I was born in Moscow, Russia but was raised and grew up in beautiful Seattle. After spending two years attending Syracuse University and studying newspaper journalism I realized that although I loved to write my true passion was elsewhere. Seattle University has helped me realize that. As I enter my senior year I look forward to continue cultivating my passion in social justice and expanding my knowledge of development. Also at Seattle University, I volunteer for the Center for Community Service through the pilot Read Out Loud Early education program. ROLE provides preschool education for people living in Seattle University’s Youth Initiative neighborhood. Outside of ROLE I play on the water polo team and enjoy swimming. I spent the summer of 2010 working and volunteering in Bali, Indonesia. There I worked with two separate organizations, Yaysan Widya Guna and Bali Hati. In Bali I gained experience developing and implementing programming and using social media to increase fundraising.
Although currently pursuing my degree in political science I look forward to studying Social Work and Public Affairs in graduate school. In my free time I enjoy hiking, kayaking, swimming, running and reading. I am excited to get an opportunity such as IDIP to help enhance and further my experience in international development and poverty alleviation.
Cape Town is a city of stark contrasts in a country of stark contrasts. South Africa is the most economically developed nation in Africa yet ranks second to last in the world in terms of inequality. My first month as a participant in the IDIP program has been eye opening in many conflicting ways. I knew prior to my arrival in Cape Town that the city was known for its beautiful landscape and European modernity but I was also aware of the poverty, inequality, and racial stratification. Nothing that i learned prior to arriving to Cape Town could have prepared me for the stark inequality that is prevalent in this stunningly beautiful city.
Surrounding the Cape Town city bowl where my apartment is located are sprawling townships. These makeshift housing complexes or peri-urban unofficial developments surround the city center and are a constant reminder of the scars that apartheid has left behind. Greatly contrasting lifestyles are evident to me even without visiting the townships. On my walk to the train station every morning I witness the two different realities that exist in Cape Town. I live in the middle of the city in an upscale block of the business district. The area is modern, the infrastructure is relatively updated and the people living and working there are well dressed young professionals. The train station, a mere ten minute walk away, is entirely a different experience. The station is surrounded by a bustling market, aggressive hawkers, and more chaos than infrastructure.
It is difficult as an outsider to try and understand how such stark inequality and severe poverty is tolerated. It has been emotionally conflicting to live a middle class lifestyle while witnessing people struggling to survive and the dire consequences of poverty. My first lesson in Cape Town was about safety. I was told repeatedly to be careful when using ATMs, to keep my purse close and to avoid walking around at night-even in a large group. In truth, Cape Town is not the safest city, but I cannot avoid the feeling that the prevalence of petty theft is directly related to the severe and obvious income and lifestyle disparity. Even as I get used to my surroundings and life in Cape Town, I do not think the stark disparity and close proximity of the rich and the poor will ever become less shocking.
My internship, where I spend the majority of my time, is in a suburb about 20 minutes outside of the city called Wynberg. I was skeptical at first about interning half an hour away from my apartment but am grateful now because of the opportunity it has given me to see a different part of the city. The organization I am working with is called PASSOP-People Against Suffering Poverty and Oppression. The word 'passop' is a Shona word meaning 'beware'. Shona is the most commonly spoken language in Zimbabwe and the individuals that PASSOP serves are predominantly Zimbabwean. PASSOP works with refugees, asylum seekers and migrants providing paralegal services, documentation assistance, appeal writing, CV writing and job assistance. There are also several projects that the organization runs which focus on assisting particularly vulnerable groups of refugees, such as the LGTBI community and women.
My work at PASSOP has been varied and has given me an interesting perspective on the pace of work in an African NGO as well as the dire reality facing refugees and migrants in South Africa. Currently the situation for refugees in the Western Cape Province has become more difficult because of a decision by the Department of Home Affairs to close down the Refugee Reception Office in Cape Town. When coming to South Africa seeking asylum, an individual has five days to register at a refugee reception center. Once the application for asylum has been put in, individuals receive an asylum-seeker permit, or a Section 22 permit, which serves as documentation until their application is rejected or accepted. If an application is accepted then the individual seeking asylum receives refugee status. If not, they can appeal, return to their country of origin, or continue living in South Africa undocumented. The process seemed simple to me until I began working with PASSOP, interviewing clients and listening to their stories. South Africa is the recipient of the highest annual number of asylum applications in the world and those numbers do not include all of the individuals crossing the border with no intention to pursue documentation. The process itself, I've learned, isn't easy and is full of mistrust and mistreatment. Individuals with asylum-seeker permits waiting to hear the decision concerning their status have to renew their permits every 3-6 months. The closure of the Refugee Reception Office has created a large group of individuals whose permits have expired and who are technically undocumented. Along with the stigma associated with being a foreigner and a refugee, the individuals seeking asylum in the Western Cape province are faced with even greater difficulties due to this closure.
I have been given more responsibility in my first month working with PASSOP than I had anticipated. For this I feel extremely lucky. My work has been extremely varied but it has given me a chance to see all the different projects that PASSOP takes on. I have worked directly with clients conducting interviews, writing letters, assessing their situations, and assisting accordingly. I have also assisted the paralegals working at the paralegal help desk. Along with that I have written and edited grant proposals, brainstormed fundraising methods, and evaluated a range of programs. The long-term project I have been working on is organizing a 5k race in partnership with several other NGOs in the area.
I hope to continue learning not just through my internship with PASSOP but also through my immersion into South African culture.
Just as I finally feel as though I am adjusting to life here in Cape Town, I realize I am leaving in just over three weeks. Friends have consistently warned me throwing around the ultimate cliche: ‘time flies’. Here it really has. I wish I could slow down and stretch out this unbelievable experience longer, but unfortunately I have come to terms with the fact that my time in Cape Town is quickly coming to an end. It will be difficult to say goodbye to this beautiful city, the ocean, and breathtaking Table Mountain- not to mention the incredible summer weather. Prior to partaking on this IDIP adventure, I had a very distinct image of what my experience would be like. Cape Town has been nothing like that image. I am living in the middle of a city, surrounded by modern day amenities and English speakers at every corner. Yet even removed from the rural village life I was expecting when signing up for a development internship, I have learned many lessons about development work and my role in it.
Mostly I have learned about the passion, drive and energy it takes to run a small NGO with limited funding serving the most vulnerable members of society. Working with PASSOP has been inspiring and humbling. The individuals I work with each have their own stories of persecution and survival. Every staff member at PASSOP is a refugee themselves. Understanding from first hand experience the plight of asylum seekers and refugees in South Africa gives the staff at PASSOP an incredible advantage. My co-workers, especially my supervisor Langton, takes a no nonsense approach to determining which clients are being honest and which clients are working the system. My struggles working with refugees in South Africa have centered around my innate trust in people who appear to be suffering. I had a tendency, especially in the beginning of my internship, to believe what most of our clients told me. I have learned from Langton the importance of critically evaluating the stories we hear and putting them in the framework of the international legal definition of ‘refugee’.
He tells me often that we, as PASSOP, are here to help and give people a voice but we are also here to reinforce and perpetuate the validity of the system. Helping individuals who are trying to skirt around the rules and lie about their circumstances is not helpful in the long run. South Africa has come a long way since 1994, but institutional validity continues to be an issue. The South African constitution is progressive and the Bill of Rights extensive, but there remains a social distrust of the system for legitimate reasons. PASSOP’s role is a complicated one. I have a tremendous respect for my coworkers who are able to advocate for a vulnerable population and pressure the system, while at the same time understanding the importance of strengthening that same system to make a greater difference in the long run.
More than anything, my experience here has taught me that I am driven by the challenges presented when working with refugees. Migration is a global issue and the issue of refugees and asylum seekers spans continents and economic brackets. I hope to continue working around this issue in some capacity and learning more about migration and its effects on all of the countries involved. Aside from my work here and everything involved with my internship, every day I am reminded how much I am in love with Cape Town and everything it has to offer. It is not a perfect city and has a long way to go to recover from the destructive years of apartheid, but the city and the people are full of hope and pride and a stunning vibrancy. I hope to visit the Mother City again in the very near future.