insights on migration

Three Insights on Migration: Samantha Coetzee

Three insights on migration: Sarita

The team at The Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town (SCCT) works with migrants and refugees every day. With such deep expertise at hand, we take the opportunity to reflect on migration with them. This month we speak to Sarita, who volunteered with the Employment Access for four months. 

Sarita saw how harnessing the skills that migration brings could benefit South Africa – and Africa as a whole.  

Sarita moved from South Africa to Germany in her teenage years. “Most of SCCT clients move away because of dangerous situations. When I moved to Germany, I had a much easier landing than a lot of our clients do.” Although her move to Germany was ‘comfortable’, her experience enabled her to empathise with people who have moved away from home. Sarita returned to South Africa to start her studies and began volunteering with Employment Access.  

Living in a different country can present barriers when it comes to seeking employment. Sarita noticed how these barriers were exacerbated for SCCT clients during the time of Covid-19. “Just applying for jobs is difficult. Many clients can’t apply for jobs because they have no data, people don’t have money for transport or childcare to be able to go to interviews or to work.” This applies to South African citizens too. With clients not being able to come into SCCT, Sarita and the Employment Access team depended on telephonic consultations – and language barriers became more obvious.  

“Many people who are migrants or refugees are highly qualified when they come to South Africa. In my time at SCCT, I worked with people who are qualified doctors and teachers.” Many people are not able to use their qualifications in South Africa. “One of the qualified nurses applied for a housekeeping job. There are very few people that I’ve met who have been able to work in their fields.” Watch our documentary called Critical Skills, which looks at the struggles that skilled refugees face in order to practice in South Africa here.  

Sarita emphasises that South Africa could be harnessing these skills and qualifications. “We have such a serious lack of skills. We have understaffed hospitals, but hundreds of nurses are here and unable to work. If South Africa could develop accessible processes to allow qualified non-citizens to practice their skills, I definitely think that people who are migrants or refugees could help to fill major gaps in our sectors”. 

Looking at migration from an economic perspective, Sarita says that research shows, migration could bring positive change to the African continent as a whole. “If South Africa can shift to a Pan-African perspective, I think we could see major benefits. Strengthening our economy and increasing the number of skilled people strengthens us all.”  

Sarita reflects on the wider picture of harnessing the economic potential of migration. “That can only happen if we’re engaging with and including everybody instead of choosing to engage and include one group of people.” (New Study Finds Immigrants in South Africa Generate Jobs for Locals –  

Anya Sass: Advocacy Programme Volunteer

Anya volunteers in the Scalabrini Advocacy Programme. This placement serves as a bridge between her experiences, which were rooted in a very real experience of conflict, and her dreams to become a refugee attorney. Anya reflects on past, present and future, and the threads that link them together.

 A (long) road to Damascus

As a twelve-year-old, having read her father’s books on conflict and human rights, Anya announced her intention to be a war correspondent. Ten years later, having worked and travelled after high school, Anya planned a week-long trip to Syria. Once she arrived, Anya found a ‘hospitable, magical country rich in history’ – and ended up living there for four years.

Anya lived in Syria from 2011 to 2015 – during the height of the conflict. She was based in one of the oldest city cities in the world, Damascus. Here, she taught English to adult students. ‘There was a market for teaching English because many people were trying to learn the language before fleeing to another country,’ Anya explains.

Living in a warzone, one realizes that conflicts are ‘significantly more nuanced’ than their depiction in media. Although there was not any ‘active fighting’ in her neighborhood, Anya recalls that there was ‘regular shelling coming in from neighbouring areas – including the block next to us – routine car bombs and ambushes in our street’.

Conflict filters deeply into the way you lead your life, Anya explains. ‘You start to create a flawed logic to maintain your sanity. Like choosing to walk on the other side of the street because the bombing is coming from the other direction’.

‘No one makes the choice to be a refugee lightly.’

‘I watched many of my friends (in Syria) make a difficult decision to leave. It makes me angry when people try to categorize refugees as ‘economic migrants’. They just have no idea how difficult it is to make the decision to flee. There is a deep emotional trauma just making that decision, let alone acting on it.’

In 2015, Anya and her Syrian husband made that difficult choice themselves, and decided to go to Canada, Anya’s country of origin. Once there, Anya became increasingly vocal and dedicated to the rights of refugees.

With a plan of pursuing a career in the refugee sector, Anya enrolled herself at university. She is currently completing a joint major in Political Science and Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at the Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

If this volunteer placement were a job, this would be my dream job.”

The South African context

The volunteer placement in Scalabrini dovetailed neatly with Anya’s career plans. ‘If this volunteer placement were a job, this would be my dream job,’ Anya reflects. Her role at Scalabrini is to provide advocacy advice to clients and conduct research projects. However, the advice desk had to close when the National Lockdown was announced in March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Volunteering during the Covid-19 pandemic

The pandemic resulted in fundamental changes to Anya’s volunteering placement. All services shifted online, and everyone had to work from home. ‘My placement at Scalabrini suddenly became remote’, she explains (on a Zoom call). ‘I miss dealing with clients – but it has been nice to have time to delve more deeply into research projects.’ She is currently working on research around a specific clause of the South African Immigration Act, which has allowed her the opportunity to interact with several lawyers in South Africa’s migration and refugee sector.

Common threads of migration

Having had such personal experiences of conflict and migration, one wonders if Anya sees any commons thread when working with people who are refugees in South Africa. Despite the very different context, says Anya, ‘I do think that people, wherever they are in the world, just want to have a basic level of comfort and safety.’

In Syria, Anya saw a conflict rooted in deeper histories and anxieties. These anxieties are exploited by bigger powers, which use propaganda to ‘play on people being angry. I don’t think people are inherently bad. Bad things happen to them, and they get manipulated into reacting in a bad way.’

The future

Where will Anya’s life take her next? After the completion of her degree, Anya plans to undertake a postgraduate course in forced migration. The ultimate goal, however is to be a refugee attorney. ‘I want to be a refugee lawyer fighting unfair border regimes … and doing the work I do now, in advocacy and refugee law’.

The volunteer placement at Scalabrini, it seems, has assisted with this goal. 'I’ve always received a lot of really valuable feedback from my work and I feel like I’ve learned a lot in my short time at Scalabrini, as well as come away with some extremely valuable experiences. This placement has been such a great learning opportunity and has only solidified that this is the field I want to stay in.'

With such rich life experiences and such powerful determination, we are sure she will successfully reach her goals. Good luck, Anya!

Jonny Zients : All Rounder

Being an All Rounder, Jonny has walked away with a variety of improved skills and a much deeper understanding of migration in the context of the African continent. Read more about his experience below.

“This is not my first time in South Africa. My mom is from Joburg, and lots of my extended family lives in Cape Town. I have been lucky to come here pretty routinely since I was young, so I have some familiarity with Cape Town. Six weeks in, I definitely feel like I want to live here more permanently at some point in my life. In Cape Town, I feel that I interact with people I don’t know much more frequently. There is a humor and friendliness that I much prefer to the kind of cold, stick-to-oneself attitude that I have gotten used to in DC.

My brother was an all rounder volunteer earlier this year and spoke so highly about his time at Scalabrini. I actually visited him while he was working and was immediately struck by Scalabrini’s breadth of services.  I also was intrigued by the unique opportunity to work with clients in a variety of settings. My previous non-profit volunteer/internship experiences have either been office settings that feel very removed from the beneficiaries of the organization or solely direct service like cooking meals in a food kitchen. Scalabrini feels so tuned into the day-to-day challenges and realities of the individuals and communities that they serve, while providing a sophisticated range of services. I initially noticed, and continue to appreciate, how Scalabrini never turns people away. There is always another service to refer people to, which I think speaks to Scalabrini’s holistic approach.

“I was then able to craft my own experience by seeing what projects made sense to support.”

The first ten days or so, it was a bit challenging to find my niche as an all-arounder, but I really appreciated that experience. Ultimately, I think it stretched me and allowed me to get to know each team more organically and what they are doing. I was then able to craft my own experience by seeing what projects made sense to support. Coming in each day and not knowing exactly what I am doing has kept me engaged and required a sense of initiative that I think constantly reminds me why I am here and what I feel passionate about. Being an all-arounder has been really cool: covering reception and moving from program to program has sharpened a variety of skills and given me a nuanced understanding of the full scope of Scalabrini’s mission.

Since joining the Scalabrini Centre, I have sharpened my administrative abilities, practicing making phone calls and entering data as well as learning how to use tools like Salesforce. I have also improved my researching techniques as I got more comfortable with navigating academic papers and UN databases when compiling my country report for SIHMA. Through digital literacy, I learned how to teach. Lastly, I have learned so much about migration — through research, interacting with clients, and speaking with Scalabrini team members, I have deepened my knowledge of the cultural context around inter-African migration and the barriers that asylum seekers and refugees face upon arrival in South Africa.

I start university in September, but have lots of things I want to do before then! I think my experience at Scalabrini has definitely given me a clearer idea of the work environments I will seek out and what I want to do for the rest of my gap year and life. “

Giulia Bosi : Advocacy volunteer

Giulia speaks of her time at Scalabrini and how being here has broadened the way in which she views the world. Her interests lie in human rights and the International Law field, which lead her to a volunteer position at Scalabrini. Read more about her experience as an Advocacy volunteer.

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Abel Longwe: Advocacy volunteer

Once Abel completes his studies, he will return home to Zambia and plans to continue the kind of advocacy work he has been doing at Scalabrini there. Read more about Able’s experience below.

Peyton McGovern: Women’s Platform volunteer

Peyton has found the sustainability of Women’s Platform to be encouraging and inspiring. Volunteering at Scalabrini has solidified in her mind that she wants to continue working towards educating and empowering vulnerable women. Read more about her experience here.  

I am interested in immigration reform and social justice, specifically in education and women’s empowerment. I work as the Personal Development Intern for the Women’s Platform. 

I have gained so many professional skills as well as gained a whole neunderstanding of the immigration system in South Africa. I feel that my communication and problem-solving skills have greatly improved. There is always an effective, intersectional approach to alleviating unnecessary pain and struggle. Scalabrini is a manifestation of this concept. 

The sustainability of the Women’s Platform is so encouraging and inspiring; to be so confident that years from now, women will continue to be taught, nourished, and empowered through this organisation.”

This is what I want to do with my life. I want to work with vulnerable women to empower and educate them. I have made connections with the clients and staff at Scalabrini that have changed my perspective on what it means to be a human living among those different from you. I am grateful for the opportunities presented through this organisation. 

The most memorable experiences have been working with clients directly. I love helping/attending workshops, when the women come to the platform to ask questions or chat and talking to the peer facilitators or other interns about the future of the platform. The sustainability of the Women’s Platform is so encouraging and inspiring; to be so confident that years from now, women will continue to be taught, nourished, and empowered through this organisation.  

Lows of my experience where mostly just in the beginning when I was extremely overwhelmed. The things that make me nervous or stressed in the beginning no longer bother me. I have been well supported and been given a lot of responsibility. The Women’s Platform knows how to support their interns and staff. I feel as though they truly want me to do my best work and be my best self. 

My hope is that when you come to Scalabrini, you will be received with love and empathy just as everyone who walks through Scalabrini’s door always is. 

Jenna Yousef: BASP volunteer

Jenna was looking for an internship where she would be able to engage and work directly with people. BASP turned out to be the perfect fit for her. Read more about her experience at Scalabrini below. 

“I heard really good things about Scalabrini before I even came here. It’s interesting because there really is no one stop shop with these services in the United States at all, so learning how it’s run and how it impacts the lives of so many people has been really cool. 

I am from Seattle and I studied international studies, law, economics and human rights. The pace in Cape Town is much more relaxed than in Seattle. Everything still gets done, but it’s not as intense. It’s been very refreshing. The mountains are the coolest thing for me and seeing them every day from literally every angle is great. 

“BASP has a great team. You know they love what they do and that makes it all the much better to be here.”

I am volunteering in BASP. From day to day I am mentoring students and helping them with projects, working on the curriculum and teaching. Personally for me, having come from just finishing a degree, it’s honestly so inspiring to see how hard people work with what they have. What the students have to learn was stuff that I struggled with and I was face to face with a professor a couple of times a week. There are little things that you don’t think about, but I am very privileged to be here and very privileged in general. 

It’s always amazing to see the growth of the students from when they first walk in, to a few weeks down the line. It sometimes gets frustrating when students don’t have access to what they need, but it’s not coming from Scalabrini’s side. 

I feel like I personally want to help every single person I see and I know you can’t, but I think if you can at least help one person and make their world or their day a little bit better, it’s something. Even if we can’t offer the services or the help that a specific person needs, being empathetic and just listening is a good first step. Leave people better than you found them. 

I’ve definitely realised that I want to do something like working in a non-profit or government with a human rights aspect. Personally, I think being here has helped me become a more patient human being and it’s helped me find solutions to problems more efficiently. Many things pop up and you just have to work through them. BASP has a great team. You know they love what they do and that makes it all the much better to be here.”

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Rebecca Crowie – Advocacy volunteer

Rebecca began her time at Scalabrini with the Women’s Platform and then went on to join the Advocacy team. She reflects on her time here below. 

“I was born and raised in Cape Town, South Africa. I did a BsocSci honours degree in justice and transformation at UCT (University of Cape Town). My academic interest lies in the human rights field, more specifically championing the rights of disadvantaged and minority groups. 

“I’ve also learnt to rethink the many privileges that I’ve taken for granted just by being a South African citizen; things I’ve never had to think twice about. Scalabrini has been an enormous journey of self-discovery and has been an extremely enlightening experience.”

I was searching for an internship, preferably at an NGO, for some post studying experience. I am currently a volunteer for the Advocacy Programme. Refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented people are a particularly vulnerable group in this country and they often possess a very limited knowledge of their legal rights. Assisting them, specifically under the Advocacy Programme, was right in line with my interests. 

My experience has been positive from the start. The operations manager was warm and friendly to me from the beginning. My contract with my listed responsibilities was comprehensive. I was impressed by the ‘meeting the teams’ part, where a representative from each department would provide an in-depth explanation on the particular programme’s job scope to the new comers. 

Professionally, I’ve overcome a great deal of anxiety when dealing with clients in a professional setting. Generalised anxiety is an issue I’ve struggled with for many years. So, on a personal scale, my engagement with clients at Scalabrini has benefited me enormously in interpersonal relationships that extend beyond the office too. 

I’ve also learnt to rethink the many privileges that I’ve taken for granted just by being a South African citizen; things I’ve never had to think twice about. Scalabrini has been an enormous journey of self-discovery and has been an extremely enlightening experience.

My greatest high for my time here has definitely been when I organised a two day self-defence workshop for the Women’s Platform clients. I outsourced an instructor on social media, organised dates, times and hall bookings. I was rather apprehensive in the days leading up to it as I had never met the instructor before. However, there was such an easy, effortless chemistry between the instructor and the women in attendance. I could tell the women appreciated the class. They learnt so much that they didn’t know before. I felt extremely proud of myself at the conclusion of the workshop. 

Although this did not happen often, my lows would have to be my exposure to traumatic, unfortunate stories from my clients. At the same time, I feel the exposure to these stories could have the potential to help strengthen our emotional intelligence and resilience, so I am ever thankful to them. 

My dream is to work for a refugee NGO abroad. I would also love to work for an international organisation such as Human Rights Watch, the UN or Freedom House. 

My hope is that all people who walk through our doors feel welcome and that they belong. That if they look different, speak a different language or have a different nationality, this does not mean that there is no place for them in this country. The xenophobic rhetoric we hear from some of our politicians and the violence towards non-South Africans that we witness from some of our private citizens are not reflective of this country. South Africa is big enough for everyone.” 

Judy Park – All Rounder Volunteer

Judy wants to work in human rights, focusing on people being able to come into the United States. This is the reason she is specialising in American politics at university and why she came to Scalabrini for a few weeks where she was an All Rounder. Read more about Judy’s experience below. 

“I’m in a programme with my school right now, which is an internship plus a class. There’s a partnership between my school and Connect123, an organisation that helps you find NGOs that you can volunteer at. I said that I want to work with human rights and Connect123 knew just the place for me. 

“Instead of staying in one programme, I was able to have that diversity, which I think is important for me now.”

As an All Rounder, I never know what to expect. Sometimes I fill in for EAP (Employment Access Programme) or I work a lot with Women’s Platform and Convo Club. I also work with operations and so I did data capturing and administration work, which is pretty time consuming and operations is super busy, so I was able to do that and take care of that, which I think was helpful for them.

I also work reception. It was really hard at first and I didn’t know anything. People would ask “what’s this?” and I was like, “ I don’t know, what is this?”. So I’d call Asha and she would explain it to me. I got to know Scalabrini so much better because of reception and have a new profound respect for receptionists.

I have learnt that going on to my career, I need to find a position where I’m not stuck in one spot, I want to be able to work in different areas. I don’t know what that would look like, but if there’s a full time All Rounder position somewhere, that would be perfect for me. I also learnt that I love making it easier for other people to do their jobs, so operations was a really good fit for me. I know my skills are data capturing, facilitating stuff and making sure all administrative stuff is done, I really figured that out at Scalabrini. Instead of staying in one programme, I was able to have that diversity, which I think is important for me now. 

My only low would be taking over reception for the first time when I had no idea what I was doing. I was lost, I couldn’t work the phones or transfer calls. It was embarrassing. Going off that, my high would be being able to take over from Asha for a full day. That’s a real testament to how I’ve been able to learn here and that I can really do something here, not just for Asha, but for everyone else. My favourite time here has been at reception. It’s been a lot of fun. 

If everything goes well, I would like to work for an NGO and I also want to spend time working with the UN. My experiences here have solidified  what I was planning on doing before. A lot of my friends who have been interning at NGOs and have realised that it’s not what they want to do, but I’m the exact opposite. This is exactly what I want to do. If there’s a Scalabrini back in America, I definitely want to work there, or come back here. The environment here is great, my coworkers are great and I think the work they do here is really important.”