Hi everyone, I am Eric. I am trying to raise money to help a dear friend cover the expenses involved in applying for permanent residency in the Republic of South Africa. Achieving this goal would bring to an end a 26-year long journey of incredible hardship and pain, which moved me the first time I heard it. There is a lot to tell, so I apologise in advance for the extremely long read. Please if you have time, read his story.
On a random day last year I called an Uber to take me to Canal Walk shopping center in Cape Town, after I dropped my car at a dealership for a service. I was picked up by a friendly and endearing driver, called Dimos Kuranijo. This is not his real name, but I will explain later why I have to use a pseudonym and why I have to blur his face in the photo. While we were driving, we started to make small-talk and eventually we got onto the topic of where Dimos was from. I could hear Dimos was not native to South Africa. Dimos told me that he was born in Burundi. I asked him if he still travels there to visit his family, to which he replied “no”. He explained that his family is scattered all over the world, from Norway, to the USA, to Tanzania, and that he hasn’t seen his parents and siblings in many years, in some cases more than a decade. I found this a strange answer and, as we were pulling to a stop at my destination, I asked Dimos why he has never travelled to visit his family. It was none of my business to ask him that, looking back, but what followed, was a story so incredibly sad, it took almost an hour for him to explain it to me and it had us both in tears by the end. I will now try tell you the story of how Dimos ended up in Cape Town that day.
Dimos was born in Burundi in 1971 to loving parents from the Hutu tribe. When he was less than two years old, the Army (which was controlled by the Tutsi-tribe), committed a genocide of the Hutu tribe, during which an estimated 100,000 people were murdered. His parents survived, but were forced to flee the country, and they managed to escape to neighbouring Rwanda. Here Dimos grew up and lived as a refugee until his early 20s. In 1993, the first democratically president was elected in Burundi, and Dimos and his family felt it was finally safe to return back home.
A few months after returning to Burundi, the new president was assassinated by the Army in a coup d'etat. A lot of people fled the country again, believing that the tribal violence would resurface. Dimos, however, believed this to be unlikely and decided to stay in Burundi to study as a primary school teacher. During this time he met a woman, and some months later they got married. However, this woman was not from his own Hutu tribe, but was from the Tutsi tribe. In context of the tribal warfare of the previous decades, this relationship was deeply frowned upon, and extremely unpopular with many of his friends and family. Within months, as the situation in Burundi deteriorated and tribal animosity heightened once more, people from his own town started to pressure Dimos to divorce his wife.
Dimos achieved his diploma to become a teacher during this time, and took a job a few miles from his home, to which he traveled by bicycle. By this time his wife was still living with him, but she could not leave the house during the day, afraid of being harassed or assaulted. Things were getting progressively worse. One day, during that summer, a group of men confronted Dimos at his home and told him that he needed to divorce his wife, or that they would kill her. They threatened that if he tried to stop them, they would kill him too. Dimos spoke to his wife that evening, tearfully suggesting that she may need to leave for her own safety, but they decided that they would not leave each other. Dimos told his wife to hide in the house from that point forward, not to open the door for anyone and never to come out. He would tell people that he divorced her and that she left.
Dimos and his wife lived like this for about two weeks until one day, when he returned home from school, he found the front door of his home kicked down. Inside Dimos found his wife, unconscious and bleeding on the floor. She had been superficially cut with a knife and raped badly by several men. Dimos was in a complete state of shock, and desperately tried to wake his wife. He covered her wounds and gave her water, after which she started to wake up. She was unable to speak at first, and he carried her to their bed where he continued to treat her. Within the same hour, the men returned. They told him that he was pathetic and meaningless and that they could do whatever they wanted to with his wife. Dimos knew he could do nothing; the police were controlled by Tutsis and men from his own tribe is out to murder his wife. The men told Dimos that they do not want to kill him, since he is a teacher in the community, but that they are there to kill his wife. Dimos, hysterical with fear, begged them not to do it. The men offered Dimos the opportunity to do it himself, but promised that she will be killed. As a last resort, Dimos accepted their offer in a bid to buy time, and promised that he would kill her that evening, as they demanded. The men left a hand-grenade on the table, instructing him to take her to the woods and throw the grenade at her. They promised that when they return in the morning and she was not dead, they would do it. When the men left, Dimos saw in his wife’s eyes total fear for him. This was one of the most painful things he ever experienced - seeing his wife look at him with terror in her eyes, convinced he would kill her. It took an hour for Dimos to convince his wife that he would not kill her. That night, with no options left, Dimos waited until 2AM and placed his wife on blankets in the trunk of their old Toyota Corolla. He arranged a few spare tyres and empty crates from his garage in front of her, to obscure her from view.
Dimos left town in the middle of the night, with all the money he had and headed towards the capital Bujumbura, 50 miles away. He had no idea how they would live or what they would do there. Bujumbura was a Tutsi controlled city, where he would be at risk, but his wife would be safe. To get there, Dimos knew he would need to pass through various roadside checkpoints, which were manned by Hutu rebels in order to block Tutsis from entering his tribal area. Dimos purposely left their passports behind, as he couldn’t risk being identified. As he suspected, Dimos was stopped at a roadblock half an hour into the journey, but the Hutu rebels let him pass through with no issue, since he was Hutu. Soon after Dimos was stopped again, and two rebels wanted to search the vehicle. He explained that he was in a hurry to reach a dying relative, and handed over all his money in order to bribe the rebels to let him through without searching the car. Dimos and his wife arrived in Bujumbura that night. Dimos parked the car in a deserted area, where no one would see them. Luckily it was raining and nobody was outside. Dimos was desperate to speak to his wife and to check on her welfare after the journey. Dimos and his wife sat in the car for an hour, holding each other and talking. Dimos suggested that they should part, that she would be safe in the capital. But she refused and suggested they sell the car to travel to Tanzania.
The next morning, Dimos managed to sell the car to a local man for an amount of 22,000 Frank. They took a minibus taxi from Bujumbura to Makamba Province, close to the Tanzanian border. Here, after asking around, they paid 18,000 Frank to a truck driver who was a known smuggler in the area. The man, and others like him, paid off Tanzanian border guards to let people and goods through in their trucks. The next day, Dimos and his wife arrived in Kigoma, Tanzania and entered a refugee camp there. At this point, Dimos’ family was still in Burundi, and didn’t know where Dimos went, nor were they able to contact each other. Dimos would learn later that his family was harassed by the same people for weeks. The men believed that his family was hiding Dimos and his wife. His father was given an ultimatum to reveal their whereabouts or they would be killed. At that point his family also fled from Burundi, and 5 months after Dimos first arrived at the refugee camp in Tanzania, his family arrived at the same camp by pure coincidence. Everyone was extremely overjoyed to see each other. The family lived at the camp for roughly one year, while an increasing numbers of Burundians arrived at the camp, fleeing the violence in Burundi.
Then one day, his wife runs up to him in a panic, and tells Dimos that she is almost sure that she saw one of her rapists in the camp. The possibility of this was terrifying and Dimos discussed the situation with his father, who told him that he and his wife needed to leave the camp immediately to be safe. Dimos sold his food token, and that of his father, in order to raise money to get him and his wife transport fare to Malawi. They said farewell to their family, who promised to follow when they could, and Dimos and his wife left for the Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi . This was early 1999. They would end up staying there for the next two years.
The conditions at this camp were truly atrocious, they would discover. Corruption among the camps administrators were rife. Food aid, sent by UN, were being sold for profit on the black market, while old, rotten tin-food and maize were distributed to the refugees in the camp. Dimos’ family arrived at the Dzaleka camp a year and a half after Dimos and his wife first arrived. Food was in short supply, mostly rotten and guards quelled demonstrations through beatings. Camp administrators also prevented refugees from sending letters from the camp, limiting their ability to communicate. The conditions at the camp became so bad that groups of refugees started to plan a revolt for the 20th of June, 2000, a day on which dignitaries from the UN were supposed to visit the camp for "Refugee Day". Dimos was among members of this group, and they planned to hand a letter to the UN ambassador to the camp during his speech. Achieving this would be difficult, because guards were everywhere and retribution afterwards could be severe. The group wrote 60 copies of the same letter, which revealed the conditions in the camp. Twelve members from the group were each given multiple copies of this letter, and they dispersed through the crowd on the day of the visit. During the speech by the ambassador, different members of the group raised placards with titles such as “Rotten food, corruption” in the crowd. This created some unrest, and resulted in camp guards entering the crowd to take the placards down. During this distraction, multiple of the members with the letters approached the stage from different directions and threw them toward the stage. One member was able to hand a letter to the UN ambassador in person. The ambassador read the letter and immediately left.
In the days that followed, many of the members involved in this protest were severely punished. The camp administrators could not kill them, because their names appeared in the letter, but the camp administration witheld food from those involved, forced them to work for no pay and beat the men for the smallest infraction. Dimos survived during this time by receiving food from his family, who still had a token each, but was continually threatened with his life. Dimos decided to quit the camp and to flee to South Africa with his wife. Leaving his family, again, Dimos and his wife hiked through Malawi and arrived in South Africa at the end of 2000.
It was only after arriving in Cape Town, South Africa and settling in Phillipi township, that Dimos heard news from his family. He learned that, shortly after he left Malawi, the UN sent a delegation to the camp to investigate the corruption and hold a sensus. The sensus proved that the camp administrators lied about the number of people in the camp in order to receive additional aid from the UN, which was sold for profit. The UN dismissed many members of the camp’s administration and identified refugees who took part in the protest, and were at risk of violent retribution by the hands people at the camp sympathetic to those who were removed from their posts. Some members of Dimos’ family were among those identified for relocation to host countries. His father, mother, one brother and four sisters were relocated to Norway, while another brother and sister were later relocated to the USA. Two more brothers and two sisters left the camp and settled in Tanzania, and finally moved back to Burundi. (It is for this reason that I am using a pseudonym, so that this online post does not attract attention to the family name.)
During the early 2000’s, Dimos lived in the township and survived by doing “car guard” work at the Kenilworth Center. At this job Dimos earned R30 ($2) per day, sometimes less. His wife had no job at this time, and suffered from a back injury, after falling carrying a barrel of water. In 2003, Dimos and his wife gave birth to their son. In 2006, South Africa was plagued by a period of violent Xenophobic unrest, where non-natives were targeted by locals in townships. Dimos and his wife stayed indoors as much as possible, and at work he didn’t speak, trying his best to present himself as a local. One day, returning from a shop, Dimos was ambushed in front of his tin-shack home. A group of men beat him to a pulp with their fists, while wielding a knife. Another group of men approached and deterred the attackers. A man from this group grabbed Dimos by the throat and said to him that they saved his life, that he and his family must leave the township. The men then proceeded to loot everything in his home, including his fridge, clothes and money.
Again Dimos and his family left with nothing, fleeing the Xenophobic violence in the township. This time they hiked to Maitland, and was able to stay with a man Dimos knew from his car guard job. A few weeks later Dimos found a job as an Uber driver, and his wife found a job packing boxes in a warehouse in Tableview, despite her bad back. After a few months, Dimos was able to rent a small flat in Tableview, to be closer to his wife’s work. And it was here, still in Tableview, where Dimos picked me up on that day last year.
By the time Dimos got to this part of the story, we were both in tears and have been sitting in the parking lot for an hour. It is difficult for me to include all the details, the emotion is his face when he told me some of these experiences, in a writeup like this. Dimos explained that he can’t visit his family, not only because of financial constraints, but because he is still technically still a refugee, and that refugees can’t obtain travel documents before becoming a permanent resident first. I asked him if he is trying to obtain his residency. Dimos he explained that he has essentially given up. He has tried for ten years to obtain residency, but has failed at the first step every time, which is to obtain certain required clearance forms from the Refugee Office in Cape Town, before an application can be made at Home Affairs. (I would find out later, personally, what a seemingly corrupt and mismanaged place the Refugee Office, like many state institutions in South Africa, is. Dimos told me that he and his wife ate cheap cereal three times a day, for 5 months, to save up enough money to pay a “lawyer” who promised to get their paperwork through at the Refugee Office. This charlatan disappeared with their money.
It was at this moment that my phone rang. Work. I greeted Dimos, apologised for delaying him, took his number and told him that I would see if I could do anything with regard to his residency application. I walked into Canal Walk shopping center and sat down at a restaurant, where I intended to work on my laptop until my car’s service was was finished. But I couldn’t concentrate on anything. Every problem and hardship I thought I faced in my life seemed so completely trivial compared to what I just heard. I phoned up my sister-in-law, who happens to be an attorney, and told her the story. Amazingly she offered to help pro-bono. A few weeks later we visited the Refugees Office in Cape Town ourselves. The building was (and still is) dilapidated and dirty, understaffed and mismanaged. On the day we visited, the security company who needs to control the crowd of refugee applicants outside the building, didn’t pitch up for work, which resulted in the staff locking the steel gates in front every entrance, fearing that they could be overrun. My sister-in-law managed to get us inside by using the “lawyer card” and after hours of waiting we finally stood in the “office” of a person who sat in front of an old computer. She looked up the long-lost application of Dimos, and discovered that it is still in the system, but that the physical paperwork needed to be requested from Johannesburg where it was collecting dust. A few weeks later, after some continued pressure, the paperwork arrived and Dimo finally had the paperwork in his hand he has been struggling to get for a decade. It felt surreal.
This brings me to this fundraiser. The last step in this journey is for Dimos to apply for permanent residency at Home Affairs. This application, and all the components which form part of it, costs around R1400 ($91) per person. A medical clearance, which includes a chest x-ray, is also required, which costs about R1000 ($65) per person. In total I’m trying to raise around R8000 ($520) to help Dimos and his family achieve this final goal, which would open so many doors for them, including finding better work and being able to travel. Dimos is a wonderful, humble and hard working man, who has suffered more in his life than I could ever imagine. He has become a good friend of mine. If you can, even in the smallest way, please help Dimos find a home in South Africa, by helping him fund the residency application for him and his family.