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Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

An Interview with our 2011 Voices of Courage Honoree Stella Mkiliwane


A refugee from Zimbabwe, Stella Mkiliwane has lived in South Africa for the last four years. She has used her own experiences to protect and advocate for better policies and services for refugees and displaced persons in Johannesburg and throughout South Africa. Here, Stella shares her story.

What was it like in Zimbabwe when you left in 2007?
In 2007, everything was deteriorating or falling apart. People were hungry and there was no food. The sick could not access medical attention. Inflation was uncontrollable. Under such circumstances you could not avoid discussing the political situation in the country and Mugabe's obsession about the “West” being the cause of all our problems. And I couldn’t keep quiet whenever such conversations came up. I was also working for an international humanitarian organization and doing field work for HIV and AIDS programs, going deep into rural areas and witnessing how people suffered. The rural folks were equally fed up and could not contain their anger anymore. Naturally conversations around these issues could not be avoided. I didn’t know who was amongst us, and I realized too late that I was at risk. One day I got an unannounced visit by men in very dark sunglasses telling me, “Change, or you will be changed.” I knew what “being changed” meant.

Could you describe your arrival in South Africa?
I arrived in South Africa on a visitors' visa. During that period, if you declared your intentions at the border you would either be deported back to Zimbabwe or taken to Lindela Deportation Centre and kept there indefinitely, without access to immigration officials or legal advisors. You would be held until you were deported—unless you were lucky enough to have someone from a civil society organization monitoring the Center there, who would help you to be released to apply for asylum.

My first day to visit a Refugee Reception Centre was such a shock! Security guards were wielding sticks and beating up refugees and asylum seekers trying to access the offices, barring them from accessing the offices unless they paid some bribes. Refugees and asylum seekers were being called all sorts of names, and the place where they had to wait was filthy.

You are a family therapist and social worker by training. Can you talk about your early work and how this may have prepared you for your work in South Africa?
My first job was with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and I worked in a refugee camp. I took time to understand the people I was serving, their pain and what the future looked like for them as they waited impatiently for things to get better in their own country. Working in the health and care department, doing field work and interacting with HIV and AIDS patients and support groups helped me to understand health issues as well as forced migration. Being a refugee or asylum seeker in South Africa also carries a stigma like HIV and AIDS, such that people don’t always declare their status unless they have to.

My previous experiences prepared me to know that no matter where one comes from, our problems and needs as people are the same—as is the blood that flows through our veins. Refugees and asylum seekers are human beings who are forced by circumstances beyond them to flee for their lives.

South Africa has seen a rise in xenophobic attacks in recent years. Have you experienced this personally?
Working for an organization that directly responded to the outbreaks in 2008 gave me firsthand experience. I witnessed people being displaced in masses, individuals being torched, businesses and belongings looted, families separated. The situation was not unlike a war zone, and we have continued to experience this in sporadic ways since then. The issues have not yet been resolved, with some people continuing to be displaced and afraid of returning to their communities for fear of being attacked again.

The government needs to spearhead a campaign to tackle the plight of refugees. They also need to come up with policies on the integration of refugees. And civil society, especially faith-based institutions, could do more in terms of the education and awareness.

You have implemented a “zero tolerance” policy on corruption in your organization, the Refugee Ministries Centre. Can you describe this and how it is working?
There is a lot of opportunism in the refugee sector and people continue to be exploited. Most of our employees are refugees and asylum seekers who have gone through or are going through the system—many of whom have had their rights violated. We use our staff members experiences to our advantage, because we talk about situations they understand very well.

Dealing with corruption is high risk as those involved don’t hesitate to threaten or even harm you. We explain these risks to our teams and inform them that they are only safe if they are not compromised. However, the environment in which they work is highly tempting and encourages opportunism. We don’t compromise the organization’s integrity and its core values. Staff members found guilty of exploiting refugees or asylum seekers are immediately dismissed. This system works well and each staff member watches the other, making it sustainable. We confront anyone or any office that we find violating refugee and asylum seeker rights in any way. The organization has gained respect and confidence from the government and civil society; now, if we have a query, it is deemed genuine and taken seriously.

You still do one-one-counseling for refugees and asylum-seekers that come in to the center. How do you find the time?
Giving people the space to talk is my passion. There is no better place for me to be than in the midst of those who have suffered the same predicament as me—in the hands of dictatorships, or due to wars, genocide and human rights violations. Every refugee’s story is heartbreaking….There is so much satisfaction in putting a smile on the face of someone who has almost given up on life.

We will be honoring Stella at this year's Voices of Courage Luncheon in New York City on May 3rd. Our annual luncheon helps us raise funds that will allow us to continue to work to improve the lives of refugee women and children in need. 

Sexual and Gender-Based Violence