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South Africa: U.S. State Department hears of harrowing refugee experiences during visit to JRS
November 08, 2016

South Africa: U.S. State Department hears of harrowing refugee experiences during visit to JRS
Jesuit Refugee Service Southern Africa Regional Director Tim Smith welcomes Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the United States Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. (Jesuit Refugee Service)
A 55 year-old refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, related how a sexual assault in her home while she was four months pregnant caused her to lose her unborn child.

(Johannesburg) November 8, 2016 — Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the United States Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, visited Jesuit Refugee Service South Africa’s Urban Refugee Program November 1, to learn first hand about the challenges faced by vulnerable refugees — survivors of SGBV and refugees from the LGBTI community.

Assistant Secretary Thomas-Greenfield’s visit to JRS in Johannesburg was spurred by her desire to learn more about vulnerable refugees, particularly survivors of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), and LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and/or intersex) refugees.


Thomas-Greenfield is a former U.S. Ambassador to Liberia, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary for the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. Carla Nadeau (the Human Rights Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria), Dhulce-Janice Maguire of USAID, and Sydney Letsholo accompanied the Assistant Secretary on her visit. Also on hand for the visit were: Charity Mungweme from Action Support Centre; Gulian Koko from Church World Service; Alexandra Hiropoulos from the African Centre for Migration Studies; and David Lindgren from Freedom House.


Jesuit Refugee Service Southern Africa Regional Director Tim Smith welcomed the group and noted that JRS “works in four countries in Southern Africa: Malawi, Zimbabwe, Angola and South Africa, and here in South Africa we work exclusively with urban refugees. Many of these are victims of FGM and SGBV, and those we have invited are part of that group.”


Thomas-Greenfield asked JRS to arrange a meeting with a group of LGBTI refugees and SGBV survivors, to hear their stories and learn their challenges first hand. Two Congolese survivors of SGBV, and five refugees from the LGBTI community (from Zimbabwe, Somalia, Ethiopia and Nigeria) shared their stories with the Secretary.


The LGBTI refugees fled to South Africa because of their sexual orientation — in Nigeria LGBTI people are sentenced to 14 years in prison, and in Somalia and Ethiopia they face the death penalty. 


“Several harrowing stories were told, and U.S. officials were almost moved to tears,” said Johan Viljoen, Country Director of JRS South Africa. 


Yvette, a 55 year-old refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, related how a sexual assault in her home while she was four months pregnant caused her to lose her unborn child. The attackers kidnapped her husband when they left, and after she recovered from her physical trauma Yvette took her three children and fled. 


After a harrowing journey of several years, Yvette and her children reached Johannesburg. But, they spent 18 months living on the streets. During this period, her younger daughter, only 13 years old, was abducted by human traffickers and used for six months as a child prostitute. Eventually Yvette and her family were found by Marcelline Sangara, a Congolese nurse and the JRS home-based care nurse in Johannesburg. Today Yvette is rebuilding her life. She runs a small business, and her two youngest children are in high school.


The refugees said they face difficulties in finding accommodation and income in South Africa. All said that while “ordinary” refugees can rely on the support of their compatriots, LGBTI refugees cannot. The Somalis said they face death threats from the local Somali community.


“The main problem in South Africa highlighted by each of the refugees is difficulty in getting documentation and refugee status — although South Africa law guarantees this, it is difficult at the Department of Home Affairs, where they face xenophobia and homophobia at the hands of officials,” said Viljoen.


Although the meeting was scheduled to end at 4 p.m., Linda Thomas-Greenfield and the U.S. Embassy officials stayed until after 5 p.m., engaging with the refugees. 

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Press Contact Information
Mr Christian Fuchs
christian.fuchs@jrs.net
202-629-5946