At the beginning of Lent 1992, Diana Beamish went to the Principal of the School (Sacred Heart Primary School) where she was teaching at the time and suggested that the whole school should be united in a common programme of striving during Lent.
The Principal agreed and the programme went very well. After Lent She realised that there was a need to sensitise the pupils on-going to the needs of the less fortunate in continuing outreach programmes.
Every teacher was obliged to have one extra-curricula activity after school hours, most options being sports. Diana decided that she would start an outreach programme in the school as her extra-mural. She went to the principal and asks for permission. She told the principal that she would like to call it MERCY. When her colleagues heard about the extramural activity that she had chosen they asked her what she planned to do. Her reply was that “I DON’T KNOW.”
This answer sounded ridiculous and really a mad idea, but was completely truthful, because she believed that she would be led into what she should do. This proved to be absolutely right: Within a few months the concept of MERCY had caught on like wildfire in the school. The children’s immense capacity for compassion was opened up and developed. Brother Joseph, the principal, constantly told Diana how grateful he was that this was happening.
In 1994, the genocide took place in Rwanda. Like millions of other viewers throughout the world, Diana watched the TV footage with absolute horror. What could she do, was her constant preoccupation.
On the 4 October there was a photograph of Samson Bigambura on the front page of the Sunday Times. He was 14 years old and had come to South Africa, partly by foot, with a small group, looking for help. Diana thought that at last she had found an opportunity to help: it was impossible for her to get to the war torn areas: but the refugees had come to us instead.
Diana called the newspapers and one week later she found out where these refugees were living. On Monday 10 October 1994, she made her way with an American couple, to find Angelo Camp. That day they met Samson and others with whom he had come down. From that day, Diana started going to the camp every week taking food, which she managed to get from Woolworths. She also began to teach them English, realising that without language skills, they would never be able to obtain work or survive in the country. Hence she earned the title, which has stuck ever since: Teacher Diana!
In 1995 Diana realised that the call of the refugees was too strong. She wanted to dedicate more time to assisting them, but at the same time had to find work in order to live. She decided therefore to leave school teaching and look for other work. Again people thought it was quite a mad idea, leaving all security behind. It really was a leap into the unknown. But that did work out. She was offered work in the field of Adult Education, writing text books, this enabling her to have more flexible hours, which would give her an income but also more time for the refugees. She continued to go to the refugees at the camp where they lived, but no longer with the assistance of the Mercy organisation she had started at the school – MERCY was continued there, but focussed other needs.
Meantime, things went from bad to worse at Angelo camp, but the number of refugees swelled. Angelo camp was the site where X-convicts (South Africans) used to go. It was full of criminals and violence and all sorts of crimes were rife there. Stabbings and drunkeness occurred at night; there were rooms up with “Sex for Sale” signs etc. The refugee group, on the other hand, included graduates, educated people and law abiding citizens, but they simply had no where else to go, there being no facilities for refugees in S.A. at that time… Two young orphaned refugee girls at Angelo were raped only two days after arriving at Angelo. There were rats in every room, crawling over them at night; rain poured, as there were no window panes – it was an abandoned mining village and everything was in gross disrepair. Rubbish was never removed, and it was piled shoulder all over. A charity organisation, which had supplied food there, discontinued; the electricity supply to the camp was cut (since no one there had the money to pay the bill.) and finally the water supply was cut.
It was at this stage that one of the refugees came to Diana and said that he simply could not continue to live at the camp. He had been threatened with his life several nights in a row and just could not put his foot there again. It was critical, but Diana did not know what to do. By God’s design, it was just at this time that Diana met the Comboni Missionaries. She told them about the refugees and they were interested in helping, always asking how things were going. One day they asked how things were going with the refugees. “ Terrible,” was her reply, because it was just then that the water supply to the camp had been cut. She had meantime looked for a room to try to accommodate the refugee who had turned up at her flat and a few others, hoping that she would find some organisation that would pay the rent! She told the Combonis about this room and took them to see it. The room was considered too small, so they started to look at houses.
Diana related further:
Finally we found a semi-detached house in 8th Avenue Mayfair. It could accommodate 6 people. The Combonis agreed to pay rent there for a year. My relief was overwhelming. On 10 February 1996 we moved 6 refugees (5 Muslim and one Christian) into the house: it did not take much moving since their possessions consisted of only one or two plastic packets each. We had to put them on the bare floor, having no furniture at all! They were Angolan Martin Kalenga (now a qualified doctor), Burundian Mawuwama and Abubakar, Tony Marie and Ibrahim and Ayesha from Somalia and Ethiopia respectively.
The refugees stayed in this house only a few months. Soon we realised that it was too small. I agonised so many times as to what to do and even went as far as even finding a very suitable house for sale –going for R130000.00. I went from organisation to organisation to find assistance as regards financing it – also the Red Cross and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees- but to no avail. Finally one day I said to myself “It’s time to stop saying, why doesn’t somebody do something” and rather do something myself. I decided that if I could, after heroic efforts, get positively no organisation to do something about accommodating refugees, I would see what I could do myself. I had been saving for a new car, but that sort of money would not buy a new house. That evening I spoke to a great human being – my aunt. I told her my thoughts and put a proposal to her. What if we were to sit down that very night and find every bit of money we had anywhere in this world and see if we have enough to buy a house for the refugees? Again another “mad idea”, but she herself was characteristically remarkably open. We did just that. I still remember very clearly sitting down on the lounge floor with files everywhere around us, pooling every bit of money we could find anywhere. My new car would have to go by the wayside Together we actually got to the total, unbelievably so, but we would not have even enough money to cover transfer fees, which came to a further R700.00. I contacted the Combonis and told him the position. They said that the balance of money, which had been set-aside for the year’s rent for the house in Mayfair, could be used for that. Done! It was just too exciting for words.
We bought the house at 82 North Avenue, Bezuidenhout Valley, and moved in on 7 July 1996. That day Mercy House was born.
I remember very clearly standing in the middle of this empty house thinking: well what are they going to sleep on, where will we get any furniture? My aunt and I certainly had not a cent left to fund that! I felt quite helpless and contacted a ladies’ organisation but got a negative answer. Suddenly I got the idea to advertise in various church newsletters for unwanted furniture. The first call I made was to Maryvale parish. I knew the secretary there, Neah du Chenne. When I called and told her what I wanted to do, she replied “I can’t believe my ears!” She said that just before my call a parishioner had phoned to ask if she knew of any charity wanting furniture. This lady worked in the Department of Education and they had a halls full of furniture, some of which was completely new, to give away to charities! This place had been a centre of distribution for government boarding schools(subsequently closed down) and contained all the furniture we could possibly have needed. We could have filled even four houses: There it was just all provided on a plate, totally free: God had provided and it really seemed like the miracle of the loaves and fishes.
Father Henry, of the Combonis, helped with the transport and soon Mercy House was fully equipped. We were able to move the refugees in. In 1997 we were even able to use a second house belonging to the Holy Family nuns which accommodated 6 families. Unfortunately this house was sold and the refugees had to move out in May 1997.
1997 was also the year in which we got connected to St Richards parish in England. Mrs Judy McGregor, who belongs to that community, had heard about Mercy House through my brother, then working in the UK. She, Penny Finn and their team, embraced the Mercy cause with unbelievable enthusiasm and have ever since spear-headed fund raising efforts in her parish with tremendous success. Soon afterwards, BA pilot, Stefan Bartkowiac, joined their ranks. This St Richards link has been one of our greatest blessings.
It was one day when I was packing food outside Woolworths Food Store that I met a man, a friend of an acquaintance who was chatting to me. His name was Alfie McKnight, and he was builder. The friend told him why I was there and what I was doing. He was very interested to help. He certainly did, because at the cost of materials only he subsequently built on for us 3 extra rooms which meant that we could accommodate more refugees. He also built a beautiful marian shrine in our garden and obtained the statue himself for it. This was blessed on 9 August 1998.
It was after this time that God sent us a wonderful helper, Sister Fidelis who took an enormous load of work onto her shoulders. He also provided us with a succession of the most amazing young volunteer workers from different parts of the world, who worked for us from 3 months to as long as 4 years each. There were first Amy, from USA, (Photo below left) and Kasia, from Poland, (Photo below right). Then there was Elaine Fox from Ireland, Serena from Italy, Catherine from the UK and Alex from Germany. Simon Donnelly (below middle), who subsequently joined the priesthood, was also one of the volunteer team.
It was around this time, too, that Rosebank Union Church found and adopted us as one of the programmes they would like to support. David McCallam, Claire de Lager, Kerry Sinclair, Jenny Kurten & Jenny Adams and her team. Have all been extensively caring and supportive, which we value so much.
Around the year 2004, I one day told Father John, of the Combonis,
that I had a dream of have a building being erected at the bottom of our garden, which was at the time, used for rubbish and washing lines. I had even drawn plans for it, but never in my wildest imaginings, thought that it would ever come true, as I knew that Mercy House could never ever have the sort of money required to build it. I even forgot that I had told Father John of this new “mad idea”! To my utter amazement in April 2008, Father John phoned me and asked me if I still had my dream! I told him that I have never ceased to dream… To my utter amazement he informed me that a family in the USA wanted to help with a project and that he could put my dream forward to them as possibility. Abracadabra and it was done. Within 2 months dream became reality: there it was a beautiful recreational centre, which has become the heart and soul of the community, for there everyone relaxes and has fun. This, thanks to the amazing generosity of our anonymous benefactors over the seas to whom we shall always be endlessly grateful, and of course Father John, who was the instrument to bring it all about.
Mercy House usually accommodates around 22 refugees, most of whom are orphans from the genocide in Rwanda/ Burundi or the war in the Congo. Beyond the inner circle there is a far wider circle of many refugees whom we assist. We also have by now helped many to get onto their feet and they no longer live in Mercy House.
By far the greatest achievement of Mercy House has been the healing and transformation that we see. Young people come to us, desperate, their lives in tatters, and through creating a family atmosphere (which, mostly, they have sadly missed) and through the healing power of unconditional love; they really do become new human beings! One young man, for example, was abducted and forced to be a child soldier in Sudan at the age of 11 never to have been able to find his family (who fled) since. After managing to escape from the army, he arrived at Mercy House around the age of 19, totally lost and devastated and feeling the lack of a sense of belonging: stateless, homeless and family less. Today he is employed and is a changed person. Shadadi was brought to us at the age of 6 or 7, locked in a prison of silence: he would not talk to anyone, so traumatised was he. We took him in, got him into school. Today he relaxed and happy, he is 16 already, in grade 11 on a bursary, and he is doing exceptionally well. The message is quite clear: no amount of counselling, psychotherapy etc is a powerful as the healing power of love. This is what has made Mercy House so successful and God is with us!
SOME MERCY HOUSE ACHIEVEMENTS
1. When Mercy House started in 1996, it accommodated 5 Ethiopian doctors who were totally stranded at the time, as the did not have registration with the SA medical council and it took us 2 years to persuade the SA Medical Council to set an exam for them…They wrote it and all of them are happily working as doctors now.
2. Through the support and mediation of Mercy House, we have enabled 2 young men, Angolan Martin, and Sudanese, Emmanuel, to get through the SA University Medical training: they are now qualified doctors doing extremely well. Both are now training to be specialists Emmanuel is becoming a brain surgeon and Martin, gynaecology. Sudanese Pasuale did a degree in Medical Technology at Wits University and is now working in Australia.
3. We have assisted in getting bursaries for 8 refugees to do a Bachelor Degree in Education at KZN College in Kwazulu and Jean Chrysostom to complete a degree in law.
4. We have managed to get bursaries for 6 young men to do degrees in Engineering at various universities, one of whom is already qualified and working as an engineer. A further 6 are studying engineering at the local Technical College.
5. A considerable number of our residents have done computer courses at the Technical College, 3 of whom are still busy. We hope to start another refugee on an IT degree next year.
6. We have put a large number of children into school: for example, currently, Shadadi (Burundi) and Dibaba and Peter (both DRC), Newton, Kenny has got bursaries to study at an excellent private school.
7. We managed to get bursaries for Peter and Samuel (Sudanese) to do a 2-year course in accounting. They have since turned to Sudan where they have got jobs using their expertise.
8. Kaskil, Festus, Bebe, Kika, Donatien and Jean Paul have all done courses in Nursing.
9.Several of our young people enrolled to do a 3-year filmmaking course. Emmanuel Musa completed it and is now involved in the making of DVDs and films. Over the 12 years of our existence, we have enabled countless people to get employment, quite an achievement when in a country where the unemployment is very high and where there is also a lot of Xenophobia.