The refugee who risked it all for a dream
Patricia Mudiayi misses her home. She misses the beauty, the games, the energy. At the age of 29, she had to leave the Democratic Republic of Congo. Although she had a degree in Chemical Engineering, Mudiayi couldn’t find work besides tutoring. It wasn’t the life she wanted. People told her South Africa was a place of possibility. Unable to speak English, five months pregnant, and alone, she took a risk and left. But the road to a new life was not paved in gold. Mudiayi had to pave it herself.
For five years, she traded at Greenmarket Square in Cape Town, struggling to make ends meet and battling through harsh winters. Eventually, Mudiayi, a legal migrant, earned enough money to enjoy herself. But then she heard of an organisation, Scalabrini, which could offer her the chance at a new job. She did a test to prove her qualifications, and was able to pursue teaching. Mudiayi worked her way up to a full-time position at the LEAP Science and Maths School, and even became principal at one point. She felt like she was shining. But one day, Mudiayi couldn’t help notice how cold her office was. As she did, her mind returned to the market, where others were still working in the rain. “How can you forget that?” she says. “You just realise that somehow, somewhere there were people who need a place where they’re going to feel warm.”
In 2010, she held a meeting with a group of migrant women like herself, creating a space for them to talk about the issues they were facing, from a lack of work to cramped living conditions. Mudiayi realised she had to offer these women the same opportunities she was afforded. So with a single sewing machine, KWESU began. By teaching skills from sewing to cooking, as well as English and computer lessons, the organisation empowers women not only financially, but spiritually. “They contribute to something meaningful,” Mudiayi says. The group eats together, plays traditional games together, and offers its members care and support. Here, in an office space behind a garage, these refugees have a second home. In 2015, the Department of Home Affairs awarded Mudiayi the Mkhaya Migrants award for her feat of unity. “South Africa has given me the opportunity to heal myself, to make a contribution in Africa,” Mudiayi says. “We are all one.”