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Cape Town recognises refugee brain gain

Cape Town recognises refugee brain gain

Refugees in South Africa often lament that their professional skills are wasted on menial work. This could change after the City of Cape Town announced on World Refugee Day that it would help complete an audit of refugees' skills and engage refugees in the areas of health, culture and sports.
22 June 2005
UNHCR's Deputy Representative in South Africa, Fedde Groot, chats with refugee veterinarians at the World Refugee Day event in Cape Town.

CAPE TOWN, South Africa, June 22 (UNHCR) - Dieudonne Kazadi isn't much of a pool player and it shows. His students know it and so does he. His grip on the pool cue and his position make this obvious even to the untrained eye. This doesn't bother him though, as science, mathematics and computer skills are what he is most passionate about, even if he teaches them on a part-time basis.

Kazadi is one of nine refugee teachers employed at LEAP Science and Maths School in Cape Town, South Africa. It is a school that was founded in 2004 to "fully immerse" students from disadvantaged backgrounds into subjects such as science, maths and English, in the higher grades.

With an undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering from his native Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and currently pursuing his Masters degree in Chemical Engineering, Kazadi is one of many refugees who feel that his skills and education haven't been put to the best possible use in South Africa.

"It is so difficult to be recognized as a qualified individual and hired on that basis in South Africa," he said, shaking his head. "Our identity documents are barely recognized, so there are many obstacles standing in our way, yet we come with so much to contribute, and people refuse to see that. It's difficult to understand."

His sentiments are echoed by the many doctors, veterinarians, engineers, health care workers and lawyers who also happen to be refugees. UNHCR and its implementing partners also share these concerns.

A study commissioned by UNHCR in 2003 revealed that two-thirds of refugees in the country have completed secondary school or a higher level of education. Within this group, almost one-third has completed at least some tertiary education. A very small number of refugees have only primary education or no formal schooling at all. These findings reveal the huge skills potential among the refugee population which South Africa has yet to tap into.

In addition, the study found that over two-thirds of refugees had experience in skilled and semi-skilled jobs before arriving in South Africa. Even though the South African government is inviting skilled people to settle here, the skills of refugees who are already in the country are not valued properly. If they have jobs at all, they are usually overqualified for their positions.

"Many refugees' talents are wasted because the only jobs they can get are as security or car guards. From being a doctor in your country of origin to becoming a car guard is ridiculous!" said Kazadi.

"This is why we felt that to mark World Refugee Day this year, it was imperative to raise this problem with the local authorities, to raise the profile of these refugees and their skills as well as to acknowledge their courage in consistently knocking on the doors of potential employers, even though their chances of securing employment in what they are qualified and experienced in is still virtually non-existent," said Christina Henda, the Director of Cape Town Refugee Centre.

This is not the first time the issue has been raised in South Africa, but it is the first time that a city has openly taken a stand on this concern and is lending its support. At the World Refugee Day event on Monday, and through the Executive Mayor of the City of Cape Town, Nomaindia Mfeketho, the city committed itself to developing a sustainable partnership with Tutumike, an umbrella body of different organizations providing assistance to refugees.

"Through our Social Development directorate, we are assisting Tutumike with completing an audit of skills of refugee in Cape Town," announced Kemal Omar of the Executive Office of the City of Cape Town. "We have been amazed at the results so far: 23 medical doctors, six engineers, 20 lawyers and five teachers. And this is only the beginning."

Kazadi believes that this is certainly a step in the right direction. "The results of this audit can only lead to a win-win situation for everyone involved," he said. "The government can start replacing the loss of South African professionals by employing, among others, qualified refugees. Refugees will gain experience, develop themselves better and live more productively in the country so that when it is time for us to return to our countries of origin, we are in a better position to uplift and develop our people and economies. Isn't that what the African Renaissance is also about?"

Indeed, refugees are increasingly being positioned into the mainstream of Cape Town's activities and functions.

"The city has in principle agreed with the Director of Health to partner with refugee organisations on health issues," Omar announced to the delight of the mainly refugee audience at Monday's event. "It has facilitated a partnership with the Cape Town Festival for refugees to participate in 2006 and agreed with one of Cape Town's major events coordinators to involve refugees in provincial activities. The city has also facilitated and secured a partnership between Tutumike and a prominent football club to allow young refugees to participate in soccer in a structured way so as to help expose their talents to talent-seeking clubs."

The City of Cape Town has promised to work hard on making these partnerships real on paper and in practice.

"We will work to ensure that the city abides by the letter and spirit of the obligations placed on us as signatories of the various refugee Conventions," said Omar. "We want the public to be aware that refugee rights are human rights and that refugees can make a positive contribution to our communities. Their presence in our city is certainly a brain gain."

The refugees couldn't agree more.

By Pumla Rulashe
UNHCR South Africa