Marie*, 64, and her grand-daughter Bibi*, 12, survived an extremely traumatic journey to South Africa. Slowly, the pair are starting to rebuild their lives in Cape Town – with documentation assistance from the Advocacy Programme.
A life left behind
“I used to be beautiful and wear jewels. I used to walk normally”. Sitting in her room in Brookyln, Cape Town, Marie reflects on a life she left behind in Beni – an area in the Democratic Republic of Congo afflicted by heavy conflict. “Last year, we were on a bus in the forest, and the rebels stopped us and caught us. Me and my grand-daughter, Bibi, were forced into one group by the rebels. My husband and my daughter – Bibi’s mother – were put in another group. I have not seen them since.”
Marie was raped by the rebel soldiers, which resulted in her being disabled. Even now, Marie moves around the house with crutches, and can only move outside using a wheelchair. Marie and Bibi managed to escape to a village where a clinic assisted then. “The clinic told us it was not safe to stay there. We were told to flee,” she recalls. The two of them set off on a long, arduous journey to South Africa.
“Last year, we were on a bus in the forest, and the rebels stopped us and caught us. Me and my grand-daughter, Bibi, were forced into one group by the rebels. My husband and my daughter – Bibi’s mother – were put in another group. I have not seen them since.”
Barriers to documentation
“When we arrived in Cape Town, it was difficult for us because we did not have anything or know anyone or anything,” Marie explains. She was becoming sicker, and the two of them were without documentation or housing. Although Marie and Bibi had a strong asylum claim, they could not apply for asylum in Cape Town. The Cape Town Refugee Reception Office remains closed to new asylum applications – despite a court order ruling that the office be reopened. This is part of an ongoing legal case.
Due to Marie’s disability, she was unable to apply for asylum elsewhere in South Africa – and was also unable to apply in Cape Town. “We did not have papers. It was like we were not even in this country,” explains Bibi, who was not able to enroll in school.
Small steps forward
Marie and Bibi visited Scalabrini’s Advocacy Programme. Recognizing the severity of the case, the Advocacy team negotiated with officials of the Department of Home Affairs. In a miracle collaboration, Marie and Bibi’s case was considered so strong that they were permitted to apply for asylum Cape Town Refugee Reception Office. “It was a miracle for us,” explains Marie. “We were told that Home Affairs will never give us papers here. But we went there with members of Scalabrini and Home Affairs agreed to assist us. Now we have a paper, everything has changed. We are brave now.”
Although documented, there are many barriers to overcome for Marie and her young grandchild. Bibi is attending English courses at a local library until she is able to enroll in school. They live day-to-day in a small single room, and depend on the goodwill of others. Worryingly, there is still no news from Marie’s husband and daughter, who were last seen when the rebels abducted them in the forest in Congo. Marie is desperately trying to find them on social networks. “I used to cry … but now I just pray, all night.”
“We were told that Home Affairs will never give us papers here. But we went there with members of Scalabrini and Home Affairs agreed to assist us. Now we have a paper, everything has changed. We are brave now.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities