South Africa: success stories of refugee integration
20 June 2010

One of the many refugee businesses in Johannesburg

Voices on World Refugee Day

It has been a long journey…

Being in a foreign country as a refugee, a migrant or an asylum seeker is not as easy as one would think. We always wonder what it would be like to go to another country to seek refuge, safety and protection.

We are sure that many people like us asked themselves these questions, but unfortunately today we find ourselves in a foreign country.

The hardships of leaving one’s country are beyond one’s imagination. We did not apply for a visa and passport, book a plane and find ourselves in South Africa. We had to leave our loved ones and our belongings and possessions behind.

We ran. We toiled through rain and heat, through thick forests with wild animals. We had to cross crocodile infested rivers. We had to duck bullets. We had to scavenge on what would go through our throats. We walked for days on end without water and food. Despair and desperation is all that could be seen on our faces.

Our only hope was our destination.

Life in a foreign country is not easy. There are so many challenges that one has to go through.

First it is when you at the point of entry in that particular country, South Africa for instance, there is the issue of documentation, then accommodation and other basic needs, such as food, educations and employment.

My name is Jimmy and I came to South Africa in 2004. I am a 28 years old single man from Algenina, northwest Darfur and I live in the inner city of Johannesburg. Despite hardships I encountered trying to reach this country, I am quiet happy to be here. I own a stall in the centre of the big city where I make a living as a street vendor. I sell cigarettes, sweets, peanuts and have two public phones. It is hard to make a living selling cigarettes and sweets, and I always wonder how much profit I will make; however, if business is good, I make close to 800 South African Rand a week. Sometimes I am amazed that I can make so much from such a limited variety of goods. But in reality I make enough to maintain myself. I can afford to pay the rent, buy food and goods for my business. It is not so easy. There are rainy days and I am not always to pay the rent on time.

I have refugee status and I am not complaining. My business is not doing badly at all. Thanks to the Jesuit Refugee Service for helping me establish it, I hope that as time goes on it will grow.

I am Dolebo Tabele Debiso, an asylum seeker from Ethiopia. I live in Duduza township in the east of Johannesburg. This is my community and I am happy in it. I have realized that not all South Africans are xenophobic. We live in harmony in this community and get along very well with our neighbours and friends.

I own a tuck-shop rented from a garage from a certain Mrs Kambule and I pay 300 Rand in rent and close to 200 Rand in electricity every month. This is peanuts compared to refugees and asylum seekers living in the centre of the city. JRS helped me buy the stock for my shop. I also rent two houses in Tsakane, another township adjacent to Duduza. I use one of the houses as a business facility. My wife cooks and sells Ethiopian cuisine everyday and all Ethiopian men go there, mostly at lunch time and over the weekends, to reminisce over their lives in South Africa, their businesses and of course to relax by playing pool or watching sports on a 52cm TV positioned on the side of the living room wall. I live in the other house with my wife and twin girls who are two and half years old and go to a local crèche. I bet they will learn Zulu quicker I ever could.

My name is Martha Namaunga and I am a widow from Zimbabwe. I live in Johannesburg with my children and six grandchildren. I make a living from making fabulous sofa and chair covers, table cloths and place mats, and cushions. I am in my late fifties and am a vibrant and very optimistic person. Nothing gets me down, for sure.

I sell in Pritchard Street in Johannesburg from Monday to Friday and over the weekends I go to the market in Newtown to sell my goods. I am excited about the 2010 Soccer World Cup. I look forward to it because I am hopeful that I can make much more money than usual. I know that business in South Africa is a challenge especially since there is a lot of competition. But I am hopeful that the World Cup will bring lots of opportunities for those of us who sell African designs.

One thing I have learned as a business lady is that you have to build trusting relationship with your customers. I have done so. I allow them to buy on credit. The response has been good as one customer refers others to you.


I am Celio Ecamy from the Democratic Republic of Congo and I make my living by creating the latest trendy African traditional outfits. These are magnificent. My designs range from the traditional Congolese to SiSwati South African styles with a bit of a Western touch here and there.

I am passionate about my work even though I have to spend most of my time behind the machine. Making clothes is not easy; it is a very demanding job. With the assistance of JRS, I have been able to buy sewing machines and employ three other people, including one young South African lady who designs traditional footwear and handbags, including handmade necklaces, bracelets and earrings made from beadwork.

Fashion design is a demanding job. My latest order was for about 500 suits for the African National Congress (ANC) in Luthuli House. This order has made me very hopeful. My business associates and I know that through my work, and in particular for the ANC, I am definitely going to get more orders. I see this as a beginning of a flourishing business and I am grateful to God and JRS for their support. Now I am able to maintain and support my family. There is indeed hope for a brighter future in a foreign land.