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Mercy House - "A little bit of heaven on this earth"

Diana Beamish's evocative emails and photos keep St Richard's in close touch with the fortunes of her war refugees who find safety, help and a family life in the modest bungalow which is Mercy House, Johannesburg. Highlights of her achievements are shown in this feature.

"A landmark day was 13th August 2006 - the tenth birthday for Mercy House. Lunch and we played games. I had a surprise - a bunch of lilies and an enormous chocolate egg!". Diana sits with Sister Fidelis, and Eddie, house leader.

"All the youngsters in this photo are orphans except for the shortest little girl. They were helping themselves to our birthday lunch. In the middle, the tall boy is Jacinto, our orphan from Angola, now in Grade 9. He recently had a very sad experience."

(In brief) "He was found in 2004, aged 14 - he lost his family fleeing from soldiers in Angola. Mercy House got him into school. Then he heard his mother was alive - a dream come true. ... But within a week he heard that his mother had just died. He cried for two days. Now he is struggling to come to terms with the fact that he has no family left in this world at all. Please pray for him."

Diana and her supporting team have had a hard winter (even during our summer) in a city which is plagued by power cuts, high costs of fuel and the menacing increase in street crime in the poorer areas of Johannesburg around Mercy House.

" Our area, Bez Valley, is one of the poorer areas: David Rang and the McGregors from St Richard's will remember driving through there. It's quite dirty around the place and we are like a little island, a little bit of heaven in a rather dreary place. ... Our refugees are often held up at gunpoint and robbed on their way to and from college: as mostly they walk and the streets are not safe. This is normal for Johannesbsurg and it is not by any means the most dangerous area. We have frequent power cuts - so the solar heating at Mercy House helped us enormously and that was a most ingenious suggestion of Comboni Father John, whom we love so much. The Combonis by the way have been held up or had their cars stolen around four times in the past year. The street they live in is not too far away: it's called Highland Road. The Fathers have changed its name to "Hijack Road!"

"All this sounds terribly miserable and negative: well this is where we are needed: God makes flowers bloom in the desert and if that's where he wants us: that's where we will be. I just pray to my guardian angel all the time, but I also now avoid going to MH after dark, which I used to do formerly, but no longer do. In fact both Sister Fidelis and Susan (another co-worker) have had their car windows smashed in the day time whilst parking outside our house, by thieves who then stole whatever they saw inside. I had my mobile phone stolen at a red traffic light through my back window which was only a hand's width open!!! I never park my car in the street outside Mercy House any longer, unless I am only just popping in. So that maybe answers your question about life in JHB. I call it Cowboy Land!".

There are 25 people in residence now: Diana and her team work hard to care for them. They also have non-residents who receive help. At present there no volunteers in the team (St Richards has sent some in the past), so, for the time being, there can be no more admissions.

Diana leads a rigorous self imposed regime - reluctantly described when we asked how she managed:

"What do I do? How do I survive financially? I teach English at a College from Tuesday to Friday till lunch time after which I normally go to Mercy House. On Mondays I am at a Catholic school preparing their Masses and I do have other staff training jobs, e.g. at present I am doing English Improvement with one black South African lady at Investic bank. That's my paid work. Then the real mountain is climbed outside those hours. By now, after 12 years at the refugee work, I do know so much more than most people about the ins and outs of their situations. And also because there is so little help from other sources they all seem to think that I am the solver of all problems.... .. If I snap under the strain, then no one is going to get helped! So Sister Fidelis and I have decided to try not to take on any more "new" people: we just can't cope. We do not have any volunteers at the moment and they have helped a lot in the past. God will provide as He has always done. Anyway I am not complaining, only trying to answer your questions!!!

Diana has recovered from "dreadful flu - now bronchitis". Her letters are brimful of joy and optimism - but also sending grim stories of her residents' past experiences.

"By far the greatest achievement of Mercy House is 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! It really does work and it is an immense privilege to be able to do this - and so rewarding. There is a tremendous spirit at our house: relaxed, happy and full of love. Love heals... I always encourage the residents and tell them that we are trying to create a little bit of heaven on this earth!"

The highlights of their achievements with refugees since starting in 1996 show a quite remarkable range of help; for refugees with no skill - children from murdered families; helping some to learn craft skills, to secure education and professional training for others to help their communities at a high level in the future. All this assisted by donations from St Richards - not least the annual Christmas Markets.

Regular readers to Diana's letters will know some of her "family" - read the whole Mercy House story.

Diana's report underlines how effectively she uses the sterling remittances that have much higher buying power in Jo'burg.

1. "When we started in 1996 we accommodated five Ethiopian doctors who were totally stranded at the time, as they did not have registration with the South African (SA) Medical Council and it took us 2 years to persuade the Council to set an exam for them. They passed it and all of them are happily working as doctors now.

2. Through the support and mediation of Mercy House, we have enabled two young men, Angolan Martin Kalenga (pictured), and Sudanese, Emmanuel, to get through the SA University Medical training: they are now qualified doctors working in rural hospitals and doing extremely well, both wanting to specialise.

3. We have likewise assisted in getting bursaries for six refugees to do a Bachelor Degree in Education: five Sudanese and a Rwandan: Joseph and Hilary have already qualified (Hilary was even Head Student at the University) and Manasse (Rwandese - our part of the bursary paid by St Richards) qualifies at the end of this year, so too does Leonard (Sudanese) and Danny (also Sudanese) goes into 2nd year next year. Sadly Sudanese Michael was drowned at an end of the year student picnic at the end of his first year. May he rest in peace. He would have been qualified already had he lived.

4. We have managed to get bursaries from two big companies for four year degrees in engineering for Rwandan orphans Marc and Jean Mari, as well as a bursary for our house leader, Eddie, for a four year degree in computer systems. One of those companies is now considering giving two more bursaries for two other Rwandan orphans (Richard and Christian) for next year, for engineering! !!! Somebody up there is certainly helping us!

5. We have managed to put a large number of children into school: for example Shadadi (Burundi) and Dibaba and Peter (both Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Primary school children have got bursaries to study at an excellent school, Belgravia Convent. These bursaries will see them right through school! We have also got Richard (Rwandan orphan) through matric.

6. We managed to get bursaries for Peter and Samuel (Sudanese) to do a two year course in Accounting.

7. Kaskil and Jean Paul have both done a course in Home Nursing. Through this Kaskil got work and managed to get onto his feet in life. Right now we are trying to find someone who might pay R15000.00 for Jean Paul to do first year nursing next year.

8. Over the twelve 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."

The healing power of love

"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 had 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 (pictured left) from Burundi 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 is relaxed and happy, aged 13 already, in Grade 9 on a bursary. He received three awards at his prize-giving on 4 October and we are so proud of him."

"The message is quite clear: no amount of counselling, psychotherapy etc. is as powerful as the healing power of love. This is what has made Mercy House so successful and God is with us!"

For two months Diana's computer was out of order, but she has now sent detailed accounts and photos of her people.

Family photos and stories

"On 24th September we celebrated the birthday of Eddie, house leader. To make it different, Chris Tiffin, a guitarist and singer from my church choir, dedicated his public holiday to giving a gospel singing concert at Mercy House. It went down well and motivated our refugees to take up the guitar lessons on Sunday afternoons!"

"Standing with them is Jimmie, who has had a harrowing story to tell." Harrowing indeed, but Diana feels you should know this. Jimmie tells it in a cool and factual way.

"In April 1994 the genocide began in Rwanda - mainly being a fight between the two major population groups : Hutus and Tutsis. My family was Tutsi and our neighbours were Hutus. I was 8 years old. One night, people came to attack us, armed with big knives called machetes. They stripped us of our clothing and stole all they could from our house. After that they used their machetes to cut off the heads of each of my siblings, my father and then my mother. Before they killed my mother, they cut her stomach open as she was pregnant. I watched all this, as I was the last in the queue. The people who did this this were our neighbours."

Jimmy describes how he survived despite a severe injury - even being thrown on a pile of corpses. He helped bring the murderer to justice, but on the attacker's release, had to leave Rwanda in fear of their revenge, and eventually came to Mercy House.

"Here he sits with Sister Fidelis (in the middle) and some of the other residents having a game of Rummicub."

Diana has a happier update to this tragic story - "Since August the most amazing thing has happened: Jimmie won a free air ticket (return) to Rwanda! Although orphaned in the genocide, he does have an uncle there, whom he will go to, and left us on Friday, 13 October. It will be interesting to hear how he finds life there!"


Another success story comes from Kaskil, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo who became house leader at Mercy House, trained as a nurse, married and had a son. "He dramatically heard that his mother was alive, who begged him to join her. Kaskil made the journey! Miracles really do happen, in God's way and time!" and Diana now reports: "We have just received an sms from Kaskil: it took two weeks to get to his refound family and now he is happily with them and sends thanks to all who helped him to get there. St Richard's money, including donations from Judy McGregor's lunch, helped pay for his trip of course!"

Yet another family has found help at Mercy House.

"K" and "A" (Democratic Republic of the Congo) (DRC) with two children of their own (Moses, our favourite youngster popped out the day she arrived!) and older sister Salome) plus the two orphans (Dibaba and Masoka) whom they brought with them. In fact they got separated when fleeing from war and he arrived alone with Dibaba over 4 years ago, very distressed about his family. Whilst with us he heard that his wife and the other children were in Mozambique and with help from (you and us always!) we gave him money to fetch them. They are poor and at present he has no work, and unemployment is very high, add to that that people are not supposed to employ foreigners unless they can prove that a South African cannot be found for the job! If it had not been for MH they would just not have survived. We have just got a bursary for Dibaba (10) for his senior primary and high school - he has had outstanding results, was a prefect this year and first in class every year at his present school!"

Moses has had a less calamitous mishap

"On Tuesday 15 August, Moses, our youngest resident, took off from one garden table to another: maybe he thought he had wings! Well, he is an angel, but he proved that he cannot fly. He landed with a realistic crash and broke his leg, put in plaster of Paris, yet he still managed his usual lovely smile. He got some jelly and cakes from us to cheer him up just before this picture was taken."

"Now Moses has plaster of paris off his leg and is smiling. The Rosebank Union Church donated this rocking horse to us and we kept it for him for the day his plaster came off. He is absolutely thrilled with it, and even though it's nearly as big as he is, he carries it everywhere!"

"On Sat 14 October, an organisation called Gardens Unlimited, came and taught our young people how to make their own vegetable garden. We shall send a photo of this soon. In the meantime the news is that Eddi, our leader, said that the training was lovely: they all got stuck in and planted a number of different seeds: we have offered a R100 prize at the end of the year for the best garden!"

"This is the latest picture of Lady. The adorable little dog we got from the SPCA in May has now grown fat and contented and she is truly adored by everyone and adds so much to the family aspect of our house, and hence, also to healing."

The Christmas Market will be held in the Parish rooms on Saturday/Sunday 11th/12th November, in aid of Mercy House.