No Place Like Home – Mary’s Story
When Di Forrester first met Mary, a refugee from Burundi, she heard a heartbreaking story of pain and loss that to the eyes of the world appeared hopeless. But despite her circumstances, Mary never gave up hope in Christ. Here, Di shares her remarkable story.
I met Mary* during the xenophobic attacks in May 2008 at Chrysalis Academy where the organization I worked for, Westlake United Church Trust, had set up an unofficial refugee camp with the help of other churches, including Common Ground Church. Mary was one of the many foreigners who had fled to the US Consulate in Tokai seeking refuge during the attacks.
The police brought her and about 60 others to Chrysalis but unfortunately there was no more accommodation available. We finally managed to find a safe house for her and her two children belonging to St Martin’s church in Bergvliet.
When members of St Martin’s church chatted to Mary they realized the full horror of her story. She told them how her husband had left to attend a funeral in Joburg a few days before the xenophobic violence had broken out. While in Joburg, his cellphone and money had been stolen and he had been unable to return to Cape Town in the midst of the xenophobic chaos.
On the night of 22nd May 2008, Mary heard someone knock on the door of her home in Phillippi. When she asked who it was, they told her that they were the police coming to evacuate all the foreigners from the area to a safe one. She was alone in the house with her two daughters, but believing the men to be who they said they were she opened the door. When she saw a group of men with their faces covered, she tried to close the door but one of them stopped her and came inside her home. He put something in her mouth so she couldn’t talk or scream. He showed her a knife and told her that if she made any noise he would hurt her and her children. He then raped her. The following morning she was too afraid to tell the police in case the men were from the police as they’d said they were.
Knowing that I had experience in counselling women and HIV treatment, the members of St Martins immediately called me and I took Mary to see a doctor and receive anti-retroviral treatment. (She was on this treatment for a month and thankfully tested negative for HIV.) I then discovered that Mary’s husband, John*, was lost somewhere in Joburg and that she had no way of getting in contact with him. Not knowing what else to do I phoned my sister who lived in Centurion, just outside of Pretoria, in the hope that she might be able to help track him down. Knowing that many of the car guards in Centurion were foreigners who lived in Joburg, she asked them if they knew anyone called John from Burundi. Miraculously, they were able to track him down to a block of flats in Hillbrow! My sister helped put him on a bus back to Cape Town where he was finally reunited with his family.
Over the next couple of years, I remained in contact with Mary and her family. I discovered that Mary’s mother, who she hadn’t seen in over 13 years, had been relocated from a refugee camp in the DRC and was now living in Austin, Texas. Desperate to be reunited with her mother and to leave South Africa, Mary contacted the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Below is an excerpt of the letter she wrote to them:
“All what I ask is to take us out of this country as soon as possible please! As I am lucky to have my husband alive and that my kids are still OK, I do not want the same thing happening to us again here. We are now internally displaced persons living in South Africa. We have nowhere to go.
“I am a refugee following the 1972 massacre that happened in my country. Our land has been confiscated. I have been a refugee all my life: I do not have any government that can support me as its citizen. I wonder what would be the future of my children if I happen to die today.
“I was born a refugee and I am still a refugee, until when should I worry? In fact I cannot go back to Burundi because both I and my husband experienced a lot of problems there. I do not have any relatives there, as my mother, sister and brother have been resettled in the USA. Following a miserable lifetime in refugee camps I have never had happiness in my life. And after being raped again for the second time, I do not want the same thing happening to me again here.”
Despite both Mary and her mother writing numerous letters to various organisations (including one to the President of the United States), they kept coming up against a brick wall. I spoke to a friend of mine who worked at the UN consulate and she told me how many hundreds of letters they receive like Mary’s and how impossible it is to help everyone. The likelihood of Mary being reunited with her family seemed to dwindle, yet despite this Mary never gave up hope. For four years, she continued to pray and remained in almost constant contact with the UN.
During this time, life was not easy for Mary and her family. In this excerpt from a letter to the UNHCR, Mary explains their situation:
“I escaped war but still I face a big problem of uncertain future because I am trapped in a country which falsely claimed to be able to integrate refugees, offer them citizenship, study and employment opportunities. Instead I have been here for almost 5 years, I do not even have a simple ID and almost every day and night I struggle to apply for one.
“A refugee should have an ID in 3 months from the date of application. However my husband applied for an ID from 24 January 2007 but till now he did not yet get it. In some refugee cases the Department of Home Affairs used to offer expired ID’s, which means useless ID’s.
“I am physically fit to work however I am not allowed to get employment before a citizen gets one. My husband is also a professional artist, as well as a driver, he makes his products but cannot sell them anywhere in the country because he is not a citizen of South Africa. That is how we informally end up doing cleaning chores wherever we rarely find ones to clean in order to get even a single Rand for survival, while we have the capacity to study or work and earn a living like everyone else.”
Then in August this year, a miracle happened. Mary’s husband phoned to say that he, Mary and their four children were being re-settled via the International Organisation for Migration to Austin, Texas, USA, to be reunited with Mary’s mother, sister and brother.
This was an amazing answer to years of prayer! On 4 September, the International Organisation for Migration met them at the Cape Town airport along with about 16 families from Burundi, Somali and the DRC. They were then met in Joburg by another organisation, which put them on a plane to Paris. They were then put on a plane to New York where someone else met them to put them on a plane to Austin, Texas, which is where her mother is. Being refugees they’d didn’t have passports so someone had to meet them at each stop to show the correct papers to get them through Customs.
Thank you, Lord! We give him all the honour and glory for this wonderful miracle. After years of living a life as refugees and enduring many hardships, this little family’s future has been changed forever. Mary’s story is proof that when you place your hope in God and not in your circumstances he will work all things to your good.
(*Names have been changed to protect privacy)
-Di works at Westlake United Church Trust in Westlake.