Congolese Refugee Shows Dreams Can And Do Come True

After a journey of struggle and hardship, an asylum seeker whose first job in South Africa was being a car guard is now pursuing his PhD at the University of Pretoria.

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By Jan Bornman
Images by Ihsaan Haffejee

Tshinangi Fabrice Kapya knew his father would be proud of him if he were still alive. But what really ate at him was knowing that his mother, who still lives in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), did not know for months that he had earned his master’s degree and was pursuing a PhD.

Kapya, 31, finally managed to send her some money by way of his brother, who lives 120km from their mother in the DRC. Now she could buy a phone so that he could contact her and let her know the news. “She was happy for me. [She] told me to keep doing the right thing. She’s proud and gave me her blessings and hoped that I succeed in everything I planned on doing,” Kapya says. “I want to honour her with this degree. I’m doing it for her.”

Kapya did not have an easy path to becoming an assistant lecturer and PhD candidate at the University of Pretoria (UP). He made his way to South Africa as an asylum seeker after being forced to flee his home in the southeastern DRC province then known as Katanga because of security reasons.

Sitting in his office in the engineering building at the university with equations written on a white board next to his desk, it is difficult to imagine Kapya, a tall man with a deep voice, working as a car guard just a few years ago. When he was dropped off at the Desmond Tutu Refugee Reception Office in Marabastad in 2018, he didn’t really know where he was going to live or what he was going to do. But he did know that he wanted to make his father proud and continue with his education. 

However, not knowing anyone in South Africa, it was a difficult start for him. Kapya met a man who worked as a car guard at the Wonderpark shopping centre in Akasia in Pretoria North. He earned about R2 000 a month when he was lucky and, after covering his rent and other expenses, was left with less than R1 000. 

“To be quite honest, at first I didn’t care because all I wanted was to live. To have a life, to have a chance of breathing. But as time went by I started developing this feeling of ‘I had a life, I was an engineer, I was working for a promotion and all of a sudden I left everything for the unknown’.

“There I was … I found myself standing in a parking area in the sun, in the rain and in the cold. It starts taking its toll on you,” Kapya says. “At first I didn’t care, but then I started to hurt because you look at your life and what you have now. It felt like a downfall. I was depressed, I lost weight, I wasn’t doing well.”

A turning point

Months went by with Kapya just focusing on surviving. Then late in 2018 a friend encouraged him to apply at UP and further his studies. He had a background in chemical engineering but was asked to apply for an alternative honours degree as well – and that was the programme he entered. 

“I only know chemical engineering. I never knew about industrial systems. So I ticked the box and I was just like okay, I am just going to go for it. And then I got admitted for industrial systems instead of chemical engineering. 

“As a car guard, being admitted at UP, you don’t wait for them to process your chemical engineering application. You take the one that is on the table. I thought to myself I didn’t have time so let me just take this one. It was an honours degree in a field I had no clue about,” he laughs. He passed with flying colours, though, and went on to enrol for his master’s degree in the same field. 

Kapya’s story illustrates the resilience so many asylum seekers and refugees have to summon in order to survive – from making the difficult decision of leaving their homes behind and travelling to foreign and unknown places to starting over once they get there.

Because of his own experiences, Kapya says, he doesn’t just want to complete a PhD because he can and it will help his career. “I also want to contribute something valuable to society. I’m not just doing it because I am passionate about what I’m doing, about science. I’m doing this firstly because I know it is going to serve a purpose and once I’m done with this, maybe I’ll have that skill that this country needs.”

It wouldn’t have been possible for him to get this far without the help of his supervisors, friends and the university community, he says. “It takes a whole village to raise a kid. So for me it took the whole community to do my masters, and that is why I want to do everything I can to help other people. It is all about the community and the people you surround yourself with.” 

Kapya has been in touch with a number of people whom he plans to work with to improve the lives of children and those struggling. “It costs nothing to be a decent human being. So if people helped me, why can’t I help other people back? Some people were touched by my story and they contacted me about how they can help,” he says. “You can’t do anything by yourself. It is impossible.”

This article was first published by New Frame.
Feature image: 17 May 2022, Tshinangi Fabrice Kapya, who fled the Democratic Republic of Congo as a refugee and arrived in South Africa in 2018, is now pursuing his PhD at the University of Pretoria.

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