"Why did you leave your home country?"

My first day of work was riddled with uncertainty.  Uncertainty about where exactly to go, uncertainty about my co-workers, uncertainty about what I was doing.  But despite the unknown, I ventured forward.  I got up at 7:30 am, ate my breakfast, showered, and got to the train station by 8:20am to catch the 8:38 train.  After purchasing my ticket, I waited for the train.  I looked at my watch, 8:40, no train.  I checked again, 8:45 no train.  Finally, at about 8:48, the train arrived.  Nervous about being late, I boarded the train and rode the four stops to Wynberg station.  After disembarking, I made it work at 8:59, which while not ideal (“If you are not ten minutes early, you are five minutes late.”) I did technically make it on time.

Then, I climbed the flight of stairs to the upstairs office of PASSOP, where the office managers, Tendai and Nonki, greeted me.  Introduced myself and they took me to the intern co-coordinator, Langton, who said, “You must be John!”  After a whirlwind introduction to the staff, another of the paralegal officers, Bernard, explained what to look for on the South African Temporary Asylum Permits and how to fill out the PASSOP client sheet.  With this brief introduction, I plunged head first into client statements.  Besides filling out the basic information about each I client, I was to take client statements and ask, “Why did you leave your home country?” and “Why can you not return?” 

During the unusually busy Monday, I took statements from Zimbabweans, Congolese (from both the DRC and Congo-Brazzaville), Malawians, Somalis, and Burundians.  Each successive interview was more jaw dropping than the last.  Clients explained how they were beaten, threatened, raped, wrongfully jailed, and chased from their countries without blinking an eye.  What these people had experienced the western world only sees in movies, yet they had lived it.  Besides each client’s horrific story of political oppression, what struck me was the extreme gratitude that each client conveyed both through how they carried themselves but also through the simple, “Thank you.”  The clients seemed instantly relieved that someone was willing to listen and to hear their voice.

My first day on the job was an eye-opening experience for me.  The barbaric tales of dictators in nearby countries shocked my conscious and it was surreal to put faces to the horror that one hears about on the news.  It was awe-inspiring to sit face-to-face with people who were brave enough to stand up to a dictator and protest authoritarian governments.