'You can consider us as dead, whether by Covid-19 or hunger': how foreigners are hit hard

20 May 2020 - 07:00 By Amina Deka Asma
Many foreigners, including some who have lived in SA for years, are struggling financially during the lockdown.
Many foreigners, including some who have lived in SA for years, are struggling financially during the lockdown.
Image: 123RF/Michael Thompson

“As a self-employed refugee, I already live hand to mouth. If we don’t work we won’t have anything to eat,” said Jeanne Butoyi, a permanent resident who has been living in SA for 22 years.

Originally from Burundi, Butoyi works as a hairdresser and lives with her husband and two children. She is surviving with help from family friends.

“Debt is piling up and even if the lockdown is lifted today, I don’t know how I am going to make up all the money I now owe,” said Butoyi.

She said even though evictions were now prohibited, becoming homeless was her biggest fear.

“Yes, I am afraid of getting infected, but I am more afraid of becoming homeless and losing my place of work, which I also rent,” she said.

Full-time student Rahma Nahimana shared these sentiments.

She told TimesLIVE her fear of becoming homeless was greater than her fear of contracting Covid-19, mainly because the landlord from whom her family rents is solely dependent on the rent for income.

“It is really difficult as a foreigner. My dad is a self-employed tailor and my mom a cleaner. Now that they are not allowed to work it is tough,” said Nahimana.

She said her schooling has also been affected by her living situation.

After receiving help this month in the form of food from a local organisation, she said she doesn’t know where help will come from next month.

“Most foreigners I know are self-employed and rely on their income to survive. Now, because of this pandemic, you can consider us as dead people, whether it’s from Covid-19 or hunger,” said Nahimana.

Shani Kanjirembo, who has been living in SA for 16 years, said the pandemic has affected her emotionally, physically and mentally.

“The community I live in affects me even more. No-one is following the rules and it is as if everyone is on holiday. People easily buy illegal cigarettes and walk about without  masks. It’s as if no-one cares about staying safe,” said Kanjirembo.

As a refugee originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, she said she wished her eligibility for relief did not rely on a piece of paper.

“I have been at home since the beginning of lockdown and have been unable to work. Now I rely on the SA Social Security Agency (Sassa) child support grant I get every month,” she said.

Pamela Irakoze, who has been living in SA for 19 years, said the uncertainty around the pandemic has affected her.

“As a person with mental health including anxiety, I have been drowning in different waves of emotions. At first it was challenging but I am slowly adjusting and some days are better than others,” said Irakoze.

Contributing to these feelings is her fear about losing the year, and not being able to secure employment after losing a job opportunity just before the lockdown started.

“I have reached the point where I am willing to risk it all if it means I can start working to help provide for my family who is heavily dependent on me.

“Not much is being said about how foreigners are going to be helped. This could be due to the assumption that we are all undocumented, but that is not the case.”