EPGO II: Enterprising refugee women in South Africa

Photo: Irene Galera / JRS ©

‘I didn’t work for three years,’ Joy Opara says, mother to five children and a refugee from Nigeria who has been living in South Africa for nine years. Joy worked as a street trader with her husband, but they could not pay for the license. ‘It is hard for me to feed my children, to pay the bills and the school fees. It’s a painful situation.’ Joy decided to change her situation and joined the training taught by the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS); now she is only another student in the centre beauty lessons.

It is hard for me to feed my children, to pay the bills and the school fees. It’s a painful situation’,  Joy Opara says

The Arrupe Professional Training Centre for women of the JRS is located in Johannesburg. It is a place which offers vocational training to refugees, asylum applicants and local women. Students can attend hairdressing, beauty, computer science and English lessons, which are some of the economic activities working more easily in the local market. This training is also offered by Loyola Centre in Pretoria. ‘The aim is to teach the needed skills for them to be self-sufficient and to get an employment,’ Tereda van Heerden affirms, who is the manager of both centres. Some participants even run their own new businesses, which creates new work opportunities for the local community as well. Entreculturas and Inditex, we both support the work of JRS in the Educate People, Generate Opportunities II (EPGO II) programme framework, facilitating women to undertake their own businesses when they finish their training.  For this purpose, we offer them kits with tools and materials, we help them to solve the procedures of their paperwork and we support their projects both financially and logistically.’

‘The aim is to teach the needed skills for them to be self-sufficient and to get an employment’, Tereda van Heerden affirms

‘Women go throug fire and water,’ Ofentse explains, a make-up teacher. ‘The main challenge my students have to deal with is to look at themselves and find their bravery. You have to stress that it’s worth it to put into practice their skills, to be out there, to do new things,’ she underlines.  Education is therefore seen as an essential means to integrate women within the community. On the one hand, education facilitates the learning of the needed skills for having a job. On the other hand, education on the knowledge of their rights allow them to claim their rights.

In spite of the efforts to achieve social and working inclusion of these women, many of them can take even years to get sustainable living conditions. Mujinga Tsuibwabwa Didi, a hairdresser trained  at JRS, has been waiting for more than ten years to obtain the refugee status. ‘Studying is something important, staying home doesn’t help,’ Mujinga tells us. She as an example brings to light the pressure that these women are submitted to, who have some limitations to access the labour market because of their asylum applicant status.

Vanessa Wanzio, although she has been a receptionist at a South African hotel, she could neither find a job during the last three years. ‘I want to run my own manicure, massages and make-up business,’ she explains. ‘It’s very hard because South Africans go first.’ Vanessa appreciates the importance of discussion and the support of the community which reinforce the skills Centre for women in Arrupe, since it allows her to share the issues that she, her classmates and other women faces.

Thato Masuku, a social worker, describes the work they do in this way: ‘This [Arrupe] is a development centre, we don’t give them the skills alone. We give them the empowerment tools: workshops, how to run a new business, health, hygiene, group counselling to get trained with their partners… We help them to realise who they really are and to be self-sufficient.’ At the end of the day, the ultimate objective is to accompany women at risk of social exclusion during the achievement of a decent and sustainable life.

‘The main challenge my students have to deal with is to look at themselves and find their bravery. You have to stress that it’s worth it to put into practice their skills, to be out there, to do new things’, Ofentse explains