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Combined Law & Human Rights in South Africa by Emily Hahn

View to Cape Town

When I first arrived in Cape Town I was full of nerves. I had traveled abroad on many occasions, but never for work, and never to a third world country. I knew stepping off the plane that the next few months would be marked by ups and downs, highs and lows. Though I did not know exactly what to expect, I knew that spending 3 months in South Africa would both be exhilarating and tragic. I could not have been more right.

I arrived at the Projects Abroad Human Rights Office in the southern suburbs of Cape Town in late May. Staff and interns from all over the world welcomed me: Holland, Senegal, England, Angola, France, Japan, Cameroon, and many more countries were represented. My supervisor, Theodore Kamwimbi, was a lawyer originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo. He told me that during my internship I would be helping refugees, rape survivors, and victims of xenophobic attacks with various problems such lack of adequate healthcare, third country resettlement, domestic violence, and police brutality.

With local friend

Theo warned me that to be effective in a human rights career, you have to stay focused. He also told me that it was alright to feel sad, frustrated, and angry. I will always remember sitting in his office one day as Theo gave me the best piece of advice I received all summer: “Emily, if you don’t cry for these people, then you aren’t human. If you aren’t human, then you aren’t cut out for human rights work.”

About a month and a half later, I remembered his advice when I was sitting with a client from Rwanda. Her entire family was killed during the genocide in 1994. She fled to the Congo where she was again faced with violence. By 2008 she arrived in Cape Town, just in time for the xenophobic riots in the townships. Because she was a foreigner, she was targeted. She was gang raped multiple times. During one such attack she contracted HIV. She also became pregnant. She arrived at my office because she was again facing imminent violence. I felt a certain affinity towards her because she was only 29, the same age as myself.

Volunteer group

The Soccer World Cup brought celebration for most people, but for those living in the townships, it was an opportunity to express social unrest, mostly through violence. Officials feared that the 2008 xenophobic attacks would resume when the teams and fans left Cape Town after the finals ended in July. My client was sure she would be raped again. She told me that she had heard nothing from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees after her request for third country resettlement months before. She was afraid that staying in South Africa would be a death sentence for her. She knew she needed to leave.

I had to tell her that the UN cannot be pushed, and that there was nothing we could do for her until she heard back, which could be many more months. I felt awful, but Theo said there was no recourse. Baby strapped to her back, she lowered her head and began to sob. I have never seen such hopelessness in someone. After several minutes, she got up and slowly walked out of the office. Later, I saw her in the hallway nursing her baby. I told her that I would keep in touch with her. I gave her a hug and walked away. I called her a week later. Her phone was shut off. I will never know what became of her after she left my office.

Though I have never felt so deeply sad for another human being, I realized in this moment that I was doing good work. I could not help her, but I knew that I there were others that I could, and did, help during my time in South Africa. The experience that the PIC Fellowship gave me was life changing in so many ways. Not only did I learn about the South African government, and African National Congress’ rise to power though Mandela’s struggles, but I gained first hand-experience in the townships, women’s shelters and HIV clinics.

With local kids

The lessons I learned about social justice and human rights were invaluable. Though much of my work was extremely heart breaking, I would go back tomorrow and do it all over again.

I’d also like to add that I have participated in 5 or 6 other abroad programs over the years and Projects Abroad really goes above and beyond. I felt so welcomed by the staff as soon as I arrived and any problems that arose were dealt with quickly and respectfully. I also wanted to mention that the staff is really on top of their game when it comes to safety, which, as you know, is very important in a place like South Africa. The South Africa program deserves recognition because they really are going a wonderful job. I have kept up with some of the staff members since returning to the States and feel fortunate to count them as friends.

Emily Hahn

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