PIETERMARITZBURG, South Africa — Pastor Samson Matabaro waves at people he passes walking down the streets of Pietermaritzburg and seems to know everyone’s name and history. As he makes his way through neighborhoods known as Little Addis and Little Harare for the number of Ethiopians and Zimbabweans populating the areas, he offers a bit of welcome in a country that isn’t always hospitable to foreigners seeking asylum.
Meanwhile, his daughter Lidia Matabaro, 26, mostly works out of the office, a friendly face for refugees and asylum seekers who stop in and need help navigating the complicated immigration process. Occasionally she’ll make house calls or work with newcomer children.
Together, the Matabaros make up a portion of the staff of The Key Ministry International (KMI), an MCC partner that provides counseling and spiritual care, as well as a microloan program for refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants. KMI sometimes offers emergency food to families and covers the costs of school fees and uniforms.
KMI also has workshops for religious leaders, government workers and police, helping them to understand the rights that refugees have and the reasons why people leave their home countries to come to South Africa.
“Police sometimes arrest refugees because they don’t know what kind of paperwork refugees should carry,” Lidia explains.
Pastor Samson adds: “Our people are suffering because they don’t have information.”
The Matabaros work with newcomers to South Africa because they know how it feels to flee to a foreign country. They’re refugees from Burundi.
In 1993, when tensions were high between ethnic groups, Hutus and Tutsis, Pastor Samson was shot and wounded. For the safety of his family, he took Lidia and her brother Elia in his arms and fled. In 2002, after time in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique, they arrived in South Africa.
Although South Africa is seen by many fleeing persecution and violence as a beacon of hope, the reality on the ground is different. Poverty is rampant among South Africans and refugees alike.
“When you look at the South African refugee website, people think they can get good things when they come here. But when they come here, they get nothing. The constitution of South Africa looks very good, but implementation here is nothing,” Pastor Samson says.
Samson and Lidia see people affected by these policies day in and day out.
Martine Mpata left her home country of DRC in 2001 when violence was widespread. Her two cousins were kidnapped and forced to be child soldiers, and jobs were scarce.
She came to South Africa hoping for a better life, but struggles to make rent and support her two children and foster daughter.
In 2017 Mpata learned her refugee status would expire and she’d have to leave the country in 2019. She isn’t sure where to go, but knows she can’t go home to DRC.
“The problem is that there’s no peace there. It’s like if you run away from the rain, you end up in the sea. I’d be putting myself in bigger problems,” she says.
It's like if you run away from the rain, you end up in the sea. I'd be putting myself in bigger problems." - Martine Mpata
Lidia helped Mpata write to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to plead her case. KMI also pays for the children’s school uniforms, provides some emergency food assistance when the family is in need and provides spiritual support.
Mpata is grateful for the support from KMI, but in the broader community she and many other newcomers feel unwelcome in South Africa. Lidia says she was bullied in school when she first arrived.
“In my school, I was the only refugee and the only person who spoke a different language. They tease you; the kids, they don't understand. It was hard, but in time I caught their language quickly,” she explains.
Waves of xenophobic violence have plagued the country’s refugee population for years. That’s why Lidia wants to support foreigners who are new to South Africa.
“When we came we faced the same issues as these refugees,” Lidia says. “(KMI) has also helped me as an individual and I can see what my dad's trying to do in the community.”
Pastor Samson worries about the future of South Africa and that these waves of violence could escalate, just like they did in his home country of Burundi.
“The challenges I’ve had in my life, it’s why I help other refugees and foreigners. It’s also why I help locals understand if they destroy the peace, there will be a big problem like I had in Burundi. If you destroy your peace here, it will be very difficult,” he says.
He adds: “I want my children and grandchildren to continue to preach peace even after I die. I pray we can do more in South Africa. There is a real need for peacebuilding here.”