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Russell Pollitt, S.J.December 04, 2023
Photo courtesy of Three2Six.

“I never went to a movie until Three2Six took us. I never went to the zoo until Three2Six took us,” says 24-year-old Debbie, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “Most of my childhood memories were made because of Three2Six.”

Debbie came to South Africa as a refugee when she was 7. “I battled to see myself; I felt I was not good enough because I was a refugee child. Other kids could be kids, and I felt I couldn’t.” (The names of the young adults and children interviewed for this report have been changed to protect their identities.)

Responding to the plight of migrant and refugee children like Debbie and the obstacles they faced getting an education, Sacred Heart College, a Marist elementary and high school in Johannesburg, South Africa, launched the Three2Six Project in 2008. The project began as a program from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. daily at Sacred Heart, after the formal school day had ended for “regular” school children.

Debbie came to South Africa as a refugee when she was 7. “I battled to see myself; I felt I was not good enough because I was a refugee child. Other kids could be kids, and I felt I couldn’t.”

Sacred Heart College straddles one of Johannesburg’s wealthiest and one of its poorest suburbs. The leafy green suburb of Houghton Estate, where one finds the mansions of ambassadors and government ministers, borders Yeoville, a run-down area populated by asylum seekers, migrants and refugees.

Colin Northmore, then the principal at Sacred Heart, started Three2Six with the support of the Marist Brothers. The project offers a basic education to undocumented migrant and refugee children, many of whom are barred from South Africa’s public schools because of their residency status. The children are given the opportunity to learn English, the language of instruction in South African schools.

The program can act as a bridge to mainstream education for the immigrant children who can get the paperwork they need to register in South Africa’s public schools, and it offers financial aid to help with uniforms, stationery, meals, transportation and psycho-social support. Besides literacy, Three2Six’s educators also focus on mathematics and life skills. But from the start, Three2Six has taken a holistic approach, looking after not only the education of the children but also their social and cultural development.

With the help of Three2Six, Debbie completed her primary and high school education and was able to realize her dream of moving on to higher education. A university accepted her, but she needed the money to attend school. She returned to Three2Six, where she was offered assistance to pay for tuition. “Three2Six is like a family; we felt loved,” she says.

Debbie completed her marketing studies and now works as an intern at Sacred Heart College. Despite numerous attempts, at 24 she still has not been able to get the documentation she needs for legal residency from the South African government. She remains in South Africa on an asylum permit.

Three2Six offers a basic education to undocumented migrant and refugee children, many of whom are barred from South Africa’s public schools because of their residency status. 

Three2Six allowed her the opportunity to fly for the first time when she left Johannesburg to attend a marketing conference offered by the Marists in Cape Town. “I was so excited!” she remembers. But she almost missed her flight because the attendant at the check-in desk initially refused to accept her only form of identification—an asylum seekers permit.

Peter, an 11-year-old from the Democratic Republic of Congo, explains that he could not speak English when he came to South Africa in 2018. “I was taught English and made friends from many different countries at Three2Six,” he says. Five years later, Peter’s hopes for his future have grown bigger. He dreams of becoming a pharmacist.

Many migrants and refugees in Africa see South Africa as a “promised land.” They leave their own countries—often troubled by conflict or socioeconomic breakdown—and move south, seeking a better life for themselves and their families. Sadly, they soon discover that South Africa can be a land of hardship. Migrants here are often denied access to basic services like health care and education, and they face sometimes-violent expressions of xenophobia.

Janet, born in South Africa to refugee parents, was refused citizenship by the South African government. Stateless, she was denied entry into a public school. For two years, she stayed at home. “I watched other children go to school every day.” she says. “I knew I couldn’t go.” Her mother learned of Three2Six by word of mouth, and last year Janet started school through the project. She hopes to one day become an accountant.

Although the South African constitution entitles all children to an education, the children of migrants and refugees are often denied access to primary and secondary schools. Even children who have formal asylum claims are still refused access because of their status. Discrimination and hostility from native-born South Africans are a daily experience for many migrants and refugees.

The program can act as a bridge to mainstream education for the immigrant children who can get the paperwork they need to register in South Africa’s public schools.

Growing up cut off from education leaves little chance for migrant children to learn job skills. A generation of children may come of age unable to participate in the economy and provide for themselves without programs like Three2Six.

Three2Six grew steadily and eventually expanded to other schools, but this year, the Marist Schools Council bought a site and turned the after-school program into a full day program. At the Dominican Convent School, the children from the Three2Six project have been integrated with South African children. Extra attention is paid to promoting social cohesion between the South African and immigrant students.

Janet says that initially, she was worried about the move from Sacred Heart into the new school environment at Dominican: “We were worried about discrimination from the South African kids.” But school administrators “mixed us up, and I got to know that [the South African students] are not discriminatory. We are all friends.”

Three2Six relies on individual donors and support from private businesses. School costs about $3,600 per child per year, including tuition, uniforms, extramurals, transport and meals. The project hopes to raise enough money to continue its efforts, and the project’s administrators also hope to open a high school focusing on skills development. Unfortunately, many South Africans refuse to support immigrant children.

Carol, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, came to South Africa in 2001. She had no legal status and could not find work—even though she had qualifications in international relations and experience as a teacher. She tried numerous times to get documentation in South Africa but was barred from work for seven years. Eventually, she turned to the informal economy, stitching and tailoring clothes.

A generation of children may come of age unable to participate in the economy and provide for themselves without programs like Three2Six.

In 2008, Carol was offered a job at Three2Six as a teacher. Today she is the project coordinator, but her responsibilities often take her far afield from the office. During lockdowns instituted because of the Covid-19 pandemic—when many migrant and refugee children could not afford cellular data plans to continue their education on the internet—she would travel to each of the bus stops maintained by Three2Six for its students, this time delivering school work instead of picking up students.

The bus pick-ups have always been an aspect of the Three2Six model, provided to ensure the safety of children in a xenophobic environment, to discourage absenteeism—often the children did not have other means to reach the after-school program—and to ensure the Three2Six children got a daily meal, for some the only meal of the day.

Carol says that she always felt at home at Three2Six, “a place of hope.” Teachers like Carol also have strong relationships with the migrant and refugee community. They understand their culture, struggles and traumas, and that empathy is vital to the project’s success.

Three2Six builds resilience and emotional and social skills through other partners like the Johannesburg Parent and Child Counseling Center. Many of the migrant children, often living in Johannesburg’s most degraded neighborhoods, have been exposed to trauma from conflict, criminal violence, poverty and xenophobia.

In 2021, the project published a small volume of poetry written by the children about their experiences as refugees. It proves a powerful testimony to their struggles in their host country, but it also expresses the hopes and desires of children who fight against all odds to become what they dream.

Three2Six has given many children a chance at a better future and changed the course of their lives. Other children sadly could not continue with the program because of their documentation challenges or funding problems and did not get a chance to go to high school. They were lost back to the streets.

Debbie says that as a child she dreamed that Three2Six would be a “school like it is today.”

“I love the project, and it is still my home,” she says. “I hope that Three2Six will grow stronger and stronger.”

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