Diana Beamish the Founder of Mercy House tells the story:
Like millions of other viewers throughout the world, I watched the TV footage of Genocide in Rwanda 1994 with absolute horror. What could I do, was my 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. I thought that at last I had found an opportunity to help: it was impossible for me to get to the war torn areas: but the refugees had come to us instead. I called the newspapers and one week later I found out where these refugees were living. On Monday 10 October 1994, I made my way with an American couple, to find Angelo Camp.
That day we met Samson and others with whom he had come down. From that day, I started going to the camp every week taking food, which I managed to get from Woolworths. I also began to teach them English, realizing that without language skills, they would never be able to obtain work or survive in the country. Hence I earned the title, which has stuck ever since: Teacher Diana!
In 1995 Diana realized that the call of the refugees was too strong. I wanted to dedicate more time to assisting them, but at the same time had to find work in order to live. I 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. 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.
Angelo was full of criminals and violence and all sorts of crimes were rife there. Stabbings and drunkenness occurred at night; there were rooms 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 in, 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 me 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 I did not know what to do.
By God’s design, it was just at this time that I met the Comboni Missionaries. I 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 my reply, because it was just then that the water supply to the camp had been cut. I had meantime looked for a room to try to accommodate the refugee who had turned up at my flat and a few others, hoping that I would find some organisation that would pay the rent! I 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. 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 R130,000.00. 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, Thora Mitchell. 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 R7, 000.00. 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.
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