Ramadhan Mubarak

It is 6:35am and the air is crisp and cool. The trees are silent. Only occasionally the whisper of leaves are heard and a light breeze is gracing the early morning. The morning sky is coloured in pink shaded strokes and the birds sing melodiously…

It’s the last morning before Ramadhan. I cannot believe that time has passed us by so quickly. For me it’s a time to reflect on the past year, since the last Ramadhan. What I have set out to achieve in terms of spirituality and religion and how much progress I have made. Ramadhan is the perfect time to set goals in terms of ibadah, to execute it and to make dua that we can continue it for the rest of the year and ultimately to establish such actions in our lives.

Every Ramadhan, we plan to do a lot in terms of making ibadah. Unfortunately when the month concludes and we look back on it, we realize just how far we fell off the mark on doing what we planned. This year I have decided to make goals for myself and will make a concerted effort towards attaining them, Inshallah. I would definitely like to try and utilize my time more constructively.

Another point, which I would like to mention, is that Ramadhan is supposed to be a time of simplicity. However, I have noticed that what most people tend to do is fast in the day and feast at night. Although Allah hasn’t placed any restrictions on us in terms of how much we eat, I think we should be moderate in that regard. Although I don’t go overboard there are certain times when I feel that I am guilty of that too and I hope to change that this Ramadhan.

There is a sense of excitement in me and I’m looking forward to the next month. The atmosphere of serenity, spiritual closeness to our Creator and in general the beauty of this blessed month…Ramadhan Mubarak;)

Xenophobia in SA- my experience at the shelter camp

The following is an article which I wrote for Islamonline.net, after visiting the shelter camp in Glenanda. Photographs are used with the kind permission of Neil Tandy.

A wave of xenophobic violence broke out in South Africa in May 2008. Images depicting intense violence made international headlines and were splashed across newspapers and television screens.

In the year 1994, South Africa became a democratic country and the government promised to improve the lives of its citizens. It is fourteen years later and the government has failed to deliver what they promised.

Although there have been significant developments in certain parts of South Africa, there are still many South Africans who are living in precariously poor conditions. Clean drinking water, sanitation, and housing are just some of the things that these people still dream of.

Another major problem is that of unemployment, which has led to feelings of frustration. It is believed that this was one of the motivators that led to the xenophobic attacks.

Foreigners from a number of African countries were violently attacked, killed and forced out of their homes. They were accused of snatching jobs from South African citizens and receiving preferential treatment in terms of housing, amongst other grievances. However these brutal attacks cannot be condoned and there is no justification for treating fellow human beings with such hatred and savagery.

According to initial reports in May 25,000 foreigners were left homeless. Camps were set up countrywide for the victims of xenophobic attacks. It was decided that the camps would not be called refugee camps because of the negative connotations of such a name worldwide. Instead it would be referred to as “shelter camps” which would provide foreigners with shelter and food in the interest of their safety.

One of the camps was set up in a place not far from home. I got a call from an old friend, asking if I would like to assist them at the camp, and I agreed to go without hesitation.

Visiting the Camp

The camp, set up in Glenanda is approximately ten minutes from my home. I was surprised at how close it was. An area of land that previously went unnoticed is now a temporary shelter for approximately 2000 foreigners.

Most of the people are from other African countries, such as the Congo, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Burundi, Zambia and others.

It was a cold Thursday morning when we first visited the shelter camp. The area was fenced off and on entering the camp we had to produce identification. As we drove in I looked around curiously. There were people standing in droves, as well as officials, policemen, volunteers from the Red Cross Association, a few journalists and some other unknown people.

We were taken through an area that was demarcated for the storage of goods, as well as for other purposes. Shipping containers were utilized to house the food and other amenities that were coming in.

In one corner a small tent was set up. A camera was mounted on a tripod, with a guy busy at work behind it. We were introduced to a few people on the way and a security guard granted us access to the other section of the camp.

We walked alongside tents, white in color, shaped like cylinders divided longitudinally. These tents now serve as a shelter for those left homeless after the outbreak of xenophobic attacks.

The ground was hard and uneven, making it difficult to walk across at certain parts. The tents have been erected upon these same grounds and on introspection I realized what discomfort the occupants probably feel.

A good night’s sleep is something of the past given their sleeping arrangements, coupled with the cold bite of winter nights. Fortunately various organizations and people have donated blankets, although we were not sure if there was enough for everyone.

Occupants of the tents engaged themselves in a range of everyday activities, such as doing laundry and cooking on small fires. Many of the foreigners wandered around aimlessly, some huddled in groups and others stood at the border of the camp looking forlornly at the outside.

Despite their circumstances, some people still greeted us with warm smiles as we made our way towards two more contemporary looking tents, which served as a playschool for the kids.

Interacting With the Children

I didn’t know what to expect from the children and on entering the tent, I was overwhelmed at the enthusiastic welcome we received. Some waved, others smiled and there were a number of them who eagerly grabbed on to me, wanting to be hugged and acknowledged.

For a few minutes I was taken aback and needed some time to gain my bearings and adjust to the noisy and playful atmosphere.

The children sat in groups and sang nursery rhymes, and clapped their hands enthusiastically. It became apparent which kids were the confident ones, practically jumping out of their chairs to answer any question asked by the volunteers.

We then went to retrieve stationery, paper and coloring books from another shipping container, which was conveniently situated next to the tents.

The children excitedly started drawing or coloring and were soon completely engrossed in their artwork. Many of them would try to get our attention to show us their masterpieces. Despite what some of them have been through and the fact that their lives came to such an abrupt halt, their drawings depicted positive, rather than negatives images.

It is amazing to see what talent some of the children possess. They are so young, yet it is evident that they have been blessed. A young boy, named Ben, drew one picture, which I remember particularly well. His subject was Spiderman, and for a boy of his age I would say that his picture was drawn almost to perfection. It seems that luck was on his side, since he found a rare tube of glitter amid the heap of donated stationery and he used this to decorate the torso. A work of art indeed! He was clearly very satisfied with his creation.

Although the majority of the children appear to be happy, there are some whose eyes revealed a different story. Perhaps most of them are too young to understand their circumstances. The older children are much more aware of what is happening and therefore their occasional anger and aggressive behavior can be understood.

Some of the donations was used to purchase plastic tables and chairs for the children. Puzzles, toys, books and some basic sports’ equipment were also purchased. Before the children were dismissed, biscuits and juice were handed out to them.

Following their dismissal, they went outside and engaged in a variety of sports’ activities. A similar procedure is followed daily, depending on the circumstances. Currently, a Muslim Women’s Forum from the community manages the playschool, but at times there are people from other organizations who come in to assist. The playschool is an ideal way to keep the children stimulated and occupied, even though it only lasts a few hours every day.

Candles of Faith

Not far from the border of the camp, a fairly large tent has been erected which serves as a place of worship for Muslims. I got the opportunity of praying there one afternoon. The tent is equipped with prayer mats and a number of Qu`rans. Although there is no running water, the occupants have filled containers of water and have placed them next to the tent for the purpose of wudu’.

While I was there a man melodiously called out the call to prayer. For those few minutes I was captivated by the beauty of it and derived an unusual sense of tranquility. Not long after I saw men approaching the tent, water bottles in hand preparing themselves for prayer.

I was surprised at the number of Muslims in the camp. The women were clearly identifiable, proudly wearing their hijab. Both men and women greeted us in the most respectable manner.

One afternoon, while assisting with the children I came across two brothers, Yahya and Osama. Yahya looked about six years old and his brother was much younger. Upon careful inspection of Yahya’s picture that he drew, I noticed something that looked vaguely like Arabic writing.

I bent down to inspect further and asked him if it was indeed Arabic. He told me that he used to attend madrasa, but does not go any longer. We conversed for some time after that and I asked him if he knew Surah Fatihah, and he recited it for me.

His rendition was perfect, reciting the translation as well. I was touched by his enthusiasm and at the same time I was proud to know that Islam was very much alive, even among the younger ones.

There are many other Islamic organizations that also visit the camp and at times conduct prayers with the occupants. In dismal times, when it seems that there is no hope the one thing that we can do is hold onto faith and prayer, irrespective of which religion we follow.

Looking to the Future

The future looks bleak for many of the victims of xenophobia. While there are some who have returned to their home countries, there are others who refuse to consider that option.

Stephanie from Zambia said, “We can’t go back there. My father was involved in politics and there were people who threatened to kill him. We then fled our country and came to South Africa. If we go back, both him and my brother will be killed.”

The government is currently working on a program in an effort to reintegrate the foreigners into the communities they previously resided in. However, displaced foreigners say they are not ready to return to the communities from which they were driven.

Sabcnews.com reports that a migration analyst at the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, Vincent Williams, says re-integration of foreigners is not just about returning them to the communities from which they were displaced.

Williams says that the root cause of the xenophobic attacks, which led to the displacement needs to be dealt with first. He says if this is not done, there are likely to be more problems in the future.

Although the journey ahead may seem interminable, there are stories of successful integration, which leaves us with a glimmer of hope. Paarl, which is situated 60km from Cape Town, is one such example.

At the end of May, after a concentrated effort by local officials and community leaders, 430 foreign nationals that had fled their homes were peacefully returned to their communities. Just 20 people remained at a camp set up in the nearby town of Wellington, waiting for documents that would allow them to return to their native Zimbabwe.

The future of the victims of xenophobia seems uncertain. The camps cannot exist indefinitely as it is a very unstable situation for the people sheltered in there and also for the children, who are at a crucial starting point of their lives.

Although it may appear to be daunting, in order to make progress, these people will have to return to their homes, either to their communities here in South Africa or to their native countries. We can only hope and pray that effective measures are put in place to stabilize the situation.

Heartbeats

Two funerals took place, exactly one week apart. Last week Wednesday my granny, (in essence my step-granny, but saying it out aloud wouldn’t be very acceptable) and this week the death of my mother’s uncle. One thing, which is clearly evident, is that irrespective of your age, parents play one of the most pivotal roles in our lives. They are a special light that burns brightly in our lives, a light that we never want to be extinguished. Unfortunately, the cycle of life must continue and in the process it is inevitable that we will lose our beloved parents some day.
My mother’s uncle passed away from cancer. He suffered for many years and most people say that he is now in a better place. The ones who truly suffer I believe are those who are left behind in this world, the loved ones who mourn the loss of the deceased. Even though we may try to find contentment in the hope that the world they pass over to is a place of bliss and completely free on pain, it doesn’t lessen the pain and the heartache of the loss experienced.
Whether by choice or genetic make-up (I’m still not sure), it is unfortunate that I have inherited the “bottle-it-in” syndrome. No matter what affects me or how sad or depressed I may feel, I find it difficult to shed any tears. There is no doubt however, that deep within I am inflicted with pain. Pain, that I cannot show to the world. I know at times I appear to be very strong and perhaps hard-hearted, but in reality I feel exactly what everyone else does. The only difference is the way in which I deal with it. For anyone else who is also affected by the “bottle-it-in” syndrome, you would know that there are definitely more disadvantages than advantages in being this way. Pent up anger, frustration, sadness and other emotions can suddenly explode at the most inconvenient times, often triggered by something small and insignificant. What follows can be likened to a river bursting its banks with absolutely no control over the water.
Although I didn’t cry much yesterday, there was a short while when I felt extremely emotional and was deeply saddened. It is my aunty Rhugtaz’s father who passed away. She is one of the most special people in my life and takes the place of a sister in my mother’s life, a second mother to us. When my mother and aunty embraced each other, they lapsed into in moment of uncontrollable sobs. It was this that caused me to cry as well. Watching two people that I love with such intensity and just seeing them like that really made me feel emotional. I burst into tears and wished that there was something I could do, but at the same time knew that I was helpless.
What hurts more than anything else is seeing the people that you love in pain. Knowing that their happiness in not in your control. We can support them and love them endlessly, but it doesn’t change their circumstances. Right now I know that mummy is falling into a depression. I can see it in her eyes and hear it in her voice. She feels the pain for her sister. And when I look at mummy, when I see her in that state my heart cries for her. Love is truly something special, an intangible bond that connects us in ways we cannot understand…my heart is crying for my loved ones. And I know that the only thing I can do is pray for them, support them and love them everyday, in every possible way.