A Ugandan man, who sought refuge at the Haven Night Shelter in Wynberg 12 years ago, after his dreams crashed spectacularly, went on to become the manager of the same shelter, and now he has been nominated for an award for the work he is doing to reunite destitute people with their long-lost loved ones and re-integrating homeless people into society.
Last week, the Haven also gave Pius Okiror an award for long service.
Pius, enjoys exploring. In 2004, he came to South Africa to discover new things and improve his life. But the 30-year-old found the South African job market unforgiving.
“I had some money but in time the money ran out, and I found myself on the streets,” Pius said. “I had no family here, no relatives and no income.”
He made his way to the Haven Night Shelter in Wynberg, which has been situated in the former St Joseph’s church since 1995. The organisation has been around for about 38 years and has shelters all over Cape Town. It offers sanctuary to people like Pius, who want to make a new life for themselves off the streets.
The Wynberg branch gave him free lodging and meals and started the process of helping him to get back on his feet. The aim of the Haven is to help the homeless reintegrate into society, by finding employment or being reunited with their families.
But Pius was made of grittier stuff. He hoped to do a whole lot more than just find his bearings.
“I always had it in my mind since way back that if God blessed me with money, my only dream was to open my own organisation that would take care of people and children. But that didn’t happen while I was in Uganda. But God works mysteriously. He led me all the way to the southern Cape.”
Shortly after taking up lodging at the Haven, Pius decided he liked the work that they did and wanted to be part of it.
“I found myself volunteering for the Haven,” he said.
Later, when a staff member went on maternity leave, Pius was offered her post until she returned. Fast forward to 2016 and Pius is now the full-time manager at the Haven – a post he has held for 10 years.
“This is where my heart is. It’s not about working for more money and not liking it. I fell in love with working with people.”
Through his work he sometimes relives his own story, but some stories are far more tragic than others. Like the women who eventually escaped their captors and sought help at the Haven after they had been trafficked into sex slavery. This has happened many times, Pius said.
“A few times, women had come to us in tears. They had come here for a job, only to end up at these flats, where they were trapped. Their personal documents had been taken by somebody who was no longer accessible to them.”
At one time, a girl in her late teens from the Karoo had been locked inside a block of nearby flats. She was desperately ill with TB and had been severely abused and malnourished. The details of how she made it to the Haven’s doors are unclear, but the police and paramedics were immediately called.
In such cases, the police are always called immediately, Pius said.
“I call the police station. They don’t want to go there because they fear for their safety. I said: ‘I’ve got some people here that need your intervention.’ The police come to interview them here and then took them to the station in the van.”
Pius said most of the women were reunited with the families they had been lured from with promises of jobs. Not all pressed charger against their captors.
“Which I understand because it is the vulnerable ones that become victims. They feel they are not secure enough, even in the hands of police, because the perpetrator knows them and will chase them.”
The hope of finding work has lured many people to Cape Town and many of them end up on the streets – broke and with no means of contacting their relatives. Some people are reluctant to go home because they are ashamed. Their families had bid them hopeful farewells, imagining that they were leaving for brighter prospects. The Haven’s aim is to reunite people with their families as soon as possible, but sometime the process takes years.
In one case, it took nearly seven years. Pius said a woman who came to the Haven had left her family 25 years before. She had come from Port Elizabeth for work. Her family back home were living on a farm which changed ownership several times and she had lost touch with them.
“So she found herself trapped and living on the street because she didn’t have a fare home,” Pius said.
Her dignity and self-confidence were completely destroyed and she believed her family no longer cared for her. In reality, her two sons were looking for her. They had approached various community organisations to track her down.
For seven years, Pius helped her search for her family. In the meantime, she took on part-time jobs.
Finally, last year, there was a “breakthrough”. Pius needed to drive an 86-year-old man home to his family in Port Elizabeth. The man was in a wheelchair. He had been living in Masiphumelele but was conned out of his home.
“We made contact with the family and they wanted him home, but they couldn’t fetch him. My boss agreed, for the first time ever in 38 years that the Haven could drive him home in its official vehicles because he couldn’t use the bus, we couldn’t fly him and he couldn’t go with the long-distance cars, because he had a bladder problem and every hour or so we had to stop. I motivated to my boss and he released the van to take him home. That is 780km.”
Pius decided to take the mother, now in her sixties, along so that on the way back they could search for her sons.
“We took the old man home, and his family were very excited. We left here in the morning and arrived there at three o’clock at night, and the family were still awake waiting for their grandfather.”
The next day, they drove into the farmlands.
“It took me four hours driving there, through the farm.”
And eventually, after cold-calling at places she remembered and speaking to numerous people, they had success.
“We found her sons, and it was a shock. The family were having a party there when we found them. Their daughter, she was 17 years old, asked four times, ‘Is this my grandmother? I never knew I had a grandmother.’ They couldn’t believe it.”
Tears flowed freely at the joyful reunion, Pius said. The mother, however, decided to stay in Cape Town, where she had built a life for herself.
“Now she is one of my motivational speakers,” Pius said. “It’s possible, no matter how old you are. She is about 62 now but every now and again she goes home to visit her sons.”
It is successes such as these that made Pius’s peers nominate him for the Mkhaya Migrants Awards in the NGO sector. The competition by the Department of Home Affairs honours foreign nationals who have impacted South African society.
The deadline for the competition was at the end of November, and the winners will be announced on Sunday December 18, which is International Migrants Day.
“Things are happening. We have reunified clients across the borders, in the DRC, Zimbabwe and Angola. I don’t want people to look at this shelter and think, ‘my money is going down the drain, there is nothing happening here.’ Things are happening.”