I am sitting in a room with a man.
He can speak multiple African languages, he can speak French. I can only speak English. His brother is here. His brother smiles often when he is upset and trying to figure out what to do. His brother is smiling a lot right now. I am still trying to figure out if they are really brothers. When his brother speaks to us, in English, he sits in silence. His brother is translating for him. There is a wonderful geography to the man’s face, cheekbones vertiginous, lips fixed, eyes rimmed red and low. He is so quiet, even in movement, and so devastatingly present, like I can feel the presence of his mind. Later we will ask him if he wants trauma counselling, later, that is, when we have finished asking him the usual litany of questions, these like “tell me your life story” and “what legal assistance do you require?” On the intake form, beneath the question “what do you need help with?”, he has scribbled, in all capitals, “TO SAVE MY LIFE”. He is a refugee. He wants refuge in South Africa. Like the bare beating human heart seeks refuge on this great African continent in the wider Earth and something about how we are all seeking refuge on this strange planet and that refuge is in the heart, the heart which beats on.
And then their stories. My days here, the hours, they pass rapidly. One after another, they come to recite their lives, as they had before, in immigration offices, then with the Home Office, which is not so curiously incompetent somehow, which so curiously rejects them one by one, rejects a common humanity then again, and now, the refuge-seekers recite their lives again meticulously, carefully, with us. After him, there is a woman wearing a full headscarf. There is a man in a purple shirt, glowly telling us of his three children, but this as if only an afterthought. We are trying to ensure his refugee status.
A man throws his head back, scars on his neck- “my whole wife’s family”, he says, “they are dead.”
Another man. “I was a political activist”, he tells us, “the government wanted to kill me. So I rented a boat, crossed the river, escaped the country.”
“My son, he is disabled. They won’t let him have an education..”
“I was deported. They destroyed my shop, sent me back. I came back to South Africa a month later in the back of a truck.”
“I am gay. They threw stones at me, beat me up whenever they saw me. I was afraid…”
“And now I am here.”
“How long have you been in South Africa?”
How long have I been in South Africa? A week maybe. I’ve wandered through Braam with some lovely Bardians, thrilled by the South African youth who walk the streets, all of them in bright jackets, flaunting their clothes- later they would frequent the clubs on weekend nights. I’ve not gone far, though. Locals warn me not to cross the Mandela Bridge, to not walk alone at night, to not wander outside of the university and the nearby streets that comprise Braamfontein. We essentially live in a compound, with limited internet and the strange cold of the African winter nights. But there is warmth in the recesses. There is warmth, mostly in the people. The South Africans are notoriously friendly.
I’m a rising sophomore, probably a Global and International Studies Major and I came here, to South Africa, so I could intern with Lawyers for Human Rights because I wanted to help someone, somewhere. I was given an opportunity to fly to another part of the world. And it’s been pretty infinitely fulfilling, if only because of the people here- because of the people seeking refuge.
It is like, you are at a rooftop party and everyone- even the sun- is dancing, undulating through the discarded champagne bottles and two camera lenses, both pointed at you, for the moment at least, the Johannesburg skyline forgotten, a purple Mandela grinning justice across the business district and a little fire escape staircase winding its fine way up til heaven, but somewhere down below weaves the subtler masses in their streetwear finery and you’re thinking of the jackets emblazoned in tribal patterns, this new one you’ve got at market, and you’re thinking of a lot of things, you’re thinking of the word “justice” and a people’s justice, you’re thinking about a lot of things but the word justice doesn’t do it justice and you’re thinking about a lot of things.
And then it’s no longer Sunday sunlit and shimmering strange through the knotted streets and myriad ways of Braamfontein. It’s Monday. You’re three floors below and four streets away, one across and to the left. The woman is crying. You tell her, please don’t cry. She’s got a lovely face, such pretty eyes, tight little universes inside. You realize you’ve said nothing. You’re just watching her.
The best thing to say sometimes is, is there anything more you’d like to say? Because then the refugees have a chance to speak, but more than that, they have someone sitting quietly who will listen. And nowhere, in any part of the world, is that a small gift, to be truly heard.
So I listen. But afterwards, I admit, I’m frantic. The persecuted, the assaulted, the escaped and the wanted. I am desperate to assure them of some status in a somewhat stable democratic country. I am desperate to assure them of things I cannot promise so rapidly, so I appeal to all legality and then try my hardest to write them the letters begging asylum because when they thank me in whatever language, I ought to meet their eyes, wherein lies an undying kind of vast human dignity.
And this is not even my work yet. The truth gets farther. My supervisor is interested in xenophobia, which is phantasmal, an invisible force that seems to pull society every which way, a silent demon at its seams. But not really, no, it’s more of a quiet voice in every human mind, playing upon our individual fears so singularly placed inside. Until relationships morph and shift- the whole thing, tectonic- and the dynamics of societal interrelationships are entirely different. Until fear shatters these and we shake apart and there’s a man with a bloody knife and there is the government standing outside, looking away as- and here’s the refugee again, man or woman, someone shipwrecked from nation and just landing, and oh, they all say this- “looking for a safe place”- like the woman who wandered for nine days straight through the wild African forest after being raped by rebel men, just “looking for a safe”- and the gay man who was persecuted everywhere he went in his homophobic country, just “looking for”, and the woman whose government was bent on erasing her life to gratify some twisted need for power- “safe place”. What an idea, of a safe place, that a stable democracy- and these words carry more weight when unused to, when they are a brief but undocumented dream, sorry I meant unattainable dream, and then to arrive at a place and for it to be safe except that there is a silent demon of xenophobia, but sorry, this is no demon, it is inextricable from the sweet vitality of human-ness, its rotted gracelessness tied in thick to gracefulness, to the divine ingenuity of every human mind, merely rooted and grown in fear, flowering hatred, eventually spawning violence. To arrive in a safe place, and find it not safe? This is far away, it is far away from the word justice, though justice may be another false dream, and far from this one brief human dream, still one might dream. One might, at least, for the sake of compassion, seek to make things, in the stable democracy more opposed to the stealthy unwritten habits of the xenophobe, though not right, closer to the sleeping heart of this human thought, “justice”, closer indeed to instilling this “safe place”, or love for the refugees, for those who need.
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