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Handicrafts of hope for refugee women in South Africa


Handicrafts of hope for refugee women in South Africa

The Refugee Women's Hope Centre in Pretoria, South Africa, assists refugee women with shelter, counselling and training. In the process, it aims to help them tackle poverty and lead dignified lives in a foreign land.
27 September 2002
Uwayisaba Bibiane (left) and Immaculate Murekatete setting up shop at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (UNHCR) - When Uwayisaba Bibiane came to South Africa in January this year, she had to leave behind three children and a missing husband in Rwanda. She spoke no English and at 43 years of age, felt too old to embrace a new future.

"But through the encouragement and support of the Refugee Women's Hope Centre, I have received my Proficiency in English Certificate and I have thrown myself into the centre's activities," says the Rwandan refugee.

Based in Pretoria, South Africa, the Refugee Women's Hope Centre (WHC) has helped many refugee women find their feet in a foreign land.

"The Centre was established to help refugee women find accommodation first, and then to help them out of that sense of loneliness they feel away from home, loved ones and in a new country," says Immaculate Murekatete, Co-ordinator of the Centre. "We also thought that together, we would be able to counsel women who have been traumatised as a result of what they've been through."

However, she added, "We also realised that the counselling and meetings wouldn't be of benefit if we couldn't help women acquire skills to earn an income and fill what can be very long hours."

A qualified psychologist in her native Rwanda, Murekatete knows only too well the trauma of losing a sense of worth in a country with a high unemployment rate even for locals. For refugee women, the reality is even harsher.

"Sustainable development for us refugee women means coming out of poverty and being able to live a dignified life," explains Murekatete, adding that this is one of the Centre's objectives. "So we started with embroidery and sewing classes, and through our needlework, we have pushed ourselves to becoming noticed in South Africa."

The WHC is the first organised refugee group to have the support of South Africa's Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, which enabled the refugee women to showcase their handiwork at the World Summit for Sustainable Development from late August to early September. The department ensured that the group's stall, accommodation and transport costs were taken care of for the duration of the event, and has been instrumental in their integration into the micro-business sector.

The collaboration started when the WHC requested for a permit to display its goods at the Tshwane (Pretoria) Market. "Initially, the Market Board was quite reluctant on giving us a permit, seeing that we are refugees," says Murekatete. "They wanted to see proper South African identity documents, which we obviously didn't have. I think they gave us the permit because we wore them out with our persistence."

Because the Market was a project of the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, the WHC was automatically included in all its initiatives. Nonetheless, the refugee women's coveted stall at Tshwane Market met with some resistance.

Murekatete recalls, "The other stall owners were very suspicious of us, calling us kwerekwere [foreigner] within earshot. Initially some didn't want to talk to us. Others ignored us completely or made it clear they didn't want us there. It is a small place and many people were vying for a permit to do business there, so in their thinking we had taken over a South African's space."

But the women's perseverance paid off. "We spoke to them as pleasantly as we could. Eventually, some became our friends. Others were former refugees themselves, and through our interaction with them, they had a change of heart. Our patience wasn't in vain because we have made some good friends, while others will go out of their way to help us."

Bibiane agrees: "One evening, I was approached by a very aggressive woman who demanded to know why I was there, seeing that I'm not South African. Before I could respond, my colleagues from the Tshwane Market stepped in. They asked her to put her hand next to mine and asked her what the difference was. She told us that she couldn't find any. 'Exactly,' they told her. 'She is just like you and she has every right to be here!' From that day, I didn't have any other problems from that woman."

Smiling with tears in her eyes, Bibiane continues, "When I came here, I heard so much about xenophobia, but on this day I was so surprised by the protection I got! From the very people who were initially suspicious of me! Can you believe it is they who made sure that I was all right?"

Murekatete adds, "Bibiane's experience is just one example that I find very encouraging because this means that we are integrating and being accepted by the people we work with and live amongst. This is what we need as refugee women. Even though we have been called kwerekwere, those same people came to realise that we are just like them - people trying to make ends meet. Now we are the best of friends."

Through their needlework, the members of the WHC have come a long way. Not only has some of their handicraft been sold during the Summit, they have also networked sufficiently to pave the way for future endeavours. Murekatete, however, is still very circumspect about their achievements.

"The South African situation is such that we will not get what we want, like the livelihood we had before we became refugees, proffered to us on a plate. We need to continue working and polishing up our skills regularly."

She explains, "Someone listening to me may ask what the big deal is because everybody has to work hard. The big deal is the peculiar nature of our position in the country. Being foreign for one, knowing these women, their state of mind on arrival here, the ups and downs we have to endure just to feel that we belong, and to be treated like we belong."

"In this new atmosphere of belonging, we are better able to ensure the provision of sustenance and therefore better sustain our families on our terms as refugee women. We only want to be treated with dignity and respect. We have this with the people we interact with. And we can only hope that the human values that make us one people, or Ubuntu as the cultural venue of the Summit was called, will always underlie meetings and global events of this nature."

By Pumla Rulashe
UNHCR South Africa