By Fr. Phillip Kembo from Zimbabwe
(Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Officer)

When the Zimbabwe locals receive a visitor, words of welcoming like, tigashire, tiashire, mauya, svikai, are heard and are followed by the shaking of hands and in some instances by a ‘big hug.’ The visitor has his or her luggage collected and taken care of by the host family, while a meal is set and a room to sleep over is prepared, even in a room full of the family junk. It is the spirit of welcoming that makes the visitor feel at home and overlook all the hoes, picks, and shovels in the created bedroom, where the visitor will be putting up or even stay for a number of days. In some instances, the visitor may even share one room with the children of the host and become one with the whole family: the hosted becomes a family member. Such a welcome brings the full realization amongst the Zimbabwe community, of the 2021 theme on celebrating the refugees and migrants day, Towards An Ever Wider We. This theme, suits well on how refugees and migrants ought to fit comfortably amongst the hosting nations and surrounding communities.
Hosting has its own blessings and challenges. The hosted, having being received, fits well in the community and even gives a hand in helping the hosting family or community. In some instances, conflicts of interests arise and bring about negative or positive results, depending on how the conflict is handled. Such conflicts may in the final analysis, define the rights and obligations towards both the host and the hosted, the community and the visitor, and above all, in this narration, the hosting nation and the refugees. In most instances, such conflicts and claims, may create long lasting tensions and attitudes between the host and the visitor and this poses a challenge to the ever wider we, where the hosted is haunted and have his or her life under threat. Thus being a refugee and a migrant during the 2021 period, was a haunting challenge to those in the refugee camps as well as those on transit through Zimbabwe to their respective countries or destination within Zimbabwe, mostly due to the pandemic induced lockdowns.

This article is a reflection by the Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office (CPLO), in its voluntary and pastoral engagement with the Refugees and Migrants during the 2021 period and partly the early weeks of January 2022. CPLO, lobbies and advocates before the Parliament of Zimbabwe and government entities, on issues of national interest and social justice. The office works in collaboration with the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) and it is supported by Misereor and at one occasion through IMBISA office, by the Church in Need. (Due to the demands of this work and the prevailing movements of people migrating, more support for awareness inland and on our borders is needed).

On the 26th of September 2021, the Catholic Church celebrated the 107th World Day of Migrants and Refugees, with the theme, Towards an Ever Wider We. Hence, for the celebration of this important day, CPLO, travelled to Tongogara Refugee Camp, which is about 420 km South-East of the capital city, Harare. CPLO spent three days amongst the refugees, sharing and listening to the refugees’ different stories and celebrated mass with them.
The Pandemic.

Having celebrated mass several times with these refugees, as a Priest, I had prepared three different sermons for the three masses that are usually celebrated on Sundays in the camp. The sermons were prepared to suit the congregants, namely, the refugees’ youth, the elders and the local community people where the camp is located. It was a sermon for both the host and the hosted. Being fluent in Swahili, Shona and English languages, I was ready to deliver the sermons within the stipulated times for the three masses.

The hosting community and the hosted people, were ready to celebrate the 107th World Day of Refugees in the Camp, through the celebration of Mass displaying their colourful dances according to their nationalities.
Little did all of know, that most of the refugees and locals, were not vaccinated and the Zimbabwe Government had made it mandatory through Statutory Instruments, that only the vaccinated could attend gatherings, otherwise anyone acting contrary to this, risks being arrested. Despite the campaigns done by different organisations, people refused to be vaccinated except a few, who got the jab. Why did they refuse the vaccination jab?

A bus carrying people to Harare at the Camp at Midnight

In interviews and informal chatting, most of the refugees refused to be vaccinated due to the rumours that the vaccine could cause impotency in men. This chilling idea put off most of the people since being refugees, one wishes to procreate and leaves a generation which might one day move back to their country of origin. Another version was that, after vaccination, one would die after two years. A certain old man stated emotionally, that, “Father, what wrong have I done to the Zimbabwean Government and the local people, that they wish to kill us through this vaccination injection. If they no longer need us, why can they not allow us and our families to go to another country alive, rather than do this to us? We have been hosted, and now haunted by the very people who once loved us.” I could not avoid joining him and his family in shedding tears of pain and desperation. Such and many other views were shared by the refugees on this special day when the world was celebrating their day.

Social Moments
Just a little further from the churches in the camp, there was a football match and almost the whole camp was there cheering their teams and sharing stories. While churches could not welcome them due to the enforced laws, a match was the only way to celebrate this special day. Who was to win or lose, was not so much their concern, but meeting and steaming out through singing and cheering was important to these displaced people.

As the matches ended, night time came and the camp was full of different types of traditional music and choruses on one end of place of residency, and loud music on the other. Due power cuts and darkness, small petrol generators gave some lights to respective families priviledged to have one. The same generators were also used in some ‘grass-thatched’ created halls, (theatres), where crowds of people were watching movies and football matches with loud cheers. I could not avoid joining them in this ‘theatre,’ being the only person in a face mask. The room had no space for any social distancing, because the fixed wooden benches were fitted and arranged in such a way that the owner of the generator and the television can get some income from those who came in to watch the movies. Two movies were shown amidst shouting while at a corner some men were sharing some drinks, probably some hot stuff.

All along, I was just saying to myself, could this be the way the Day of the refugees and migrants ought to have been celebrated this year. Probably this was part of the new normal called for during the pandemic, that as a priest, it is I, called to come to these people to share their environment rather than regret over the unshared sermons. Having left my bedroom, which was the church’s sacrist, and joining these displaced people in their home-made-theatres, the spirit of, towards an ever wider we, was experienced as we celebrated watching the movies. The celebration of the 107th World Day of Migrants and Refugees, was no longer a thing of the sermon, but rather an experience of the life of each other, sharing as friends, the joys and fears of one another.

The Incarcerated
Having spent three days in the camp and making friends, I left for Harare but only to be called that some of the refugees have been arrested while trying to go to Harare without gate passes, which should be issued by the responsible authorities. Most of the refugees, go out to sell some things and order stuff to sell in the camp on their return. While they get what they need from the different organisations in the camp, as families they may need a supplement to what the family needs, hence they travel out of the camp even as far as Botswana or South Africa. It seems, risking everything is part of the definition of what it means to be a refugee or a migrant, because many take risks outside the camp.

However, those who arrested were detained in Mutate, a city almost 180 km from the Camp. These like others with gate passes, had used a bus that leaves the camp around midnight so that they might arrive in Harare early morning. Those who can bribe the police, could make it to their destinations, but some who could not afford the moneys demanded may end in custody. Some will be travelling to meet their beloved ones, while others will be going for their periodic medical check-ups without gate passes and in addition, travelling during curfew hours, the risk would cost one’s freedom and ends in custody. These celebrated the 107th World day of Refugees and Migrants behind bars as guests of the hosting State. However, God always hears the cry of the poor, and in Jeremiah He said, call to me and I will hear. (Jer.33:3).

A bus carrying people to Harare at the Camp at Midnight
With the help of Benjamin of CCJP Mutare, Tongogara authorities, the call of these could not be ignored and hence arrangements were made to negotiate with the police and the responsible authorities, for their release from the remand. In advocating for their freedom, besides the law, we cited the health issues of some who were detained while pointing out on the risk that children detained with their parents, could contract Covid-19 while in custody. On a serious note, we also stated that these people are celebrating the World Day of Refugees and Migrants and hence, they needed mercy and pardon. These were released after two days and transport was arranged from Tongogara Camp and they were ferried back to the camp.

In most situations, refugees and migrants get into such situations and lack someone to advocate on their behalf, and these unfortunate souls, just have to be deported or lament in our prison cells. Due to lack of documentation by some of the displaced people and the migrants, their respective embassies are either ignorant of the presence of their own people in the host country, and some remain in prisons longer than they should.

Reflecting on the theme: Towards an ever wider we, Jesus said, I was in prison and you visited me. (Mt. 25:36). CPLO and CCJP were only able to reach out to the law enforcement agencies, through the little resources and support of the funding partners mentioned earlier on. Ours, was to lobby and advocate on behalf of the refugees, as a way of re-living the call of the wider we, the spirit of Ubuntu, or oneness.

In reaching out to the refugees, the dark world that migrants go through was also discovered. Most of these, are in custody due to lack of proper documentation, or they run out of transport fare hence they join some groups of men or women in the streets, while trying to raise funds to cross into South Africa, illegally. How they raise this funds, is a topic for discussion in the next issue on migrants. It is however to be noted, that the risks and pains of the migrants, cannot be underestimated, ranging from, sexual abuses, false imprisonment, crossing crocodile infested rivers, robbed, deportation and charged. By way of cutting the long story short, the Zimbabwe-South Africa yearly border challenges and permit crisis is, but just the tip of an ice-berg on what migrants everywhere might be going through. Does the whole humanity share this vision towards an ever wider we, where every person is a potential migrant?

The celebration of the 107th World Day of Refugees and Migrants in 2021in Zimbabwe, was highly anticipated but due to the pandemic and misconceptions surrounding vaccination programmes, the usual environment of celebrating had a different page. The pandemic affected the livelihood of the displaced people, and brought about new ways of supplementing their family income. The host nation, in protecting the communities and the citizens, probably had an oversight on how the hosted communities have extended to other parts of the country and even beyond. Local people could easily be bailed out of custody by close relatives, but who can do that to a person on transit or who is in search of supplementary stuff for his or her family? The obvious thing, is that the host country begins to hunt for the hosted community and this in the end degenerates into a cat and mouse race. Refugees, like the citizens of the host nation, should not be treated in an infra dignitem way. The call towards an ever wider we, invites all nations hosting displaced people and communities, to feel for those escaping the effects of wars, the pandemic, unemployment and other catastrophes. The host should try to understand the reason forcing people to flee their own homes and challenges them to see things and life from the perspective of the displaced people. The life of the refugees and migrants, depends so much on the host and those who support them, and failure to do so, only leads to haunt the hosted community. Above all, today I depend on you, tomorrow you or your offspring, may depend on me, and this is the journey towards an ever wider we.