Today is World Refugee Day

Dear friends,

In a world where one in every 113 people have been forced to flee their homes because of war or persecution, it’s vital we the global community dedicate a day to commemorate the strength, courage, and perseverance of millions of refugees. Today is World Refugee Day, and since so many of us in the west are far removed from the devastation facing so many refugees, I decided to share a story from Lebanon. My intention is not to play to your sympathies. In the same way that you’ve read stories about people climbing everest, you will read this woman’s story of life in Beirut, because her life is no less significant than that of a world class climber.

Statistics and numbers are desensitizing, and bad-news fatigue breeds apathy. I literally started this paragraph with numbers and figures, and when I caught my mistake I decided to leave the opening sentence the way it was to acknowledge my mistake. Let us take a moment, and do an exercise together. I want you to say “Mariam” out loud. That’s it, “Maariiiaam,” make sure you enunciate! She is a person, like you and I. We are of the same make, though her story may suggest otherwise. Mariam is in the situation she is in not because she was born into poverty, lazy, uneducated or unintelligent. She’s in this situation because 5 years ago, the Syrian war made its way into her hometown, Daraa, forcing her to flee to neighbouring Lebanon. She’s in this situation because of a series of unfortunate events… events that could have happened to you or me.

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Living conditions are as tough for urban refugees as they are for rural. Syrian refugees living in Beirut are harder to locate, and therefore harder to reach with aid and support services. Urban refugees are also expected to pay astronomical rent prices for substandard living conditions, and are often times confronted with a hostile host community (especially in Lebanon because of a complex history between the two countries). This is especially true for 30 year old Mariam, who lives in a concrete factory just outside of Beirut with a 9 month old baby boy, 4 daughters, and her husband. 

This factory is also home to 4 other Syrian families. Mariam’s husband worked in the concrete factory before the war in Syria began. Once the war was underway, he continued sending money home, while his family moved around Daraa for safety. At one point, Mariam and her children were living in a 1- bedroom apartment with 5 other families, which she described as “literally being piled on top of one another.” She didn’t want to come to Lebanon, because she had hope that the war would soon end, but as we know, things worsened. Her husband decided that bringing his family to Lebanon was the only option for his family’s safety, so he and a few colleagues made an agreement with the owner of the factory to live on the premises rent-free with their families so long as they built the homes themselves.

Having a conversation without raising voices is nearly impossible in Mariam’s makeshift home. The noise from the factory, coupled with the copious amount of dust hardly makes this an ideal place for a family to live in, especially for her baby boy. The factory doesn’t pay her husband well, and what little pay he does receive goes toward food, which she says “disappears as quickly as it comes.”

There are much more details that Mariam shared with me, which are really horrible and will make you hate the human condition. Instead, I will stop here, and paint you a contrasting picture. Five years ago, she had a house in Syria, and the little money her husband made went a long way for her family. She lived well, and woke up worry free everyday. Fast forward 5 years, and she literally lives in the middle of a factory with a growing family, an unending war on her mind and an exceedingly desperate situation. She described her situation as being unbelievable to her younger self. Even so, Mariam counts herself as lucky since her family doesn’t have to pay rent. Lucky to live in a concrete factory. To think… this could have been me had my parents stayed in Sudan… had there been a war, this truly could have been my life. Would I ever count myself “lucky” to live in such conditions? 

Say this woman’s name again. Mariam. Acknowledge her, honour her, and remember her every time you walk on concrete. She is out here, living, breathing, the same way you and I are. When discussing refugees, never forget that they too are humans who love, fear, laugh, cry, and feel in the same way that you do.

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Month 4: Update

Hello wonderful people, 

It’s been a while since I last checked in with you! As I write this post, I’m thinking of a good excuse for my recent absence in this space. I liked the idea of telling you, “I’ve been traveling…” since it makes me sound so worldly…ha! But that won’t suffice, given my travels only lasted 10 days. I also went back and forth with “I’ve been so busy,” “I’m drowning in work,” and the timeless “I’ve had writer’s block.” But as I wrote each excuse down, the period was followed by a long backspace. I really haven’t been too busy to write a blog entry, I certainly haven’t been drowning in my work, and writers block is something I’ve yet to experience… which probably has something to do with the fact that I’m no writer. So what’s my deal then? Why have I neglected you?

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In truth, I’m focusing all my energy on enjoying the ride…and what a ride it has been. But all good things come to an end, and as wonderful as living in my head is, I’ve grown tired of being pestered by family and friends for updates, photos and detailed narrations of my life in South Africa. So here I am, back by popular demand *wink*, ready to share. Unlike my other posts, I will be covering the highlights of September and October as they unfolded through photographs. More posts to come in the next few weeks, enjoy!

September

C A M P 
Back in September, Alex and Omara organized two fun packed weekend camp days with the grade 5’s. Pictured are the learners playing red rover for the first time. Eventually we had to switch games because tears were being shed and knees were getting scraped. This was the before image.

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A L E X A N D R A    H I G H
The other interns and myself visited Alexandra High School to do some ground research on the differences between township and suburban education. We were hosted by the deputy principal, who gave us a tour and shared many insights on the workings of the department of education in SA. This day was integral for us, as it shaped our understanding of the system, and influenced current projects and proposals.

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W E E K E N D    W I T H    R O Y A L T Y
Linda and I had the absolute privilege of being invited to spend the weekend with our supervisor, Ms. Sithole, and her beautiful family. It was a full house in every sense of the word. Full of mischief, love, laughter, food, and people. Her children (4 of her own, 2 adopted) regarded me like a long lost sister who has finally returned home. The weekend was wonderful, thanks to a detailed schedule which ran like clockwork. During our stay, I noticed that whenever Mama Sithole walked into a room, she commanded our attention, and was revered by her children… which leads me to believe that her house is indeed a castle, the children her kingdom, Linda and I the peasants, and Ms. Sithole, the reigning Queen.

Seriously, look at this Queen.
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H E R I T A G E    D A Y
Luckily for Linda and I, Heritage Day fell on the weekend we stayed at Ms. Sithole’s house. On Sunday we attended her place of worship, a Zulu church on the edge of the Township, which was without a doubt the highlight of my September. Everyone came clothed in traditional garb, and it was the most colourful service I’ve ever attended. The congregation worshiped in Zulu, Xhosa, Shona, Swati, Venda, Sotho… I even caught myself praying in Arabic.

A snapshot of this beautiful Sunday service. Imagine… the whole congregation looked this incredible!
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Xhosa Garb
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Zulu Garb
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S L A N G S P R U I T
A blurb on what I’ve been working on at school simply won’t do, so watch out for this post in the next few weeks. Just know that my post on the river code is to be continued. In the meanwhile, enjoy this photo of Dineo’s red stained tongue and hands after snacking on the oh-so-popular ‘sweet aid’.

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October

C A P E    T O W N
This is NOT my official Cape Town piece… that is on its way. Not because I have so-much-to-say about the iconic coastal city, but because I people watched like it was my job out there, and I’ve much to report on. Until that post, here are some highlights from the Cape.

Our Sunset Picnic on Signal Hill, complete with wine, cheese, fruits, and Frank Ocean.img_9343img_9358

The beautiful Table Mountain, one of the 7 natural wonders of the world.

Vukollective, an incredible fine arts collective of individuals, happened to be staying at a hostel I regularly frequented while in Cape Town. Luckily for me, they were in town to perform at the Cape Town Fringe Festival, and I was given a free ticket to attend. The 45 minute piece was easily the highlight of my week in Cape Town. The physical performance was a very strange, raw, and visually enticing story on life, death, and limbo. By the end I was deep in my feelings.
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Though everyone went their own way in Cape Town, myself, Omara, Alex and Linda met up on October 5th to celebrate Alex’s birthday. This is us looking fab before inhaling copious amounts of seafood.

Japanese, Kiwi, Australian, and now South African ink. Peonies to accompany the family, courtesy of Cape Town.

P R E T O R I A / T S H W A N E
I wasn’t interested in visiting Pretoria because I figured it would have the boring capital city syndrome that I’m all too familiar with. I changed my tune when information surfaced about an old chap of mine residing in Pretoria. I met Ikanye back in 2009 in England, and we were able to get in touch and coordinate a meet up. Surprisingly, the city didn’t disappoint, but the high point was definitely reuniting with my old friend.

The Union Buildings of Pretoria (also known as Tshwane) are still controversial until this day. Though the buildings were the scene of much jubilation (as they played host to the inauguration of President Nelson Mandela in ’94), not much has changed for the millions we were repressed by the apartheid system, and to many South Africans the buildings remain a symbol of oppression.
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Almost every street in Pretoria is lined with Jacaranda trees. Fun fact: Pretoria is also known as “the Jacaranda city.” From late September to mid November, Jacarandas bloom all over Pretoria and turn the face of the city purple. It’s estimated that there are almost 70k Jacarandas growing around the many streets, parks, and gardens of the capital city.
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Situated on a high hill overlooking the city of Pretoria is Freedom Park, a South African heritage destination representing humanity and freedom. The park was build as an agent of reconciliation in South Africa, reflecting on a dark past, improving the present in building the future as a free nation. The park also contributes continentally and internationally to the formation of better human understanding among nations and people. At the peak of the park, a quote from Samora Machel (former President of Mozambique) reads, “International solidarity is not an act of charity. It is an act of unity between allies fighting on different terrains toward the same objective. The foremost of these objectives is to aid the development of humanity to the highest level possible.” Words to live by as a development practitioner, but more importantly, as a global citizen of our shared planet.
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Ika and I having a good laugh after being reunited 7 years later.
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J O H A N N E S B U R G
The moment I realized we had time off work, all I could think about was making my way back to Jozi. It’s true, I cut my time short in Cape Town to many disapproving head shakes, but I don’t at all regret my decision. From visiting the birthplace of humankind, to partying in a warehouse with old friends, Johannesburg never disappoints.

We spent our Thursday evening at the Neighbourgoods Market in Braamfontein. Our heads were spinning from all the delicious food, tasteful music and Joburg swagger that surrounded us.
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Africa is the birthplace of humankind. This is where our collective umbilical cord lies buried.
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The Crade of Humankind was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999. It is about 50 km northwest of Joburg. Sterkfontein alone has produced more than a third of early hominid fossils ever found. The Sterkfontein Caves is where scientists have discovered hominid fossils dating back more than 4-million years. The most important and most famous of these fossils are “Mrs Ples,” a 2.1 million-year-old Australopithecus skull that has told us much about the precursors of modern humans, Homo Sapiens.
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We were invited by our good friend Khanya (who we met last time we were in Jozi) to an impressive warehouse party on Saturday night. The live Nigerian music had everyone jamming hard. Forgive the terrible photo quality. 
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Let the critics talk their talk… Hillsong Church will always have a special place in my heart. I reserved my Sunday morning for another visit, and Lord am I happy I followed through. We were met with a beautiful service, and our acquaintances from our last visit remembered us, and took it upon themselves to take care of us that afternoon. I spoke about this in my post about lessons from Jozi, and I stand by my convictions. 
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Mouth watering Shisa Nyama (braai) in a Township pub called 033 Lifestyle with good company and some seriously awesome South African house tunes.
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That was a long one… but now you’re officially up to date on my whereabouts/happenings. Until next time!