Interview with Yeukai Chideya
Matthew Olckers and the Conversations with Practitioners Working Group
Yeukai Chideya is a social worker with eight years experience at the Trauma Centre for Survivors of Violence and Torture in Cape Town, South Africa. Yeukai also founded the Ruremekedzo Project, a non-profit organisation that delivers emergency packs to women and children facing a humanitarian crisis.
Our MD4SG Conversations with Practitioners working group had the pleasure of interviewing Yeukai. This article shares highlights from the interview for our community of researchers.
The origins of the Trauma Centre
The Trauma Centre originates from an initiative by the Anglican Church in Cape Town, South Africa, to provide accommodation for people who were visiting political prisoners on Robben Island during the Apartheid era.  Many of the prisoners’ loved ones had to travel from other parts of the country and needed somewhere to stay while they visited.
After the end of Apartheid, the Trauma Centre became part of the reconciliation process lead by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and provided counselling to civilians and soldiers impacted by Apartheid. The organisation currently focuses on providing psychosocial services to victims of violence. Common experiences of their clients include exposure to gang violence and armed robberies. The organisation also helps refugees, most of whom have travelled from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, and Zimbabwe.
The challenge of providing support for refugees
In this interview, Yeukai explained the challenges in providing refugees with timely support. Her training focussed on providing counselling, but she soon realised that refugees in South Africa also have other pressing needs.
“As a clinician you want to help refugees psychosocially, so [we] provide counselling. But their first need is ‘I don’t have shelter’, ‘I don’t feel safe’, ‘I don’t have food’. So I had to learn to move from just wanting to provide counselling to start focusing on how to provide the daily needs, and especially safety, because as a clinician that’s not something that we can provide for them. So I had to learn to start partnering with other organisations, like lawyers, learning to speak to other stakeholders, such as the police, to see how we could then provide the safety needs of the refugees.”
The typical experience of a refugee entering South Africa
Most refugees enter South Africa through Limpopo or KwaZulu-Natal where they are granted an asylum seeker permit. The permit only provides limited rights and needs to be renewed every few months. Often refugees don’t have the resources to travel back to their port of entry to renew their permit. Even if they do manage to travel back, Yeukai mentioned that some refugees have been using these permits for as long as 20 years when the process to become legally recognized as a refugee is stalled.
Yeukai explained that a common difficulty to become legally recognized as a refugee is that some refugees don’t feel comfortable sharing the true reason they left their home country at the time they enter South Africa. In one of Yeukai’s examples, a woman who was a victim of rape was not comfortable sharing her experience with a male immigration officer and instead said she fled war in her village. After the war ended she was asked to return to her home country, but since war was not the true reason she fled, she had to appeal her case, which was a difficult process.
Fleeing your home to be met by xenophobia
There are no government initiatives to prepare local South African communities to welcome refugees and many locals are afraid of losing their jobs and resources to the incoming refugees.
“The refugees are already coming from a war-torn country, and they now experience a different type of war, which is xenophobia. Most of the clients that the Trauma Centre would see, they have been attacked, their children have been bullied in school, their shops have been burnt, some have been raped. There hasn’t been any rest in the place where they are supposed to find peace. So I think one of the challenges is that there are not enough programs in South Africa that help communities to accept refugees.”
Opportunities for technology to help refugees in South Africa
Knowing where to go to get the right help is difficult, especially when refugees don’t speak the local languages. Yeukai explained that it would be helpful to have a directory of services in languages spoken by refugees.
“Because you’d find some [refugees] would use their last [bit of money] to come to the Trauma Centre to ask for help, but then we don’t provide such resources. So maybe if there was an app that will show that if you have these challenges, this is where you should go. And this app would need to be in different languages, as not all refugees understand English. So let’s say if it was in Swahili or in French, they could go to this app and then check if I need sexual violence counseling, these are the different organizations that help, if I need to integrate and I need a school for my child, this is where I can go. I think that that would help because sometimes they end up wasting their resources going to the wrong stakeholders.”
Yeukai pointed out that most refugees do not have a smartphone or any kind of mobile phone. Any type of technological solution would need to work within this constraint.
The origins of the Ruremekedzo Project
Yeukai founded the Ruremekedzo Project, a non-profit organisation that delivers packs that contain underwear, sanitary pads, toothpaste, a face towel, and soap to women and children who have been displaced by humanitarian crises. She has led donation drives for refugee camps in Somalia, in response to cyclones in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, and in response to a hurricane in Haiti.
Yeukai focussed on displaced people after an initial donation drive in response to the nationwide xenophobic attacks in April 2015 in South Africa. Yeukai realised that the general public do not have a great understanding of the needs of displaced people. Her donation drive in response to the xenophobic attacks received far less attention than an earlier donation drive for orphanages in Zimbabwe. Yeukai identified a gap where there was great need but little motivation from donors. One of her major challenges has been educating her donor base on the needs of displaced people.
“I still remember when I was doing the Somalia drive, I would get people inboxing me to say ‘If you were doing a donation drive for South Africans I would donate. I don’t understand why you want to help people who are far away in Somalia.’ But it took time. People started trusting me. And also I shared newspaper clips or news that I’d find on the Internet for them to get to realise that it’s not just things that people are talking about. It’s real. So over time I’ve earned the trust of people and they now know that if I’m looking for donations, it’s real cases and helping real people.”
Opportunities for research
Yeukai’s insights raise several research questions. The practical challenge of renewing asylum permits is a major hurdle for refugees (and continued to be even when the government switched to an online system during the COVID-19 lockdown). Are there other mechanisms that fulfil government needs but don’t create a hurdle for refugees? Refugees need to feel safe and integrated into the local communities they join. What are the most effective means to prepare local communities to welcome refugees? Non-profits offer a range of services for refugees, but it can be difficult for refugees to know where to go for each need they have. How can the social services sector provide an accessible directory of social services when most refugees have limited access to the internet or smartphones? Yeukai’s experience starting her own charity showed that donors need to understand the importance of a cause. What is the optimal way for charities to focus their education efforts? How do charities compete for donor funds?
We thank Yeukai for sharing her insights with our Conversations with Practitioners working group. We hope this interview inspires the MD4SG community to dig deeper into the challenges faced by refugees and non-profits in South Africa.
 Robben Island is where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years of his 27 years of imprisonment.