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Sr Francis Grogan named Woman of Faith and Courage by Jesuit Institute

A Catholic religious sister working with refugees in South Africa was honoured this week for her faith and courage. The recognition was given to Sr Francis Grogan by the Jesuit Institute South Africa following the premiere screening of their new documentary film on forced migration, ‘Denied Access’, which shows her ministry. Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya recounts some of the important work done at the Catholic Women’s Shelter in Musina.

A Catholic nun, working with refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, believes that we can all form a chain that links some of the most marginalised people in society with those who might be able to make life a little better for them.

This is the story of Sr Francis Grogan, a religious sister of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Cross, recognised this week as a Woman of Faith and Courage by the Jesuit Institute South Africa (JI).

“I see myself as a link person between so many other people, and that’s how it should be in a place like Musina,” said Grogan.

Together with local and international NGOs such as Future Families, Lawyers for Human Rights, faith communities and police, to ensure that migrant families are not separated and that those who need documentation are directed to the right path and children are enabled to go to school

“We are all one. At core we are all one. We’re all looking for the same thing. We are looking for dignity and a place to feel safe”, she said as she confessed to feeling embarrassed by the public acknowledgement of her work.

JI made the award on International Human Rights Day (December 10) to honour the hard toil of the Irish-born religious sister.

Ursula van Nierop, deputy director at the JI, handed the certificate to Grogan and commended her for the deep spirituality, evident in her work with those on the margins of society and in her deep love and affection for the women and children arriving at the shelter.

Sr Grogan epitomised the JI’s goal of “enlarging the horizons of hope”, van Nierop said.

The JI’s own work is often very intellectual said the deputy director. But Grogan, like the saint whose name she has taken, has decided that the best way to preach the gospel is to be very close to the poorest and to only use words when necessary.

By using the analogy of us being like links in a chain, Grogan challenged all present at the screening and society-at-large to see the problem of statelessness, being a refugee or an asylum seeker, not as an issue that only the government and well-organised NGOs could help resolve.

While we might feel unable to do much, we could at least inform the refugee or asylum seeker to the various agencies that exist to help those who are undocumented, Grogan commented.

She runs a transit shelter for refugee, migrant and asylum-seeking women and their children, mainly infants and toddlers, in Musina which is a South African town on the border with Zimbabwe.

By virtue of its geographical location and because of the violent conflicts, food insecurity and worsening economic conditions felt in neighbouring countries, Musina has become a convergence zone for migrants entering South Africa.

Many arrive undocumented because they were forced to flee their homes without warning, have lost or had their documents and belongings stolen while in transit.

Women bear a further brunt of the already desperate problem, that of sexual assaults. They are often raped by gangsters who operate illicitly near the border offering to transport refugee women and their children particularly, into South Africa. It is their way of paying for their freedom the criminal smugglers tell them.

The women, mainly from Zimbabwe, Burundi and the DRC, stay at the shelter while applying for refugee or asylum seeker status before moving out into the bigger cities. It is a protracted and frustrating exercise which can take years to come through.

The shelter in Nancefield around 20km from the Zimbabwe border had once been a church. It was later converted into a women’s skills development centre and now it is a shelter for women.

The need for a shelter was identified when the Zimbabwean economic crisis worsened in the early 1990s and people fleed their homes in search of better lives. Today the shelter hosts refugee and asylum-seeking women from as far afield as Burundi and the conflict-torn eastern DRC.

To anyone who has seen her with the women and their children, it is obvious that to them she is more than just a link. For them, and for us, she is an inspiration and a reason not to despair nor lose hope at a time when so much seems to be so wrong.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.