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The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

Fit to be king
Lilli Dellheim '25 M.A., Special to the Hawk • July 13, 2024

Jesuit Organization Provides Services to Refugees

JRS Offices in Belgravia East of Johannesburg

Johannesburg, South Africa – In 2010, after suffering years of abuse from her husband, Michelle* was forced to leave her home near Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She took her three children with her, but her husband found her and took two of the children.

Michelle escaped with her 12-year-old daughter, and the two headed to South Africa. She has not seen her other two children since.

Michelle applied for asylum in South Africa, where she and her daughter survived for several years with the help of Michelle’s job as a street vendor in Johannesburg.

Traumatised by the long journey from central to southern Africa, and from the abuse from her husband, Michelle developed post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and could not sleep for many months. She also developed severe high blood pressure.

By November 2016, Michelle was in poor health, and with the help of the Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS) in Johannesburg, she was admitted to hospital. Within a few months, her condition worsened. She now lives in her younger sister’s two-bedroom apartment in the Berea neighborhood, on the northern end of Johannesburg, along with her sister and her sister’s two children. She is frail, her large brown eyes staring past a hazy television screen above her. She sleeps on a thin mattress on the living room floor. She is permanently hooked up to an oxygen tank, which allows her to ward off potential heart and lung failure.

Marcellene Bohozo is a trained nurse and social worker for JRS who visits Michelle, often several times a day, bathing and feeding her, and monitoring her health. She also tries to come up with $90 per month to pay for the oxygen concentrator machine keeping Michele alive.

“Here in South Africa, when someone is in this condition, everyone will run away from them, because you are now a problem,” said Bohozo. “It’s not only the case of [Michelle], but many of our terminally ill patients. They have been rejected by their own family. In this condition, the only organization that can take you from here is JRS.”

The Jesuit Refugee Services of Southern Africa, established in the early 1990s, serves what the organization refers to as the largest urban refugee population in the world. About 36 staff members work out of an office in Belgravia, a neighborhood on the eastern edge of Johannesburg, providing help for about 3,000 refugee families from more than 12 countries on the African continent. The organization struggles to provide these services while relying on an ever-decreasing budget.

“Currently we are operating on a budget of $200,000, which is like nothing,” said Sehorane Kuimi, Project Director of the Jesuit Refugee Services of Southern Africa. “Our funding has been so cut, and now the service that are so in demand and people are coming in and expecting JRS to be the same it was last year.”

The refugees served by JRS come from many countries currently experiencing political conflict, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Zimbabwe. The organization also assists refugees from Nigeria, Cameroon, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania and several other countries in the areas of education, health care, pastoral care, livelihood and advocacy.

One of the resources refugees are often taken advantage of while seeking is affordable and high-quality health care. Although health care is supposed to be free in South Africa, refugees are often forced to pay just to be seen by doctors.

Bohozo and Barney Kangoni, coordinator of pastoral care services, run the department that advocates to correct this. The health care division offers assistance and assessments to clients like Michelle by providing money for medication and transportation to treatment for conditions including HIV and PTSD. JRS also helps six families impacted by sickle cell anemia and is the only organization in Gauteng helping with “sugar diabetes,” according to Bohozo.

Marcellene Bohozo and two priests sit next to Michelle who is on her bed on the floor.

Budget constraints generally limit JRS health care financial support to three months. In Michelle’s case, because she is so sick and doesn’t eat, some of the food assistance she receives from JRS goes toward her health care expenses.

For those already battling disease, support groups are in place for individuals to share experiences and challenges, Bohozo and Sehorane Kuimi, JRS project director, facilitate support groups for victims of female genital mutilation, sexual abuse and harassment.

“By not talking about their story, by not sharing with others, experiencing what others are facing as challenges, is killing them,” Bohozo said. “In the African culture, going and reporting is not something we do. We see it as taboo. Now it is for us to empower the women to say that it’s not a taboo. You need to report so you can get justice for what happened.”

JRS also connects the homebound refugees to home visits from priests, where sacraments, blessings with holy water and oil, and counseling are offered. Open to all faith denominations, the center has seen that most recipients experience hope because of the counseling and accompaniment.

“We are not really bound to people who are only Catholics or only Christians but to everyone,” Kangoni said. “If we are going to have a word of prayer, we obviously ask permission. If they are not comfortable, that’s still okay. Then we can give one or two words of encouragement. Sometimes, we can just go to a patient and just spend time with them, even if we are not giving them anything, no food or anything, just to be with them and just to talk.”

Under the Section 24 Refugee Status Permit Michelle must renew her permit to stay in South Africa. Her current health conditions do not allow her to travel the 37 miles (60 kilometers) from her sister’s apartment in Berea to Pretoria with her cumbersome oxygen machine. A small tank that would allow her to travel for 24 hours costs an additional $61 (800 rand), not alloted in her service fees from JRS.

This put a lot of pressure on JRS, explained Bohozo, but the organization was able to release the money so Michelle was able to renew her documentation.

With tears in her eyes and her voice weak as she struggled to speak, Michelle expressed her gratitude for JRS.

“JRS has helped me so much, and Marcellene, she is always here to help me take bath,” Michelle said. “She’s cooking for me, she help me go to the hospital, she has helped me so much, like my family.”

*Michelle is a pseudonym.

This story has been written by students participating in the 2018 St. Joseph’s University South Africa Study Abroad program. Eight students, lead by St. Joe’s faculty, will report on stories from South Africa during the month of June.

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