Alexandra Urbanski - Combined Law & Human Rights in South Africa
Stepping into a Realm of Action and Change
Although it has been over a month since I have had to say goodbye to South Africa and the Projects Abroad Human Rights Office “PAHRO”, the memories I have made continue to evade my thoughts and aspirations.
I have shared a wealth of stories with my family and friends, and the endless collection of pictures taken to capture the memories has inevitably exposed them to the plethora of activities, beautiful landscapes and wildlife South Africa has to offer. However, exposing others to the adventures and stories lurking behind the beauty of the South African landscape and its enchanting Table Mountain backdrop has been more challenging.
I have begun to grapple with the notion that perhaps, only in stepping beyond the realm of being a tourist and engaging in the grim realities of refugee camps and human rights, one can actually attain a more revealing picture of South Africa, beyond its scenic and beautifully deceiving forefront.
I could have spent hours reading and trying to learn about xenophobia or refugee camps; however, it was not until I moved outside the confines of the office and into the reality of the Youngsfield Military Base Refugee Camp “Youngsfield”, that I was able to attain a deeper understanding of the issues, and was truly awakened to take action.
From hearing children express their hunger to me, or seeing the atrocious living conditions in the camps, I was injected with a greater understanding of the nation’s apartheid past and its current canvass of xenophobia and segregation. I began to see beyond the “Rainbow” nation, that ironically prides itself on diversity and tolerance, and became attune to the various needs of refugees and a greater need for volunteers and some type of action.
For me, the first course of action came in the form of launching a campaign to raise awareness about the human rights violations plaguing Youngsfield, and raise funds to purchase nappies and milk for young children in the camp. Thanks to the inspiration of the PAHRO supervisor, Theo, along with the unforgettable passion and dedication of my fellow PAHRO team we managed to raise over 500 Rand in one afternoon. The experience opened my eyes to the power of collaboration and dedication. The gratitude and smiles of the mothers and women leaders at the camp that day will never be forgotten, nor will the capacity of simple ideas and enthusiasm and their ability to make a difference.
More cause for action arose in witnessing the young children’s expressions of hunger, sadness, and isolation. The thought that perhaps for one day the children could escape from their dour reality and engage in games, crafts and various activities became the catalyst for organising a Play Day for them.
It is the ever-expanding presence of the PAHRO and the future volunteers that injects me with hope and an ability to propel forward. I have faith that in stepping beyond the confines of the office or the beauty of Table Mountain, they too can attain the desire for change and power to take action against the injustices they witness.
So although I may have returned to a world of certainty, I have not forgotten about the darker world of uncertainty and the memories I have gathered at Youngsfield. Rather, stepping into the foreign world of hardship and grim realities, has granted me the inspiration to move forward with a greater appreciation for the certainty in my own life and a continuous thirst to conquer the injustices I have witnessed.
The Youngsfield Play Day marks the most memorable day for me during my time in South Africa. Managing over 50 young children of various ages, who were not accustomed to any order or structure in their lives proved to be a challenging feat. However, the PAHRO volunteers ploughed forward through the afternoon with smiles and profound enthusiasm for making the day as memorable as possible for the children. The thought of the priceless smiles of the children, or the little girl, Sambia, who attached herself to my back that day serve as a testament to another PAHRO success story- one, which was sparked by a simple idea and the enthusiasm of others ready to transform it into a reality.
Despite the undeniable success of the event, I continue to be haunted by the expressions of the children as we said our goodbyes and left them in the vast, empty field surrounded by wired fences. I realised at that moment, that although I will soon return home, their escape to a better life and conditions is not guaranteed. Rather, they would continue to live in uncertainty, while I would return to certainty.