Posted by Jane Best

Alex Treves and I are currently visiting Johannesburg, Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.

Our first stop was Johannesburg to visit Bienvenu Shelter, an organisation that provides a 3-month safe haven for refugee women and children as they prepare to live in Johannesburg.

We had two interesting days meeting and working with the hard-working, dedicated team and meeting beneficiaries who shared their stories.

The Shelter has developed a lot since my last visit in 2005, with better facilities and more extensive services, especially in outreach to others in the community.

Sewing class
Joseph teaching sewing

RIJ funding provided sewing machines to women who completed the sewing course at the Shelter. The machines are provided as start-up for the women to develop their own business.

We were taken to meet ex-students who have benefited from the start-up and learn what they have done since they left the Shelter.

Alex and I met four women who had graduated from the sewing classes and were building their lives in the tough conditions of South Africa. Tough, because none of them have received official papers. Lack of documentation makes them vulnerable to exploitation by landlords as well as other problems such as older children being prohibited from high school due to lack of documentation.

These women welcomed us into their homes and shared their stories with us.

Victorina with daughter Justice

E from Angola has five children ranging from 8 to 19 years old, one of whom has a heart condition that requires regular monitoring. She has to cover monthly rent of 2,200 rand per month as well as other costs. She struggles to sell enough bags to cover costs, but the sewing machine has provided her with hope and enables her to earn some money.

Then we met Victorina from the DRC who has built up a profitable business through her sewing. Victorina has 3 children and lives with her husband. Even though her husband lost his job when his contract ended, the family is doing OK because she has been able to develop her sewing business. She has a regular contract with a cleaning company and has picked up a lot of business through word of mouth. She did her sewing outside her house for a while where passers-by would stop and place orders.

Bienvenu Shelter offers other opportunities to refugees and many of the staff at the Shelter are refugees. We met the amazing Joseph, the sewing teacher. Joseph follows up with all ex-students to be sure they are developing their business and making good use of the machines. We could see how he works with firmness and compassion ensuring that the women are realistic about the challenges they will face in living in south Africa.

Outreach in the community
Outreach community

And there is Mama T who provides outreach assistance (some food, health support, counseling) to families living in cardboard shelters on the hill behind the Shelter. She clearly commands respect from the families (we felt safe being with her) because she lived there herself once.

As always I am impressed by the resilience of the people I meet and the dedication of those providing the support and opportunities for them to make the best of a tough situation.