South African churches mobilize as anti-foreigner violence flares
Church and community centers have been providing refuge for tens of thousands fleeing recent anti-immigrant violence.
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Jean Louw got a call on Saturday. Father Hobby Kekana was on the other end of the line, asking her to come to the St. Vincent's Anglican Church complex.Skip to next paragraph
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He told her that hundreds of exhausted, terrified foreigners were camping on the church grounds – their only place of refuge from xenophobic violence consuming Ramaphosa.
He needed his parishioners.
Heeding the call to help
For a week, she has been cooking porridge, vegetables, ground beef, anything to feed the shell-shocked crowd – she's not sure whether to call them refugees or neighbors.
"Our hearts are just so sore," says Ms. Louw, taking a break from cooking in the church's small kitchen.
She says that she has recognized acquaintances in the crowd seeking refuge at St. Vincent's – a gardener from down the street, for instance, and the man who used to pick up the church's garbage. "You just don't know what to say."
The church courtyard today is a surreal calm; people sitting on plastic chairs, chatting quietly, playing cards, watching children make castles in the dirt.
Piles of belongings – blankets, big plaid plastic duffle bags stuffed with clothes, the occasional television or electric heater – form a hilly landscape.
Laundry hangs from the metal fence around the church property.
It as if everyone is waiting – although for what is anyone's guess.
A beat-up white Mazda drives to the back of the church and offloads a man struggling with a box and a battered suitcase. His eyes dart around, and he makes his way to one edge of the courtyard. The number of new refugees has slowed, volunteers say, but there is still a constant trickle – people who have tried to return to their shacks, only to find them burned or occupied.
At this point, local authorities estimate that few if any foreigners remain in the Ramaphosa settlement.
It's Baloyi's job to take details of the newcomers – name, country of origin, number of children, possessions lost. She has been at it for three days – taking off time from her work as a nurse.
"I'm struggling today," she says with a sigh. There are so many people milling in and out it's hard to keep track; and now the stories are blending together.
Ms. Norgeit's experience seems typical: she and her husband ran from their home of three years when crowds started roaming the streets last weekend, burning shacks and looking for foreigners to kill. When she went back a few days later to collect her belongings, she saw that everything was gone – their television, their clothes, even their bedding.
"I have nothing now," she says. "I want to go back home. To Zimbabwe."
Grace Dekoker, another volunteer, walks over with some baby clothes and a few skirts.
"Do you like any of these?" She asks. Norgeit smiles, and takes a yellow frock.
Next Baloyi talks to Pasqual Pacwele, and copies his details from his passport. Mr. Pacwele is Mozambican, and has lived in South Africa since 1975. His wife and five children lost their home and all of their belongings, he says. He came to St. Vincent's because he heard he would be safe until he could find a way to return to his home province. On Friday, the government of Mozambique declared a state of emergency to better cope with the estimated 15,000 Mozambican citizens who have fled South Africa in recent days.
"I am thanking God for these people," Pacwele says, nodding toward the volunteers. He tries to smile, but looks desperately weary. "My life was here. Only God knows why this happened."