skills and experience as an entrepreneur to benefit young people in his home city.

“It’s about creating a virtuous cycle of sharing what you received from someone else to empower other people. I measure success based on how many people I can positively affect thanks to my actions. I learned it from my mother. She sacrificed most of her life to give us a comfortable and happy life.”