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Women join protests against the recent xenophobic attacks at the People's March Against Xenophobia held in Johannesburg on 23 April 2015. (Samson Ogunyemi / Jesuit Refugee Service)

(Johannesburg) July 6, 2015 — In seeking to understand what caused the xenophobic violence that made headlines in the first half of 2015, many look to the socio-economic conditions in South Africa. High levels of unemployment, massively disproportionate inequality and a frustration with stifled service delivery have been pinned as factors that frustrate many South Africans and drives them to commit acts of violence against some of the most vulnerable: foreign nationals.

Another factor driving xenophobia, however, as unkind as it sounds, is ignorance. Working with refugees and asylum seekers, the Jesuit Refugee Service is well-placed to understand global migration is not solely motivated by a search for improved economic opportunity, but by conflict.

However, many people, especially the perpetrators of the recent xenophobic violence, do not understand the plight of those who seek refuge within their borders. In pushing forward, part of our mission is to share our knowledge, helping create social cohesion based on understanding, which is so desperately needed. 

The stories of two Somali gentlemen, Ali-Ismail Qamar and Mohammed Ali, are but a small sample of a broader narrative. Their testimony – as that of others – not only elicits our empathy, but gives a close insight into why people flee their homes to start from scratch elsewhere. 

Qamar came to South Africa in 2002. He, like so many other Somali people, escaped the perpetual conflict that has riddled Somalia since 1986. 

"The central government of Somalia controls an area in Mogadishu that's not even as large as Johannesburg's central business district. If you go beyond the outskirts of this small area, it is all controlled by clan militia," Qamar says of the situation in Somalia. 

"The conflict started amongst tribes and is now amongst clans within those tribes," explains Ali. Making an analogy to the ethnic groups in South Africa, he continues, "within the Zulu [South African] tribe there are clans too. Imagine if those clans were fighting each other. Imagine if within those clans fights arose and those conflicts led to splits with new leaders emerging, each organising his own militia to fight. That is what is going on in Somalia."

"As the militia advance, they will come in and live in your house and tell you to leave. If you don't, they will kill you and your family," explains Qamar. For this reason, Qamar left his home in Mogadishu when militia invaded and seized his plot. He fled to save his life and found refuge in South Africa. Ali came to South Africa in 2009. He too speaks of the inter-clan conflict and tribalism he escaped in Somalia. 

"The only news you see about Somalia is al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab is only a new militia group, but Somalia has been in a continuous state of civil war for a very long time with tribal and clan militia." 

In a Johannesburg suburb called Denver, the two ran a small shop on Plaaitjies Street. Through one of its livelihood programmes, JRS South Africa provided them with a small amount of goods as inventory to start their business. Their business opened in July 2014, and within a month they were able to triple their inventory. With the assistance of a group investment plan, they expanded their business. 

In April 2015, as xenophobic violence first gripped the province of KwaZulu-Natal, the men's dreams of a new and better life came to an end. "We saw the trouble starting in KwaZulu-Natal on the news. We did not want our customers to see it, in case it gave them the idea to start in Johannesburg as well. We started hearing rumours that the attacks against foreigners were going to spread to Johannesburg. A day or two later the threats started; people entered our shop saying that we must go and that they will take the shop," Ali recalls.

Qamar speaks of how they had to run for their lives. "We were in our shop when we heard a large group approaching and singing. We carefully closed the shop and snuck out through the back quietly after closing the business. We ran and watched from a distance. Our landlord tried to negotiate, asking the group to leave our shop alone, but they looted it, took everything. They did not burn down the shop, but they took everything!" 

"They took the shelves, the fridges and the counter. That shop is an empty hall now. Because we lived on the premises, we had to leave everything behind. We didn't even take pocket money. We lost everything!" Ali adds.

The distant stare in Qamar's eyes betrays his regret of a shattered dream, at the thought of having to start it all again. "At least if they did business there, I would have understood." 

Staring straight ahead, Qamar spontaneously says, "You know, I don't hate my brothers – South Africans. I love the country and the people, and I ask the government to realise that wherever we go, we are all brothers." 

He recalls a song, Asim Bongana — a song that is now widely hailed as a tribute to Democratic Founding Father of South Africa, Nelson Mandela – from his drama classes at school in Somalia.

"Growing up, we cried for freedom in South Africa, singing that song. If there was peace in Somalia and you went there as a South African, you wouldn't have to sleep in a hotel: you could meet someone on the street, and they would give you a place to sleep and something to eat, because you are our brothers." 

Qamar and Ali have found temporary refuge in another Johannesburg suburb, Mayfair. JRS is again assisting the two to get back on their feet. They are appreciative that in addition to having supported their initial and successful business efforts, JRS, almost a year on, is again lending a brotherly hand. 

If it were not for ignorance, Qamar and Ali's livelihood and place to stay would still be standing in peace today. Ignorance to what these two men – and so many seeking refuge within South Africa's borders – went through is what led community members to loot and ransack their shops. This ignorance strips us of our empathy. Ignorance allows the myths regarding migrants to persist. 

As JRS pushes forward rather than back, we assist them to re-establish their lost livelihoods, to again become self-sufficient, and thus give a voice to their all too oft unheard stories. We hope the same type of brotherhood and kinship we share with them is extended throughout all facets of society, until our common humanity is all that is recognized. 

by Gushwell Brooks, JRS Southern Africa Communications Officer


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