More than 70 years ago, my great-grandparents immigrated to British Columbia from the Neider Chortitza Mennonite colony in Soviet Russia, now known as Ukraine.
My great-grandparents, and my grandmother and grandfather were part of the first 33 people who received assistance from Mennonite Central Committee after traveling from their colony to the Netherlands where they found safety. They went on to farm in Abbotsford, B.C.
For many Mennonites, our story is about persecution, war, hunger and uncertain futures, but also hope that a foreign land holds the promise of safety and security.
However, this isn’t only our story.
Last year, I had the opportunity to visit MCC partners in South Africa who work with refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants from other parts of Africa.
Like my ancestors, the uprooted people MCC supports today are carving out a life for themselves in sometimes hostile environments. They’re banding together and using their collective strength and intelligence to solve problems to meet the needs of the wider newcomer community.
Petronella Nzirire Mulume is one such person.
When she first arrived as a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1999, Mulume felt hopeless about her future in the country.
“What’s going to be our future in South Africa? In the country there’s no social assistance, no refugee camp, no job opportunities and life was very expensive,” she said. “How are we going to survive in this situation?”
Eventually Mulume became a founding member of the Union of Refugee Women, an MCC partner in Durban, which came together to respond to the overwhelming need for affordable childcare in the refugee community.
The group began meeting after one refugee woman’s daughter fell out of a third-story window while the mother was at work and her children were unsupervised, Mulume says. The girl wasn’t seriously injured, but it was only a matter of time.
“We said, ‘This is not working for us. We need a safe place to leave our children when we go out to look for jobs,” she recalls.
Although she didn’t have any children of her own at the time, she got involved with a group of other refugee women who were pooling money to pay for a caregiver for their children.
Working with other refugees, like the ones she teamed up with to form the Union of Refugee Women, restored her hope.
“It’s what made me to be strong enough to say to myself that I can manage.”
Their initiative grew over the years and today Mulume is the program manager for the Children’s Care Centre. The center provides food, education and after-school care for 124 children, about half of whom are from refugee families.
Germaine Habonimona is a teacher at the center. She was just 20 years old when she arrived in South Africa as a refugee.
Her family fled Burundi after her father, a government official, was murdered. Then her mother died, leaving Habonimona to find a new home for her five siblings and provide for them as well.
MCC provided rent and food assistance when the family first came to South Africa, helping Habonimona make ends meet, and eventually she got a job at the Children’s Care Centre. Now a mother herself, she has spent the past 16 years providing quality education for other refugee families and low-income South African families.
The center also became a safe haven for Habonimona as she dealt with her daughter being diagnosed with autism and with abuse from her husband. She lived in the center for several months and now her children receive after-school care there.
“They were like my family. All this time they were next to me to help me…. My problems were like their problems,” she says.
In my interactions with the refugees impacted by MCC’s programming, I realized that no matter where one comes from — whether it’s Ukraine, Burundi or DR Congo — people thrive when they’re in community with others and can work together to address issues.
Rachel Bergen is a staff writer for Mennonite Central Committee Canada.