The moment Adolf Rubango realized he couldn’t stay in South Africa forever was not when a customer in his Durban barbershop refused to pay him, nor when the man told him why. “Kwerekwere (You dirty foreigner),” he spat. “This country doesn’t belong to you.”
It wasn’t when he saw the glint of metal in the man’s hand or when he felt the knife twist deep into his abdomen.
The moment came when he stumbled up to the admissions desk at the local hospital.
“We’re busy,” a nurse told the Congolese migrant. “It would have been easier if you had just died.”
That was May 2008, a month when xenophobic violence crashed over Nelson Mandela’s rainbow nation with frenetic energy, eventually leaving more than 60 dead and tens of thousands displaced. But most of those who fled — including Mr. Rubango — eventually returned, having nowhere else to go.
But earlier this year, when he was stabbed again in his barbershop, Rubango decided to make good on his promise.
“What I ran from in Congo is exactly what I found here,” he says. “I won’t go back to that.”
That’s how he — along with 137 others — ended up here, in a makeshift tent camp on a farm clinging to a steep hillside near the eastern city of Durban. Of the 10,000 foreigners who fled their homes to escape xenophobic violence across South Africa earlier this year, this small group from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi are perhaps the most vexing cases — they cannot be returned to their war-torn homelands and refuse to reintegrate into an adopted country that seems relentlessly intent on spitting them back out.
Their story, like that of the hundreds of thousands of refugees braving leaky rafts and unscrupulous smugglers to make it to Europe this summer, conjures up a vision of humanity at its worst: divided, desperate, and unwelcoming.
But on the margins of that story is another, a rising global narrative of individuals who have refused to accept government hand-wringing and tedious diplomatic negotiations on questions of migration, and instead have charted their own path. In Berlin, one couple recently launched an AirBnB-style website to connect people with empty rooms to refugees who need them. In Malta, a donor-funded boat trawls the seas looking for migrants crossing in unsafe vessels. And here in South Africa, where the government repatriated 15,000 undocumented foreigners between April and July alone, a duo of self-proclaimed “redneck farmers,” Rae and Andrew Wartnaby, decided they couldn’t leave a group of migrants out in the cold.
“It was like they were being punished for having survived,” says Rae, who invited Rubango and the others to stay with her family two months ago, almost on a whim.
Birth of a tent city
Initially, the Wartnabys had watched the violent attacks against foreigners from a distance. In many ways, the images were nothing new. South Africa has more than 330,000 refugees and asylum seekers, according to the UN, and in a land of widening inequality and joblessness, violence against them flares and fizzles with almost seasonal regularity. But this felt different. In April alone, at least seven people died.
At first, the couple envisioned helping on a small scale — perhaps, they thought, they could make room for one refugee family to come stay on their farm until they could get back on their feet.
That plan changed overnight. On June 30, police announced they were closing the last of the camps set up in Durban to temporarily house migrants driven from their homes. Those who remained faced a stark choice: take R2000 ($150) and reintegrate, or go back to their home countries.
“It wasn’t really a choice,” says Margaret Simba, who fled the eastern Congo in 2006 after escaping from a militia who first murdered her parents in front of her, then kidnapped her to be their sex slave. “I can’t return to my own country, but I also can’t stay here. It will never be safe for us.”
So when the police razed the camp, she stayed put. For two nights, she and her husband, along with more than 100 others, slept outside, praying and waiting.
On the third day, the police returned.
“They said you have five minutes to go, and suddenly the police were grabbing us, beating us,” says Vital Nshimirimana. His infant daughter, Hosanna, was pulled from her mother’s arms and, with the other children in the group, taken into protective state custody. The adults, meanwhile, were carted off to jail, told vaguely that they were to be charged with “illegal camping.”
For the Wartnabys, who have spent most of their adult lives working with orphans, the penny suddenly dropped.
“We realized they would never get their kids back if they were effectively homeless,” Andrew says. “So we said, ok, fine, let’s bring them here.”
Three days later, police dropped almost 150 people on their doorstep, and the tent city was born.
Searching for safety
If that sounds like chaos, however, a bit of pandemonium is par for the course in the Wartnaby household. The family has 11 children – nine of them adopted – and a brood of animals.
What the family wasn’t prepared for, however, was the reaction by local government. A month after the refugees arrived, the Wartnabys were served with a blunt notice from municipal authorities: evict their guests or fork over a steep fine.
“They told us we’re using agricultural land and buildings for non-agricultural purposes,” Andrew says. “Of course, we have no intention of listening to that.”
Instead, he says, the family and their lawyers are focused on a different task: to find another country that will take in the refugees.
“We’re so grateful to be here, but we still know South Africa isn’t a place where we can make our lives,” says Mr. Nshimirimana, who fled Burundi after watching his Tutsi father murdered for having married his Hutu mother.
For him, South Africa was supposed to be a place where he could start over. And for a time it was. He got his refugee papers, married a Congolese woman from his church, and found work as a driver for a local pizza chain.
But there were always cracks around the edges of that life — a vicious attack in 2007 that broke several bones in his face, the persistent, grating indignity of being turned away from shops, buses, and hospitals for not speaking the local language, then another assault earlier this year.
Nshimirimana says he doesn’t care where his family goes next, “as long as it’s somewhere safe,” somewhere, he says, where he and his wife can work, his daughter can go to school, and their days won’t slide away unused as they seem to now.
As for the Wartnabys, they say they’ll keep the families at their farm for as long as it takes to find them a permanent home.
In the meantime, “life goes on,” says Andrew, laughing. “Well, sort of.”