Difference Maker

A Zimbabwe native helps refugees from her country in South Africa

Terry Hodson, who now lives in South Africa, delivers food and offers comfort and advice to refugees from the troubles in neighboring Zimbabwe.

By , Correspondent

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    Terry Hodson (center, with three men she helped resettle) began assisting refugees in 2007 after a man from Zimbabwe died while awaiting legal papers in Ms. Hodson’s home city of Cape Town, South Africa.
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Terry Hodson drives behind a white station wagon, almost identical to her own, carrying fellow volunteers around the curve of the road and under the highway overpass. In the shadows, five men huddle around a fire. Two wave. The others just stare.

The two cars park. Within 10 minutes, more than 75 men emerge from the shadows under the bridge and form disorganized lines behind the cars. Most of them are from Zimbabwe. They are between 16 and 30 years old, and nearly all are unemployed.

They are the refugees under the bridge.

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Once a week, members of the Adonis Musati Project bring food to them – today, three sandwiches, an orange, and a bottle of water for each person. The project is one of several organizations in Cape Town that work to fill the void left by what Ms. Hodson sees as the inability and unwillingness of the South African government to provide refugees and asylum seekers with anything more than a long wait to apply for legal papers.

Hodson and some fellow Zimbabwean ex-pats formed the project in November 2007 after Adonis Musati, a Zimbabwean, starved to death while waiting for his papers at the Nyanga Refugee Reception Center in Cape Town.

The project also helps refugees compile résumés for job interviews, distributes clothes and sleeping bags, and recently opened a halfway house for 12 refugee orphan boys.

Under the bridge, Hodson recognizes a new face in the crowd. She will find out who he is, how long he has been here, and what help he needs.

Her organization is funded solely by donations and run entirely by volunteers, a fact Hodson proudly emphasizes. Everything the organization has goes directly to the refugees and asylum seekers. "I think we're probably the most grass-roots refugee organization" in Cape Town, she says. "We're on the ground, in the streets as much as we can be."

Despite not having a large budget, Adonis Musati works to help as many as it can.

"They have done an amazing amount of work with very little resources," says Braam Hanekom, chair of PASSOP, a refugee advocacy organization in Cape Town.

Hodson, a former schoolteacher, maintains strong ties to Zimbabwe. Family members still live there. She returns almost every year, and she hopes she will be able to persuade her South African husband to retire there.

While she has always empathized with refugees from the economic, social, and political trauma in Zimbabwe, it was the death of Mr. Musati that pushed her into action to help those who cross the border – from Zimbabwe or other countries – in any way she can.

"I feel really strongly about all the suffering," she says. "So much has been messed up [in Zimbabwe]. The whole social structure and fabric has been torn apart."

As of January 2009, South Africa had 43,546 refugees and 227,125 asylum seekers, according to the United Nations relief agency UNHCR. South Africa hosts people from 52 countries, including Angola, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Somalia.

But Zimbabweans make up the majority of refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa. In the past five years, hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans – some say millions – have crossed into neighboring South Africa to escape political persecution and economic destitution, according to Human Rights Watch.

The Zimbabwean economy has suffered from hyperinflation – it peaked at 321 million percent in October 2008, according to the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph – because of policies instigated by President Robert Mugabe. Hyperinflation made it nearly impossible for Zimbabweans to buy anything with their own currency, leading many to seek opportunities in South Africa.

Recently, a new unity government has eased political tensions. And last March, Zimbabwe switched its currency to the US dollar, which squelched inflation.

Yet many Zimbabweans remain skeptical about the safety and opportunities of living at home. The United States and the European Union remain critical of the Mugabe government.

South Africa has an integrated refugee policy, meaning refugees are allowed to look for jobs and housing and go to school. This is in contrast to an encampment-style policy, which separates refugees from the local population.

But the integrated policy, viewed by some as more humane, also means that refugees are left to fend for themselves – leaving many homeless, hungry, and vulnerable to exploitation.

"I think it could be [good] if they really put in a program that's going to work," Hodson says about the integrated policy. "There's no use just dumping [refugees] back in the townships."

One man staying under the bridge walks up to a volunteer Hodson brought along and asks her for a job. When she tells him that she is not from South Africa and therefore has no job to provide, he asks for a job in her country. He arrived in South Africa from Zimbabwe three days earlier, he says.

Henry, a 21-year-old from Harare, Zimbabwe's capital, has been in South Africa for nine months, but has found work for only two of those months.

"It seems like there are no jobs," he says. "If possible, I'd like to go home because home is best." Looking over his shoulder at the bridge, he adds, "In Zimbabwe, we live in our houses, but here, it is very hard."

The expense of returning to Zimbabwe is often beyond a refugee's means. The project raises funds to send home one Zimbabwean a month who wants to go back.

"If anything went right [in Zimbabwe] tomorrow, and they could get work, they would go home," Hodson says. "A lot of them just want to make a better life for their families. So they come here thinking they can make a lot of money to send back, but it doesn't work. [Then] they want to go back to their families."

With all the food gone, it's time for the Adonis Musati volunteers to go home. They pile back into their cars, leaving behind the dark underpass that these refugees call home.

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