By Alexandra Giebel

Following our recent event “Beyond the Headlines – Refugee Tales that Inspire” with individual stories, I had the opportunity to conduct a Skype interview with someone who had worked with displaced people in Cape Town, South Africa. He is not just an expert on refugee law and the situation of refugees in South Africa, but he himself came to South Africa as a refugee. His story is yet another of those inspiring stories like those we heard at our event, stories that are evidence of the courage and fortitude of those displaced by war and conflict.

Back in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Léon* used to have a normal life. Actually, he had a successful and promising life. After finishing his university degree, he started a career as a lawyer. But then, he and his two brothers were forced to flee conflict in the DRC and were parted from the rest of their family. As Léon explained to me, young people are particularly targeted by armed groups; they are not just potential group leaders of the future, but they are also those most likely to hold these groups accountable for their atrocities or to otherwise interfere with their ruling.

Léon arrived in South Africa in 2010. The first months were a nightmarish experience for him. One of the things he had to struggle with the most was that he couldn’t find an occupation matching his qualifications. He suffered from unbearable feelings of loss, hopelessness and disorientation in his new environment: “There were nights without sleeping. You have a career as a lawyer, a bright future, and then you have to leave to a foreign country. So suddenly, you lose everything… And you don’t understand the [new] system. You start your life from scratch; you become someone useless”.

He experienced many of the difficulties refugees are commonly faced with in South Africa. Even though South Africa is one of the most progressive countries in terms of legal provisions for refugees, there are huge challenges when it comes to their implementation. As of now, Léon has been waiting for his asylum application to be processed for five years. He also said that refugees in South Africa are badly affected by xenophobia, ranging from relatively rare visible violent acts, such as anti-foreigner riots and police brutality, to common discrimination in public institutions, for example in the form of the negation of medical services.

Cape Town, South Africa
Cape Town, South Africa

In spite of these conditions, Léon has been able to turn his life around. His rebuilt strength and dignity arose from various factors. His faith in god was one factor that reinvigorated his hope. He further pointed out that he gained a lot of inspiration from the solidarity within South African society, from those individuals and organizations that make things less difficult for displaced people and help them to rebuild a life in dignity.

Eventually, he decided to enroll in a university to study international human rights. Through a fortunate coincidence, he was finally able to find employment using his legal expertise in a Cape Town non-profit organization where he supported refugees and asylum seekers to understand their rights as displaced people. Currently, Léon works with an organization that helps refugees in South Africa to enhance their economic self-reliance. With overwhelming happiness in his voice, he said: “It feels like a dream to be in the office again!“

Léon’s story is a story of suffering. But it is also a story of hope.

If you would like to find out more about displaced people in South Africa, you can access our country sheet here:

To find out how RIJ supports refugees in South Africa, please go to:


*In order to safeguard the interviewee’s safety, his real name is not used here.