UMCOR / News Room / News & Features / Archives 2008 / 0108 - More Refugees Crowd Church

More Refugees Crowd into South African Church

By Linda Bloom

January 8, 2008—Twelve hundred refugees sleep each night at Central Methodist Mission in Johannesburg, South Africa.

That number is up from 900 during the first few months of 2007. Another 500 to 800 refugees can be found in the street immediately outside the building, according to Bishop Paul Verryn, who leads the staff there.

Verryn, who visited the New York headquarters of the United Methodist Committee on Relief on Jan. 3, noted that most of the refugees are from Zimbabwe.

To date, UMCOR has provided $75,000 to assist Central Methodist Mission in its work with the refugees, which includes providing shelter, food, clothing, child care, counseling and employment assistance. UMCOR also has helped support infrastructure costs for the building to allow the work to continue.“There are all sorts of amazing partnerships beginning in the building,” Verryn told the UMCOR staff. “But it’s getting worse in that … the number of refugees coming through has not abated. In fact, just before Christmas, there was another surge of people coming through.”The steady stream of refugees is a result of economic instability and the political climate in Zimbabwe. Because the South African government has not recognized Zimbabweans as official refugees, those who try to apply for political asylum face many bureaucratic hurdles.

Providing Health Care

One positive development is a clinic opened recently in the church’s old bookshop by Doctors Without Borders. The clinic, available to the public, serves 40 to 50 people a day. In addition, a home-based care service provides assistance for sensitive cases, such as patients with HIV or tuberculosis.

Through the "Ray of Hope" project, the mission has managed to provide temporary and safe accommodations for homeless asylum seekers, refugees and displaced people; offer one substantial meal each day for temporary residents; and provide food and supplies for infants whose mothers have no financial support.

Also housed within the six-story church are a preschool and extended child care, a small legal aid clinic and literacy, numeracy and English language programs. Additional activities range from a chess club to gospel choir, and worship services are held each night.

“The first rule of the building is you have to be involved in education,” Verryn said. “You either teach or you study … or you do both.”

Just about every inch of floor space is used for sleeping each night, including the stairs. The project ensures clean facilities for temporary residents and access to clean water for drinking and washing.

Harnessing Teachers’ Skills

A number of the refugees are professionals, and Verryn is finding ways to both assist them and harness their skills. For example, 140 to 200 teachers live at the mission at any one time, and the staff is both circulating their names nationally for possible jobs and working with the proper agency to have their qualifications to teach in South Africa evaluated.

Verryn said he hopes the church can employ some of the teachers to teach math and science in an after-school program or even by starting a new school.

Last year’s strike by teachers in Zimbabwe meant “the teaching profession as a whole became suspect” in political terms, according to Verryn, and many teachers simply do not earn enough there to support their families.

But he’s distressed over the large number of teachers leaving the country. “They are amongst the best teachers in Africa,” he said. “Zimbabwe, until recently, has had the highest rate of literacy in Africa.”

Central Methodist Mission has been “exceptionally blessed” by people from the community who bring in food and clothing for the refugees. Verryn also has been pleased by the improved attitude of local police, who often will bring refugees to the church.

While the current numbers are staggering, the mission is the same that it’s always been. “For more than 20 years, the church has had a reasonably open policy toward homeless people,” he noted.

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Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.
Source: United Methodist News Service