I was born in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, in 1965. At the time, the conflict between Hutus and Tutsis was becoming very heated, and my parents were from different ethnic groups. When my mother was pregnant, her family didn’t want her to have me. They wanted her to have a baby with a man from her own ethnic group.
After she gave birth to me, she abandoned me under pressure from her family, and I lived with my father. In 1972, my father was killed by the military because of his ethnicity, so I lived on the street after that. I didn’t enjoy childhood because my life was very hard and I was alone.
Some years later I married, and my wife and I had three children together. After we married and had our children, the military tried to kill me just as they had killed my father.
They shot and wounded me, but I survived. The doctor who treated me contacted the Red Cross to move me to a hospital in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where I would be safer and could recover. I stayed there for a couple of months.
"Because of the challenges I've had in my life, I help other refugees and foreigners."
- Samson Matabaro
When I returned home, my wife decided she didn’t want to risk being with me. She said, “I don’t want you anymore. Take the children.”
My son Elia was 5 and my daughter Lidia was 3 years old at the time. My youngest daughter, Agatha, was only 1. My arm was still in a cast and I couldn’t carry a baby, so I took the two eldest and left Agatha with my wife.
Over the years, I would keep in touch with Agatha as she grew up in Burundi; today, Agatha, her husband and their child, my first grandchild, live in the same town as I do in South Africa.
In 1993, when I fled Burundi with Elia and Lidia, we spent a few days in a refugee camp in Kigoma, Tanzania. Then, to be safer, we moved to the city of Dar es Salaam.
MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky
I felt called to work for God from a young age. I started studying to become a pastor in Burundi and was able to continue in Dar es Salaam. In 1998, as I finished my studies, I started a ministry to unreached people.
I came to South Africa in 2002 with my two oldest children and two years later we were granted refugee status.
At that time, I started helping refugees in Pietermaritzburg through my organization, The Key Ministry International. I would go visit them and pray and encourage them. I tried to help by getting food to people in need. You can’t have peace if you don’t have food. Then, when refugees were having problems opening bank accounts, I helped by advocating for their rights.
In 2008 there was a wave of attacks on foreigners, especially near Durban, just an hour away. There were some attacks near here in Pietermaritzburg. Refugees came to me, saying they feared South Africans would kill them.
I approached the mayor of Pietermaritzburg, local churches, organizations and police, and we formed an anti-xenophobia coalition. That’s where I met MCC workers James and Joan Alty (then representatives for MCC’s work in South Africa, Swaziland and Lesotho and now area directors for MCC’s work in Southern Africa). MCC started supporting us financially shortly after that and sometimes sends us young adults from Canada or the U.S. who serve with our organization for a year.
MCC photo/Brenda Burkholder
Today, The Key Ministry International continues to work with refugees, often through visits in their homes or on the streets. My older daughter, Lidia, is now a project director in our organization. Outside of our office is where we can see the realities of refugees’ lives. We provide counseling and spiritual care, as well as a microloan program. We sometimes offer emergency food to families in need and cover the costs of school fees and uniforms, and we assist refugees in finding other ways to meet the needs they have.
We also have 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.
I also pastor a church. It’s called The Key Ministry International Church for Refugees, but everyone is welcome to worship with us.
Because of the challenges I’ve had in my life, I help other refugees and foreigners. It’s also why I help South Africans understand that if they destroy the peace that is here, if these tensions grow into war, there will be a big problem like in Burundi. If you destroy your peace here, it will be very difficult.
I pray God will continue to open the door for us to preach peace and truth in this community in South Africa.
Pastor Samson Matabaro is the founder of The Key Ministry International, an MCC partner.