Finding family in a foreign land

Dosso Ndessomin knows all about xenophobia — but he also knows how many South Africans are welcoming to foreign nationals. This is in no small part due to his willingness to share his skills and to find a new extended family in his new home.

This veteran trade unionist arrived in the country in 1994 and quickly set about expanding his personal and professional circles. He set up a computer training centre in Soweto, offering free lessons, and soon befriended residents in the township.

Veteran trade unionist Dosso Ndessomin fled persecution in Cote dâ??Ivoire, arriving in South Africa in 1994. He sees the value of integrating with local communities, ever since making friends with South Africans while running a computer training centre in Soweto. He believes local communities can serve as a safety net and that isolated foreigners will be the hardest hit during possible xenophobic violence.

“I was able to build up good relationships in the area, and eventually one family even adopted me as their own.”

He later ran the Alliance Francaise in Soweto and now works with an international trade union, from their offices in Braamfontein.

He left his native Cote d’Ivoire after his union decided to break away from the national trade union federation because of concerns that it was in danger of becoming a sweetheart union. He has a B.Com and could have gone to Europe or the United States, but made a conscious choice to stay on the African continent.

As chairperson of the Coordinating Body for Refugee Communities, Dosso has for many years advocated for the rights of refugees and migrants, engaging with laws and policies and ensuring that foreign nationals’ rights are protected.

But he is also clear that migrants have an active role to play in ensuring that they integrate and are accepted into South African society. “You cannot just arrive in a community and open a shop in someone else’s home and expect them to accept you. You need to introduce yourself and make it clear why you are there and what you will contribute.” He believes acceptance is a two-way street and has worked with migrant communities to help them understand that they cannot afford to isolate themselves.

“You can’t be an island. If you are, then you make yourself vulnerable. Some migrant communities segregate themselves, maybe because of language or religion. We work with them so they understand that they need to try integrating themselves. If you are accepted by the community, it will be very difficult for anyone to harm you.”

Soft spoken, with a brilliant smile, Dosso is an imposing but gentle presence. He believes much of the xenophobia in South Africa is fuelled by sheer ignorance — and the media don’t escape his calm reproach: “I have done training with journalists where we ask them to find certain countries in the map of Africa. Now, if you cannot find Ethiopia on the map, or if you tell me that Ghana is where Zambia should be, then I wonder how you can write about those countries and their people? How can you understand their situation or their politics?”

He believes in African solutions and that we have the resources both natural and human — to become a powerhouse for the world. His dream is that Africa should become one, stretching across its 53 states in a sort of United States of Africa. “The politicians need to work out how it will work, but my dream is that we become one, with our only borders being the sea.”

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Nicole Johnston
Guest Author

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