I was raised in Juneau, Alaska, a city known for incredible mountains and glaciers, but also for the number of rainy days that it receives each year. Seattle’s unique combination of wilderness and urban life originally drew me to attend Seattle University. In my past two years at Seattle University, I became involved in the Seattle University Youth Initiative, serving as a class facilitator my sophomore year, and completed two years in the University Honors Program. This past summer I was lucky enough to serve as Project Manager for a ReachOut summer camp held at the Yesler Terrace Head Start. In my free time, I enjoy salsa dancing, throwing Frisbees for my dog, baking, driving to the mountains to see snow and laughing when Seattleites complain about the rain.
Although I believed that I wished to pursue a career in medicine and originally enrolled in Seattle University as a pre-med student, I changed my major to International Studies after spending several months in Peru during a gap year. I am now a junior pursuing a double major in International Studies and History, and I appreciate the ways in which Seattle University’s Jesuit mission demands that students examine the complexity of human interaction in the global sphere. I am excited to observe the ways in which IDIP, and my study abroad experience this winter, further complicate my understandings of International Relations and Development.
My time in Cape Town, South Africa has been marked by contrast. Each morning I wake up in a stylish, modern apartment, at first glance relatively indistinguishable from my own at school in Seattle, walk fifteen minutes through a Europeanesque business district—past a steampunk coffee shop, several large banks and a department store, board a train and ride twenty minutes to a distinctly African suburb bustling with hawkers, traditional medicine, beautiful prints and taxi vans. In the course of a day at my internship, I often intensify this experience by driving out to the townships, or informal settlements, surrounding Cape Town’s European central district. These communities themselves are a colorful fusion of aluminum shacks and brick government housing. The result is a passage through a patchwork of European and African culture, economic polarities, moving through spaces in which my white skin color is the majority (in spite of the fact that whites comprise less than ten percent of South Africa’s population, while blacks and people of mixed-race make up the majority) to spaces where it is a minority. Most surprising is the relative distinction between these two worlds. Contrast exists in any city, but South Africa’s history of apartheid strengthened these divisions and generated a city in which these dual cultures struggle to integrate.
Integration has become a central theme in my own work in Cape Town. I am interning for the Cape Town Refugee Centre, an implementing partner for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that works predominantly to socially, politically and economically integrate refugees into local communities. The Cape Town Refugee Centre operates three distinct programs: educational, self-reliance, and psycho-social. The psycho-social program aids vulnerable refugees with immediate material assistance in the form of rent, food vouchers, clothes, blankets, counseling, advocacy or referral to partnering organizations. The Refugee Centre’s educational programme assists families with stationary, school uniforms and books, as well as educating parents and advocating for students on access to schooling. The self-reliance program aims to economically integrate refugees into their communities by providing small business grants, skills training and covering the fees for South African accreditation. The large demand for services necessitates that clients may only seek assistance in one program at a time, a complicated matter, as many factors easily contribute to a client’s circumstances. The significant needs of many of the Refugee Centre’s clients reveal the difficulties faced by refugees attempting to integrate into local communities, especially in the face of high unemployment, xenophobia and existing social inequities.
I began my internship at the Cape Town Refugee Centre in the psycho-social program. During my first two weeks at work, I worked with social workers and other interns, conducting initial interviews for first-time clients, recommending assistance or referring clients to partnering institutions and conducting home visits. Working with psycho-social clients revealed many of the problems inherent in humanitarian aid, including an inadequate ratio of funding to need, the complications of working with government, and the difficulty of assessing the actuality of a client’s situation. Interviews exposed many common obstacles to integration faced by refugees, who often have to travel long distances every six months to renew their asylum status and find themselves denied employment in spite of their legal right to work. At the same time, these conversations often revealed a lack of access to information concerning their own rights and the services they qualify for through government institutions. Although I do believe humanitarian assistance is necessary, the many difficulties exposed through my work led to a reflection on the extent to which immediate aid is capable of facilitating lasting integration.
Two weeks into my internship at Cape Town Refugee Centre, the staff called a meeting to discuss internship possibilities within the three programs. During the meeting, the director of the self-reliance program requested interns to help with a documentary and the evaluation of clients for small business grants. I asked to take part in that program and joined another intern in this income generation project. We will be putting together a documentary of clients who have received small business grants, documenting the successes and failures of their ventures within the programme itself, as well as producing a potential marketing tool for CTRC. The project involves compiling data on clients who have received loans, coordinating interviews, and editing the footage. Taking part in this project offers the opportunity to visit clients in their businesses and discuss their own experiences as refugees. In addition, because the program director requested stories of successes and failures, it also offers the opportunity to chat with clients about the difficult realities of small business ownership.
In addition to the documentary, the programme director for self-reliance also hoped to create a marketing manual for clients who have taken part in the Refugee Centre’s skills training program. The Refugee Centre offers skills-training opportunities for refugees who are unable to transfer accreditation to South Africa or hope to expand their employment opportunities. Often, however, potential employers approach the Refugee Centre and the Refugee Centre is unable to provide accurate accounts of client’s skill sets. In order to better market these newly-trained refugees for potential employment opportunities, the Refugee Centre requested that we compile a database of client’s education, prior employment and skills. In order to obtain updated employment and educational histories of these clients, we have been conducting interviews in which we construct personal curriculum vitaes for individual refugees. The process is arduous, but it has enabled us to discuss the histories of refugees prior to migration — histories that often include highly skilled technical training and advanced university diplomas that the South African government does not recognize. The process exposes the ways in which conflict and necessary migration easily remove a person from a position of relative privilege.
The integration of refugee communities into South African society offers an interesting predicament for analysis of international development. The process of integration combines the realities and cultures of home countries with the relatively divided culture of South Africa itself. In the midst of it all, I feel myself entering as a foreigner, grappling with my own ability to work within cultures of which I am ignorant. In the midst of discovering my own role as a student of international development, I am realizing that South Africa, a microcosm of the world’s diversity, may be the perfect place to begin.
As my time in South Africa progresses, many of the issues surrounding International Development that we discussed in our fall quarter seminar emerge in my own work. Most notably, I have faced the constant consideration of my own role as a foreigner in International Development. I am fortunate to work in an office staffed by South African Xhosa, Zulu, Afrikaans, Coloured and Refugee people who possess native knowledge and understanding of the country’s history, politics, and culture. The staff comprehend the client’s situations within this local framework and are able to provide context that extends beyond a university education. Most people posses this inherent awareness of their homes, but lack of local information presents a problem when working outside of their native space.
Even with their local knowledge of South African history, politics and culture, many of the staff still struggle with translation between themselves and the refugee communities that they serve. CTRC clients speak a vast array of language and, although most of them speak some English, information is occasionally lost in translation. Fortunately, clients are often able to act as translators for one another and the staff include several individuals who speak a number of languages (including one individual who speaks seven to eight languages African and European languages fluently). The complication of translation, however, often leads me to consider how much information I fail to grasp through my inability to speak client’s home languages and grasp the local realities of their communities.
As well as observing the complications of translation, I have also been fortunate to observe the successes of humanitarian aid that occur when clients are able to communicate effectively with staff and derive creative solutions that incorporate South Africa’s local realities. Many of the staff understand the intricacies of Cape Town’s communities and are able to propose business plans that fit local economies and utilize social relief through government programs. The resulting development incorporates local realities rather than imposing foreign theories on a misunderstood local culture. This reflection on the role that one’s own foreign identity plays in international development has led me to consider to what extent it is necessary to know a space in order to effectively work within it and the role that foreign workers should play in conjunction with local staff.
The process of filming and editing a documentary on clients who have received small business grants offers the amazing opportunity to learn about client’s educations in their countries of origins and listen to their stories of migration. I am constantly in awe witnessing the ways in which migration, especially as refugees, drastically alters an individual’s social circumstances. Many of the clients that we serve possess university diplomas in their home countries but lost the paperwork during their flight or failed to receive accreditation in South Africa. I spoke with one individual who worked as a nurse anesthetist in his home country, a career that required a graduate-level education, but has been unable to accredit his degree and now works as a custodial care worker, unable even to administer shots. Many of the individuals served through the income generation programme face similar situations and, as a result, I often find myself conversing with clients who possess more education than myself over the successes and failures of their small businesses selling candies and cigarettes.
Although I knew this would be the case, the reality of my own experience drastically competes with the more popular portrayals of development work which feature educated foreign workers distributing supplies to needy recipients. Many of the clients served through CTRC having completed higher education than myself and have been prevented from utilizing their training and skills through their circumstances. At the same time, the few individuals who take advantage of the chaos of refugee movements in order to claim educational backgrounds that they do not actually possess complicate the government’s role. The dilemma than becomes deriving an effective way to allow people to empower themselves and utilize the skills that they already possess. While aid distribution obviously plays a role in the process (an individual can not be expected to work without access to food, water and shelter), lasting development must somehow incorporate the many skills people already hold and situate them within local contexts.
It is somewhat ironic that the more I consider the many issues and dilemmas of development work and the complications that arise from my own foreign identity in new spaces, the more I become fascinated and attracted to the field. The last seventy years witnessed the birth and extreme evolution of international development and I am sure that the field will continue to alter drastically. Development remains a space that requires new theories and ideas, drastic nonconformity, self-awareness and sensitivity. I feel privileged to witness the ways in which local people continue to engage in the development of their communities and to use this opportunity to consider what my own role could be in the vast field of international development.