When only a piece of paper might let you see me…. and even then you may decide that’s not good enough

The influx of displaced people the world over has increased in recent years, with more than 68.5 million displaced people globally and more than a million nationally (UNHCR Report 2017). Of course this number doesn’t capture the true reality of people on the ground as many displaced people are undocumented and so may not be included in the statistics. Individuals migrate for various reasons, some economic, others political. Whether economic or political they come seeking refuge, seeking a better life in another country.

In the past 2 years, listening to refugees and asylum seekers relate the stories of their lives in South Africa, there is a common thread of not being recognized, not being acknowledged and not belonging. Individuals speak about being in the country for 8 or more years and still falling under an asylum seeker permit, or worse receiving 1-3 month extensions. Or their legal documents expire and are not renewed, leaving them in a state of fear, as they fear being arrested for being undocumented and being detained and sent back to the very place they left for fear of death. Our clients live in a state of uncertainty, fear and confusion. They wake up every day and participate in a society that has not yet decided if they belong.

They do not possess the documents that allow them to fully participate in society, that allow them to receive health care, that allow them to have a stable job, that allow their children to get an education. They are the shadows in the dark. They do not want to be seen for fear that you will ask who they are and though they know who they are, they don’t have the right piece of paper to make you believe them or want them.

Taking into account xenophobic attacks in 2008, 2015 and most recently in Durban (2019), this communication of ‘you don’t belong’ is getting more direct, more aggressive and more violent. And though 2008 and 2015 are significant markers of xenophobic violence, the reality is that xenophobia occurs every day in our society: Through the way society engages with labels such as ‘makwerekwere’; perceptions that ‘you foreigners just come to have babies here’; and projections, ‘you come to take our jobs’. Does the othering defend against our own inadequacies as a nation? Can we and do we want to sit with those inadequacies? Realities that poverty, unemployment, corruption in government, poor service delivery and divisions still exist in our democratic, post-apartheid, rainbow nation South Africa? Is our Ubuntu only for those who possess a South African ID?

I have papers (dompas) officer

I am flesh, I am blood

I am emotions of pain, fear and sadness

I also possess the ability to laugh, smile and feel joy

I am human or have you forgot

Because the paper that I hold says refugee

Because the paper that I hold says seeking asylum

Because I hold no paper

Have you forgotten that my veins are blue and my blood is red

Have you forgotten that I too have a family and want the best for them

Have you forgotten that I too feel hunger pangs

And worse pain when I see my baby crying from the same hunger pangs 

Because my paper doesn’t allow me to work a stable job with benefits

Because my paper doesn’t allow me to think of a future beyond this week

Because I have no paper

You have forgotten my humanness 

You have forgotten we are one human race

You have forgotten I have the same human rights like you

You have forgotten your principles of Ubuntu

And so I lurk in the shadows with hopes that you don’t see me

Because even if you do, I don’t have the right paper for you to see me

Not as a refugee, asylum seeker

But as you see yourself: human, belonging, deserving, a mother, a father……


Written by Sumaiya Mohamed

Published by CSVR Trauma Clinic

This blog represents thoughts of therapist working within the CSVR Trauma Clinic. The focus is on understanding the drivers and impact of violence on individuals, families and communities to work towards violence prevention and the building of peaceful societies

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