“As a foreigner living in South Africa, your refugee status underpins the treatment you receive. We need to work twice as hard as South African citizens to achieve the same result, while being discriminated against and obnoxiously labelled and distained.”
So says Innocent Biringanine, a Congolese national and third-year audiology student at the University of Cape Town (UCT). This Human Rights Day, Innocent openly shared some of his family’s struggles as they journeyed from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to seek refuge in South Africa. But on arrival, life was challenging, especially for Innocent. He endured years of emotional turmoil at the hands of his classmates – only because he looked and spoke differently. Innocent said he was ridiculed regularly and openly discriminated against, acts that affected his mental health.
Receiving his acceptance letter to study at UCT was an accomplishment second to none. But nothing is ever as simple as it seems, and even though he bypassed his first-year funding hurdle with a bursary, other hidden stumbling blocks that could easily have prevented him from kickstarting his academic programme were lurking in the wings. Thanks to an intervention led by a group of dedicated and efficient staff at UCT’s Refugee Rights Unit (RRU), Innocent started his undergraduate degree in 2021 and he has not looked back. His personal fight for social justice in a country far from his homeland is one of courage, determination and a never-say-die attitude.
A trip south
Innocent was a young boy when his mother, Prisca, sat him down alongside his sister, Josephine, and older brother, Godfrey, to tell them that they would soon be travelling to South Africa. The war-torn DRC was no place to raise her children, and she wanted the trio out of the country as soon as possible
Prisca felt that her children’s lives were at risk and that they needed to seek refuge elsewhere, somewhere safer, and the siblings left the DRC, leaving their mother behind. Innocent is still not sure why his mother chose South Africa. But he said she likely considered it a safe place – a place where her children could grow up and have a good chance at life.
“I still find it so strange that this behaviour was directed towards me by my fellow classmates in primary school.”
But life in South Africa was a different kind of tough. Josephine was forced to take temporary responsibility for her younger brothers until their mom eventually joined them in Cape Town. But it proved to be an uphill battle. Innocent’s primary school years were particularly difficult. While he performed well academically, he was never welcomed into class with open arms.
“This all had a profound impact on my life. I still find it so strange that this behaviour was directed towards me by my fellow classmates in primary school. Where does it really emanate from and why does it exist?” he asked.
A silver lining
Innocent poured all his time and energy into his schoolwork and used his art and music as an escape. And even though he scored excellent results in matric, securing a university bursary was not a guarantee. Funders’ stringent requirements mean South African nationals receive precedence. Rarely, refugees and asylum seekers are considered for bursaries, but proof of their refugee status or permanent resident documents are required for them to fit the eligibility criteria.
“Yet again the challenges of refugees and asylum seekers were laid bare in front of my eyes. It’s very difficult to obtain these documents from the Department of Home Affairs. As a family, we’ve been trying since 2013. I was so grateful when the Solly and Zohra Noor Foundation came through for me and awarded me a bursary based on my strong academic standing. Suddenly, I was hopeful again,” he said.
“The RRU’s assistance means so much to me. They’re part of the reason I could register for my degree.”
But the registration process at UCT was not a straightforward exercise. Because Innocent’s asylum seeker documentation was not up to date, UCT’s International Academic Programmes Office (IAPO) was unable to process his registration. But the RRU stepped in to help and continues to assist Innocent with obtaining his immigration documents from the Department of Home Affairs, but the process remains incomplete. The unit also negotiated with IAPO to secure Innocent’s registration so that he could start his academic programme without delay.
“The RRU’s assistance means so much to me. They’re part of the reason I could register for my degree and that I’m still here three years later. My mental health took a hard knock because of the grey area around my registration. But the RRU helped to make it happen and I will always be very grateful for their help,” Innocent said.
Monique Schoeman, the head of the Refugee Status Determination clinic at the RRU, said assisting refugees is at the heart of their work. The unit is committed to achieving social justice and making a difference in the lives of refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa. On average, she said, the RRU assists approximately 450 clients per month.
She said her clinic, in particular, assists refugees and asylum seekers through the daunting status determination process. Its work focuses specifically on those processes that affect a refugee or asylum seeker’s legal status in the country once an asylum application has been made.
“Refugees and asylum seekers experience many challenges while here. Some feel at a loss because doors just keep closing around every corner and nothing comes easy. So, at the RRU we give them hope to continue and assert their rights,” Schoeman said.
A message to refugees and asylum seekers
Innocent acknowledged that being a refugee in South Africa can be very difficult. But he encouraged other refugees and asylum seekers out there not to lose hope.
“Remember, your worth and relevance transcend the simplicity of the word ‘refugee’.”
“As a refugee in South Africa, you often feel neglected and patronised, and these feelings stem from invidious treatment. But don’t lose hope. There are still people out there who are willing to stand up and fight for what is right and who believe in equal rights despite your country of birth, religion or sexuality – just like the RRU,” he said.
“Never allow anyone to define you on the basis of your status. Remember, your worth and relevance transcend the simplicity of the word ‘refugee’. You are a person with rights and aspirations.
He shared a different message with South African nationals.
“It’s mine and your responsibility as humans to elevate human rights. Let’s stand up for what is right and make it our goal to fight against injustice.”
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