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A Refugee's Quiet Dignity

A Zimbabwean pastor waits warily after South Africa's riots.

Meet Joel N. He is one face of the 19,000 foreigners who have been displaced by the recent riots in South Africa.

He is not the face, thankfully, of one of the 62 who have been killed. Neither is he the face of those victims seething with rage — like Abdul Jama, 32, a Somali father of two who told a local reporter:

I left Mogadishu in 2005 to open a shop in Orange Farm, in Johannesburg. They shoot my partner. They kill him. Then I come to Khayelitsha [an informal settlement outside of Cape Town]. They chase me here. South African government does nothing. F*** government. F*** South Africa. Government say sorry? F*** sorry. Only two things. We go home. Or we go other country. America. Or Australia. South Africa? F*** it. Now is finished here. We're not stay here. F*** South African people.

Joel N is not angry, partly because he has not had any friends killed, and partly because he is a Christian whose faith appears to be a solid rock in a crashing sea of violence and unrest. He spoke to me in calm, measured tones, a man of quiet dignity, one who knows who he is and what he is about — even though it remains very unclear what the next few weeks and months hold for him.

I spoke with him in a community hall in a northern suburb of Cape Town. A few nights earlier, refugees from a local settlement, De Noon, packed the hall. The room where the men slept is the size of two basketball courts. Rolled-up sleeping bags, blankets, and piles of clothes line the walls — indicating the presence now of only 40 or 50 men, most of whom were gone for the day looking for work. Joel already had a job (in pebble paving), and had the day off.

"When we came here, we found [South African] friends, people who called us friends. … They gave us accommodations, they laughed with us," he says. "But now — how did it happen immediately? — just suddenly, they all rose against us. How will you again trust such a person and stay close to him again?"

Joel arrived here with his brothers, leaving a wife and four children (ages 12, 8, 4, and 2) in Zimbabwe. He had been a traveling evangelist of the Voice of Miracles Church, based in Zambia, preaching in Uganda, Kenya, and Zimbabwe, supporting his travels with a second job in construction. When he discovered a church of some 15 souls without a pastor, he began ministering there, and he brought attendance up to over 100 in 16 months. Still it wasn't enough.

"I am a man of a family," he says. "I've got my wife and I've got four children. So they are always looking up to me, as [are] the spiritual children. Sometimes you can feed the spiritual children but the physical children need something."

When supporters of Robert Mugabe started to make life violently uncomfortable for the political opposition, life became dangerous for Joel. For his own safety and for the financial sake of his family, he sojourned to South Africa four months ago.

But two weeks ago, he and his friends began hearing reports of xenophobic riots in Johannesburg. Native South Africans were complaining that foreigners were taking their jobs and "stealing their wives." Anyone they ran across who spoke with a foreign accent was subject to a beating, burning, or on-the-spot execution.

Last week, the violence spread to "settlements" (which in the U.S. would be called slums or shantytowns), surrounding Cape Town. In De Noon, South Africans began looting the stores of Somalis, and rumors flew that they were planning to target Zimbabweans next. Joel and friends headed for Cape Town, where the local government had opened a race track as a sanctuary.

From there, the refugees were transferred to community halls and other stations, where churches and independent volunteers flocked to meet the desperate needs for food and clothing. I've met a man who is using his vacation days to volunteer, and a couple who took a refugee into their home. I've visited a church social hall that has been twice filled to the brim with food and blankets that were distributed to nearby settlements. Many people stand amazed and proud that the churches have reacted so quickly and compassionately to 19,000 like Joel.

It's unclear when Joel will permanently return to his De Noon residence, or what he will find when he returns. The day I spoke with him, he said he was hoping to go and see his house: "I don't know what I have. I just don't know."

Neither he nor his friends are ready to move back, however. "I still have that fear, because you don't know who is going to stab you in the back. You don't know who is going to befriend you, who is going to kill you. … There are places where people say, 'No, it's a bit calm,' but people still have that fear."

But the fear does not paralyze him. He is not idle, even in the evenings and on days off: "I'm ministering where I'm needed at a certain church. I am playing the keyboard. I just do what I'm supposed to do. And even here, I am ministering to these guys every day; in the night we have a service. I preach to them, to encourage them that God is with them."

Just before the riots broke out, he was planning on visiting his family. "Now with this confusion," he says, "I don't have enough money to see my children and give them what they need."

Given the increasing instability in Zimbabwe, he has told his wife to take their children to Zambia for a while. He'll figure out when and how he can join up with them. For now, he says, he doesn't want his family with him.

"It is good when I am alone, because I can run quickly," he says with tenuous smile.

Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today, on assignment in South Africa.

Related Elsewhere:

More on the riots is available from South African newspapers like The Mail & Guardian and The Times, which have full coverage sections.

The Economist, The New York Times, and the BBC also have coverage.

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