Since I started making my own way in the world, I’ve generally considered myself to be a strong woman. I am by and large tough, resourceful, and not afraid to feel things deeply: to be vulnerable … especially in my work with people who have suffered trauma. I have thought of myself as a successful survivor of a violent childhood, a litany of losses and what is termed “ordinary human suffering”. And it was probably this self assurance and my often foolhardy courage that enabled me to begin counselling asylum seekers and refugees from the African Diaspora.
I began in earnest in early 2009, shortly after the xenophobic attacks of 2008. I started one-on-one sessions with refugees who came into Rape Crisis Trust for free counselling. I then moved on to any referral that was given me, from other organisations and from former clients. I felt compelled to try to atone for the shame of how my country treats these people.
However, counselling people who have witnessed and survived a genocide, who have come from the ongoing horror that is happening in Congo DRC and who again suffered rape and murder in the land they had fled to for safety, became much more than simply about rape. It is about rape culture: ways of thinking that allow people to be brutalised; that leave people with the deep underlying belief that they are no longer a person… no longer human.
I have worked with people who thought that happiness is impossible and that hope is fatal. And they found the courage to keep on going. Every day they would get up to a strange world, where few could speak their language, none or very little of the favourite foods of home are available, there is no family to turn to. And in this world, they have been denied work, left to wait for days in queues watching people die of hunger beside them, only to receive another postponement, another insult, another dismissal. People who often can’t find work without a South African ID, can’t open a bank account and who are now being told that they have to travel from their shacks in Cape Town townships all the way to Mesina every three months, just to be denied refugee status or face another extension, which means more travelling.
I have witnessed a mother give up her children (after carrying them for weeks through dark forests, bleeding from multiple rapes and with hardly any food or water to get here) because she could not feed them or care for them in South Africa. I have witnessed a woman fall to her knees in gratitude for simply being spoken to as a person who has feelings and has needs. How can we let this happen to people? This too seems to be more of rape culture: the ability to see others as less deserving of human rights.
And truth be told after these few years of working with refugees, I am tired. I have worked with a constantly breaking heart, knowing terrible things. Here as I sit in my comfortable, quiet, rented cottage, with its pretty garden and three meals a day, I feel ready to give up. With my good education, the inherent power and privilege of being white and English speaking, I want to stop. To rest ….and I am going to for some time.
And while I rest in comfort, many of my former clients will continue to grow, to love, to hope and to get up again and again. These women and men use the power of their constantly breaking hearts to believe that there can again be good in the world, that there can be safety somewhere, that they can create another and better life. And I know now that I am not nearly as strong as them, as courageous as them. Their resilience leaves me in awe. As does the resilience and love of the counsellors at Rape Crisis and other organisations who continue to do this work. I hope to find my powerful broken heart again and I know you all will help me.