Leah is an Anthropology lecturer at Northern Arizona University (USA). Her work focuses primarily on issues of migration and community engagement. 

Click here to view her Mensch Member Network Profile

Five years ago, our family moved to Cape Town for a year.  My husband, an astronomer, had a sabbatical year and collaborators at the South African National Observatory. I am an applied anthropologist and had been working as a community organiser in Arizona, USA, where my primary focus had been immigration advocacy. I hoped that I could use this opportunity to learn about migration issues in another part of the world.  Little did I know that the year would also open up the chance to build longstanding relationships with migrants to South Africa and those working to further migrant integration. An even happier surprise was that this work would often intersect with the welcoming Jewish community that we found in Cape Town, as I discovered the work of Mensch and the energy for social change that it cultivates.

My research took me to the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town, where the staff were considering launching a new initiative, a Women’s Platform that could serve as a network for migrant women often facing isolation and discrimination. The goal was to create a structure through which women could build connections with one another, strengthen their leadership potential, develop job skills, and move toward financial self-sufficiency. The emphasis on integration, leadership, and advocacy fit well with my experience in grassroots organising, and I signed on to help build the Women’s Platform and research its impacts.

The Women’s Platform is now a comprehensive programme of personal development, English language support, skills training, small business development, and mentorship. Many of the facilitators are alumni of the Women’s Platform themselves, migrants who understand first-hand the daily challenges of integration into South African society. My recent research with participants in the Women’s Platform has shown how impactful the opportunity for personal growth has been. In focus groups and interviews, participants’ eyes lit up and faces shone as they described the ways their confidence had grown, their communication skills had improved, and they had learned to resolve conflict in their homes and communities.

The challenges of financial stability, however, are still formidable. Many migrant women are not eligible for refugee status or have not been able to make the journey to Pretoria or Musina to apply. Those who do have asylum-seeker or refugee status are still often passed over for employment, because of their lack of a South African ID. So, for many migrant women, their only option is to create their own jobs by developing a small business.

The Women’s Platform offers skills training in hospitality, childcare, craft, and beauty, and many participants go on to develop their skills further in these areas. But they need mentors to help them gain experience, develop business plans, and build professional networks. These are wonderful opportunities for members of the Jewish community to get involved. My own involvement in migrant advocacy has always been connected with my own family’s migration story, and my sense of Jewish history and values. The experiences of fleeing danger and seeking opportunity are so familiar to us as Jews, and the mitzvah of welcoming the stranger is so central to our worldview. I encourage you to consider ways that you, your business, or your community might offer support.

Words by Leah Mundell