Kimberly Vrudny

Scalabrini Centre

In HIV/AIDS, Non-profits / NGOs, South Africa, Xenophilia, Xenophobia on August 10, 2010 at 2:15 am
Immigrants to Cape Town, including refugees and asylum seekers, often have needs that are not uniformly and cordially met by governmental agencies and welfare programs set up to serve citizens, an observation made long ago by John Baptist Scalabrini who, in 1887, founded the Scalabrini Order in order to serve the welfare of migrants. More specifically, because millions of Italians were fleeing from Italy in the closing decades of the 1900s as crushing poverty coincided with political strife as the Holy See and newly formed Italian state were hammering out their differences, a priest by the name of Giovanni Battista (John Baptist) Scalabrini became concerned that his parishioners were in danger when they left for America without money, jobs, or knowledge of English. He felt compelled to assist his parishioners in their efforts to migrate, first by writing for them letters of introduction which they could carry with them, to deliver to a priest on the other side of the ocean wherever and whenever they settled. Once he was installed as Bishop, his social activism progressed:

In the next few years, while emigration continued to increase in the face of continued Italian poverty, the bishop involved himself in several large projects to help the poor. Scalabrini established a society to aid the mondine, impoverished women harvesting rice in the paddies of northern Italy. He also opened an institute for the deaf and mute in his diocese. During the famine year of 1879, he turned his episcopal residence into a soup kitchen, dishing out 4,000 bowls of soup each day, selling his horses and even a bejeweled cup, a gift of the pope, to keep the soup kettles boiling. But the immigration question kept preying on his mind (Robb).

Soon, the Bishop would write to the Vatican to request permission to form a religious Order devoted to the care of emigrants from Italy. His charter included the objectives to protect emigrants, assist migrants in finding work, provide migrants with material aid, fight human trafficking, and offer religious guidance. Today, the Scalabrinians are present in over 30 countries, and have more than 600 religious, both male and female, on the rolls of the Order. Their mission worldwide is “to safeguard the dignity and the rights of migrants, refugees, seafarers, itinerants, and people on the move.”

The Scalabrini Centre in Cape Town welcomes refugees and asylum seekers coming to South Africa primarily from Zimbabwe and the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), because of war and unstable economic conditions being faced by these countries north of the border. The Centre welcomes newcomers to the city through its weekly welcoming program which offers material support in the form of food parcels, clothes, and blankets. The Centre also links refugees with social services available in the city, operates an employment help desk, offers courses in English and digital literacy, runs a sewing laboratory to help women start sustainable businesses as tailors, and prepares food in its soup kitchen, also for displaced and homeless people. Finally, the Centre also oversees the Lawrence House, “a place of hope . . . where refugee children can regain their childhood and prepare for their future.”

Since it opened in 1994, the Centre has grown increasingly aware that where there is migration, there is HIV/AIDS. In response, the Centre has added programs to increase awareness about the virus in the refugee community and how to prevent infection. In addition to offering workshops on HIV/AIDS awareness and management, the Centre provides testing and counseling through a support group to enable those who have tested positive to share their stories, struggles, and insights with other immigrants to South Africa who, like them, are living with a positive status.

While my family and I have been in South Africa, we have gotten involved with the Scalabrini Centre in three ways: we’ve served meals in the Scalabrini’s soup kitchen during the welcoming program on Wednesday mornings; together, too, we’ve volunteered to cook meals on Saturday evenings for the children at the Lawrence House (the Scalabrini Centre’s home for orphaned and abandoned children). Lastly, for the past month, I’ve visited the HIV/AIDS support group weekly to listen to what is on the minds of refugees to Cape Town who are living with HIV/AIDS.

The stories I’ve heard, in session and in the corridors of the Centre, are painful to be sure—but there is an indomitability to the human spirit that is almost tangible in this place. This was especially evident one morning when I waited for the HIV/AIDS support group to assemble. Seated in the reception area, I introduced myself to the only other person who had come early—a woman who had fled, I learned, from the Congo six years earlier. As we engaged in conversation, she shared with me how she had witnessed the death of her husband. He had been shot, she told me, and when “they” came, referring to the men with guns, everyone ran. It happened so fast that she became separated from three of her four children. She, along with her then three-year-old daughter, fled to South Africa. They were joined in Cape Town sometime later by the woman’s mother, who had found the other children and emigrated with them. Subsequently, the woman learned she was HIV-positive. She had a baby six months ago. The test for the baby’s HIV status had just come back negative, she shared with me when we spoke, moving her hand to her heart in thanksgiving. But, she whispered, “I’m still suffering. There is no work. And I have to feed my baby formula. I cannot afford to buy can after can of baby formula.”

The three people I met through the Scalabrini Centre who are featured here likewise share in their journals complicated stories, where gratefulness is evident alongside sorrow for what has been lost, for what has been left behind. In their own words, they have responded to my invitation to share what they want people to know about them and their perceptions of HIV thirty years into the pandemic.

The Scalabrini Centre is doing important work that recognizes the inherent dignity of refugees and asylum seekers arriving in South Africa; please support its HIV/AIDS program if you are able. For more information about the work of the Scalabrinians, see:

  1. If only more than 52 people would hear about this!

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