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Refugees in South Africa Hopeful at Christmas

A woman collecting plastic bags carries her cart through the streets of Johannesburg's Alexandra township, December 12, 2012.
A woman collecting plastic bags carries her cart through the streets of Johannesburg's Alexandra township, December 12, 2012.
In South Africa, the Christmas Eve Mass was the occasion for refugees from all parts of Africa to get together and express their belief in a better life, despite the difficulties many face in finding their place in South Africa.

The benches of the little Central Methodist Church in downtown Johannesburg are a patchwork of nationalities. The worshippers come from various countries: mostly Zimbabwe, but also Malawi, DRC, Mozambique, Nigeria... It is the most cosmopolitan church in the country, and one which has a long tradition of hosting migrants and refugees.

Bishop Paul Verryn, who has been preaching in the church for 15 years, says having a congregation made mostly of refugees and migrants is special in that most of them experience deep suffering, and his sermons aim to tackle just such problems.

"Many of them face issues of identity. Many of them face issues of legitimacy. Many of them face issues of esteem. They come from a place where they've been humiliated, and they try to recover," Verryn explained. "And so it's to a natural fact, speak a word to that kind of situation that's not flippant, and that's not quick and easy answer but that enables to recognize the validity of some of those feeling."

As the Mass finishes, dozens of people lay down in the corridor outside the chapel. Men, families, couples of all ages will sleep there yet again overnight, among some 800 people who will spend the night in the church.

The Central Methodist Church has long had an open policy towards immigrants. Just a couple of years ago, there were thousands - mostly from Zimbabwe - streaming into the church for refuge. Some people have spent 10 years there because they have nowhere else to go.

Nkosana has been sleeping in the church for two years. He came from Malawi to look for his father, who left home to emigrate to South Africa, but has not been heard from since.  Nkosana does not have a stable job and says the church is his only option, but he is getting tired of struggling.

"Now, I can say things are hard to me, that's why I'm living here because I don't have money to pay rent. Last year I was thinking that maybe I should go back to Malawi to my country, because here I'm suffering," said Nkosana.

A land of immigration, South Africa also has the reputation of having a tough policy regarding immigrants and the protection of its borders. Five years ago, a wave of violent attacks across the country targeting immigrants left over 60 people dead. A fragile peace remains, but the situation is always tense as 52 percent of South Africans live below the poverty rate.

Tendai Mtukwa comes from Zimbabwe and has migrated to South Africa to finish her studies. She says people like her from Zimbabwe suffer prejudices, but that this is not unique to South Africa. "I think generally, any country would be hostile to foreigners. But I think for Zimbabweans, it is particularly hostile. It's a label, it's a very hostile label, sometimes I myself have to try to blend in like a local," she explained.

And Mtukwa also believes the relationship between South Africans and immigrants is getting better. "It's better, because there is no violence at the moment, so the relationship has improved," she said.

Despite the challenges, immigrants still see South Africa as a land of opportunity. According to the last census, over 2 million foreigners live in the country - number that has doubled in the last 10 years.

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