There comes a time in all of our lives when we grow weary – reach the point where we simply throw our hands up and say ‘I can’t do it anymore.’ The moments that our knees get weak and force us to take refuge in some place, some thought, some belief, or someone. Reaching the point of desperation isn’t a place of giving up, or admitting defeat – perhaps it is just the humble recognition that we can no longer do it all on our own.
In all of our journeys of life, there are people, moments, and experiences that help us along the way – hands of all forms that reach down and help us to our feet again and again after we’ve fallen. Sometimes this comes in the form of an encouraging word; other times call for a literal hand to pull you up from the ground – for me, this rescuing hand came in the form of a story. The story of one man’s journey from the war torn city of Darfur to the streets of Cape Town. The story where one man risked his life in the pursuit of living free and fully, rather than succumbing to the oppressive and violent environment he’d only ever known.
I’ve worked with many refugees in my time here. People from all parts of Africa – Malawi, Rwanda, DR Congo, Sudan, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Burundi, Cameroon, and various other nations – come into our office seeking letters of asylum and documentation to ensure they will not be forced to return to their home country for some time. Documentation to prove they belong. Just the small bits that I’ve heard from some of these people, and what some of them endured back home, and the atrocities that drove them to forsake everything familiar in hopes of a better life – only a feeble glimpse at their world is enough to change you forever. There is no way to know and no way to experience the world of someone else without climbing into their boots and taking a walkabout; yet, sometimes only a portion of someone’s story is all the walking you can handle. Some of these people have lost entire families to wars and regimes that seem to want nothing more than to simply destroy. This evil is real. Although so many of us are unknowingly shielded from it, that does nothing to alter the horrific reality that so many others face in different places around the world.
On a normal Tuesday morning, I saw an unusually cheerful man knocked on the door of our office. As no one was at the front desk to let him in, I walked up to the door and opened it for him. He wore green canvas pants, a green Absa Springbok jersey and a black hat with the KFC logo on it in red. This man was beaming. ‘Ah, hi hi,’ he said as he bowed his head and stuck out his hand to greet me. ‘I am Matthew Benjamin, as I have changed my name from Alrasheed Mustafa.’ I couldn’t help but smile at the joy that
radiated from this man. ‘I’m William,’ I replied. ‘It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr Mustafa.’ He began to laugh and said ‘Oh, no problem’ in a thick Sudanese dialect. I lost words for a moment. For just this brief moment in time, I just smiled and stared at this man. How earnest was everything about his presence – his demeanour, his smile. I remembered what I was doing after a moment. ‘What can we help you with today?’ I asked him. His smile never broke, ‘Yes, please. Thank you, Mr William. I am hoping for a letter of recommendation to reapply to be refugee.’ He drew me in with the way he looked at me – I knew I’d do everything I could to help him. His presence seemed such a silent power.
I led him into our head attorney’s office and the three of us sat down to discuss his refugee status. Mr Benjamin explained his situation briefly and, after just a taste of his story, I knew this man came from a place I can only hope I’ll never have to know. His joy was almost piercing. How could someone from such a place, with such pain also be so happy? The joy of his presence was one I couldn’t run from, I couldn’t dismiss. It was a joy that forced me to look inside myself and confront my own apathy. His story, I think, would have ruined me had it been my own; but he was here, he was strong, and he was moving forward. He’d survived and fought for freedom when so many of us would’ve simply lain down, me included. Perhaps that’s what was so powerful to me – the fact that he’d made it, that the horrors of his past had never beaten him. He’d never given up. He’d won.
There’s a country music song called ‘Love is War’, with the lines, ‘Lovers in a picture frame, ever notice how there ain’t no rain? Nobody hangs hard times on the wall.’ The words take me back to a photograph my parents hung in the hallway. In the black and white picture is a mother and father, and three sons. No one smiles. My grandfather is the youngest boy in the photo – he was 14 at the time the picture was taken. He once told my father it’s the saddest photo he’s ever seen. Just seeing the photo, just simply remembering, brings a heavy sadness to his heart. My parents hung the photo on the wall to remember family, but the thought of family isn’t a fond memory for those in the photograph. Like the song says, ‘Nobody hangs hard times on the wall.’ Very few that experience hard times and painful journeys wish to be brought back to the pain through the still shot of a photo; however, the moment captured in black and white lends curiosity to the story, if only the subjects in the story are willing to tell it. The more we are able to know of someone’s story, the deeper and better our understanding for them can be, for we know where they came from.
An old photo may seem insignificant in this context, but there is a point to my words. My point is that the story behind someone’s journey, no matter how painful or heartbreaking it may be, is one that invites us in. We all wish to take part in this human experience, and the stories of those who have experienced other worlds and other times can bring to life places we will never see. While so many run from the pain of their past, it seemed that Matthew Benjamin confronted it – he never forgot because he never tried to.
I saw the pain in his eyes when he told me of the family members he lost in Darfur – about how his uncle was shot and killed on his farm, and how the rest of his family was slaughtered in the area. I watched the pain melt away into sadness when he spoke of what he would change if he could go back – he said ‘I wish I had known of love when I was young… A good Muslim doesn’t do wrong things,’ he told me. ‘Islam teaches us a lot of rules: you need to pray, you need to not bring shame to the family… I never experienced mistakes. We were not allowed to make mistakes. I thought, “We are people, we make mistakes.” But I we weren’t allowed.’ He knew how to live a ‘holy life,’ yet never associated that life with love. No matter the pain, the sadness, or the regret, Matthew Benjamin never lost hope – perhaps he never could.
Right from the arid and desolate ground of Sudan, tattooed with dark marks left by the scorching summer sun – a place renowned for violence and genocide – comes a man like cool water in a dry land. He was born Alrasheed Mustafa – another firstborn son in a long line of Sudanese Muslims.
Years before Alrasheed’s story began, his father, Ahmad Alsanosy Mustafa, was born in Darfur as the son of wanderertraders. He made his living with his mother, Zinab, travelling by donkey from town to town selling goods. He parted ways with his mother and Sudan in 1975 to find better opportunities; this journey took him to Saudi Arabia. As is customary in Sudanese culture, Ahmad returned to Sudan after some time to be married traditionally to Roudha Ahmad Hadi Altahir – the daughter of his own mother’s brother. They were united by arrangement within the family, and the two began their life together. The couple lived together for a short time in Sudan, but Ahmad journeyed back to Saudi Arabia when Roudha became pregnant with her soon to be first born, Alrasheed Mustafa. The child was born in Khartoum, Sudan, on 11 June 1983. Three months later, they joined Ahmad in Saudi Arabia – the family was united once more.
Young Alrasheed spent the first eleven years of his life in Jeddah – a coastal city in Saudi Arabia. He began school at the age of five. He was tutored in Arabic by an Indian woman who lived in the flat above them. He went to school and his father worked in trade – primarily selling and repairing cars in the port city of Jeddah. His mother prepared the meals and cared for their home, and together they were a family. No matter whatlife brought their way, they remained steadfast to their faith in Allah. No matter the time, and no matter the circumstance, five times a day, Ahmad, his wife, and children knelt to the ground, faced Mecca, and recited their salah. They journeyed to Mecca every Thursday to worship and pray. Nevertheless, despite the life they carved out in Saudi Arabia, Alrasheed was Sudanese, and he knew he would never feel like a true local. Society pushed him away, and his family drew back to Sudan in 1994, leaving his father behind.
Alrasheed and his mother returned to a country being torn apart by civil war. Women and children were being killed in spreading war zones daily, and Sudan seemed to be coming apart at the seams. People everywhere were starving, dying and killing one another.
‘When I arrived back in my home country, I started to think, what is happening here? What is going on in my country?’
Situated just off the eastern coast of Sudan, with only the Red Sea between them, the city of Jeddah held Alrasheed’s father for ten more years. For ten long years, Ahmad Mustafa never returned to his family in Sudan. He sent back food and money, both scarce commodities in the Sudan. Alrasheed and his mother never had to go hungry, and they worked to help distribute the food that always arrived in big wooden drums to the starving community.
Years passed by, and the country of Sudan changed very little. Alrasheed enjoyed school and pursued work in the university after his schooling was over. He read everything he could get his hands on – studying theories, politics, and religion.
‘You need to read books in order to understand how to speak out. If you want to make a difference, you must know what you are talking about.’
He met a young man at the university who told him about democracy. Even just the idea of people in a country sharing in equality amazed him – a place where the hopes and opinions of the people mattered. He told Alrasheed about a secondhand bookstore near the city centre where he could find books about democracy, and so he went. The books were cheap, and their democratic ideas were considered dangerous within a country largely run by Sharia law. He poured over the words of these books, and studied the ideas of change and equality that helped form the foundation of prosperous democratic nations.
Showing an interest in democracy came with great risk. The dangers became real when he was suddenly captured at his university. After searching his school bag, they found him in possession of books containing these ‘radical ideas,’ and he was locked in an office and bound at the neck by a metal wire. He was held and questioned for hours before they decided to let him go.
‘They say you must respect the truth. I say the truth about what? I am an individual. These are my books.’
Alrasheed knew this wasn’t the end of his persecution, but he pressed forward in his insatiable pursuit for freedom and equality. In 2004, the influence and words of Dr John Garang de Mabior spread to the ears and heart of Alrasheed. Words of national unity, religious freedom, and democracy for the people of Sudan without the rule of Sharia law were enough to sway Mr. Mustafa to get involved in the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). Under the influence of their Christian leader, John Garang, people of Southern Sudan began to hunger for a day when their country would know peace. The SPLM signed a peace agreement with the government of Sudan on January 9, 2005, after 21 years of war. John Garang called for ‘One Sudan,’ and led the charge for freedom and unity; however, his campaign ended with a sudden and suspicious helicopter crash that took his life in July of 2005 – just three weeks after he was elected First Vice President of Sudan and President of South Sudan. He was the first Christian and the first person from south Sudan that had ever held such a high government post in this politically Muslim-dominated country. It was a problem in northern Khartoum because the people of south Sudan suspected the government of killing their leader. Khartoum exploded in chaos and violence.
‘They destroyed the city. It was a Monday. The people were so angry. They broke everything. The banks, the shops of the people… everything was destroyed. I remember… it was fighting in the city, people everywhere were killed.’
Alrasheed told me of the violence that ensued. I tried to peer into his mind and heart as much as I could while he struggled to find the words to speak. There were burning cars and buildings everywhere, as people with knives and spears flooded the streets. I heard the few words he spoke when describing that day, but I knew there was so much more he could see looking back in his memory – so much that he and I both knew words could never capture.
‘The government made a declaration that no one could leave their house past 5pm. The violence was so strong.’
President Omar al-Bashir declared that all people with ties to SPLM would be arrested according to Sharia law. Alrasheed knew his days were numbered. Whether he left the country, was killed, or imprisoned – he knew that his life in Sudan, as he had known it, was over. The less developed southern Sudan was separating from the north; and under the conviction of ‘ethnic cleansing,’ it became a top priority of the government to purge the north of southern Sudanese.
‘I had friends that were captured for being in the North, and now I have no way of contacting them, they were travelling to South Sudan and we lost all contact.’
Alrasheed first sought political asylum in Australia; yet, there was no way for him to get to the Australian embassy in Egypt, due to the upheaval against the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
A month passed by. Many of his friends were captured and arrested. Some simply disappeared without a trace. Alrasheed knew his time had run out – it was either flee now, or face potentially imminent death in Sudan.
‘I couldn’t get into Egypt… I must go to Cape Town. I went to the Embassy of South Africa and they give me the requirements. When I went back, I told them “I want to go as a tourist”, my intention was to protect myself, because I was so afraid.’
Alrasheed hoped to find refuge in South Africa. He went to the embassy in Sudan, got a visa, and arrived in Johannesburg in March. He knew no one, but luckily found other Sudanese Muslims that could take him in for some time. He began working as a waiter seven days a week. Work was hard, but Alrasheed knew what it would take to achieve what he wanted. More than anything, he desired to learn and continue his education.
‘I feel safe when I get to South Africa… I feel good again. I arrived with only R200 in my pocket… but I feel good again. I just wanted a place where there was democracy.’
Alrasheed’s English improved very slowly, but communication remained difficult. He knew education would be his best opportunity to make a better life for himself. He asked several people who came into the restaurant about local universities, mainly university students, but no one would offer him help.
‘So I just began to walk. I didn’t know where a university was, so I just started walking. I stopped and asked a man where UCT was, and he told me it was far away, but he said CPUT was close, so I went there.’
Alrasheed compiled all of his forms and submitted his application to Cape Peninsula University of Technology, hoping for the chance to make something of himself. His English was so poor at the time that school became increasingly difficult because of the language barrier. Little did he know, everything was about to change.
‘I met a woman in Green Market Square, and spoke English to her. She was a Kenyan woman who told me some people could help me.’
Alrasheed received a phone call later that night from a man named Daniel*. He and his wife, Emily*, hosted him for dinner that Saturday night, and he offered to teach Alrasheed proper English for free. Every Wednesday, the two met in the public library to work on Alrasheed’s English. Neither one ever failed to miss an appointment, and Daniel never waivered in his promise.
‘I couldn’t believe how big the library was. I tell him we have none like this in Sudan. I say, “There are so many books. All these books I can read for free?” And he said to me “You can even take them home.”’
Every Wednesday night the two met from 5:30 until 7:00 – the few hours in between the end of the workday and dinner. After several weeks of work, Daniel invited Alrasheed to a Bible study in his home the following Wednesday in the evening, telling him, ‘Of course you don’t have to, if you don’t like.’
‘Because that man Daniel was so kind to me, I say “No problem.” I went to the study. I had never seen a Bible before and I didn’t believe in it, but this man was so kind…’
Several weeks passed by, slowly Alrasheed’s English improved. He still attended the mosque five times a day for prayer, as well as continued in his Bible study with Daniel. Emily would cook dinner; they would catch up on weekly affairs over the meal, and then read the Bible afterwards with rooibos tea. Several more weeks passed by when suddenly, one Wednesday night, everything changed for Alrasheed. He found something he said he’d always been looking for, but just didn’t know about.
‘When I learned of the love of Christ, I could believe nothing else. Christ is in me. I learned the truth. I had never known love like this before and I couldn’t help but believe.’
Alrasheed was baptised on 8 December 2013. He decided to change his name from Alrasheed Mustafa to Matthew Benjamin to symbolise the recognition of his life reborn. Immediately, he wanted to tell everyone and share in the joy of being born again; however, apostasy is no simple life decision for many. Matthew Benjamin received countless threats and malicious criticism for his change in faith, yet he remained steadfast in his belief and never waivered in his conviction.
‘My grandfather phoned me and said, “People are planning to kill you.”’
Matthew Benjamin knew of the trouble he could be in, but he pressed on and continued to live by what he believed. Violent threats forced him to change his phone number and relocate his home; however, the chance of harm never deterred him from pursuing and achieving his dreams. On a Friday this past September, Matthew Benjamin graduated with a Master’s Degree in IT from Cape Peninsula University of Technology. Five years from now he plans to become a professor, and continue his education; he hopes to inspire others to fight for peace, rather than power. He continues this journey of hope from a place of pain, and freedom from fear. Mr Benjamin lives a life that has inspired many – I know he’s inspired me.
He always wanted to remember. He had the courage to tell his story to others, time and time again. If there was such a photo to encompass all of Mr Benjamin’s history – every painful, horrifying, joyful, and memorable experience he’s ever had. If there was one image big and strong enough to hold the weight of all of his life, no matter the pain, I believe Mr Benjamin would hang it boldly on the wall. Not to dwell on the pain, but to remember the past. To remember where he came from, and rest peacefully knowing where he is now. South Africa is certainly not a perfect place, but place has so much to do with past, experience, and history – remembering where we came from.
Sometimes someone else’s story is all we need to remember our own, and realise how good this life can be. No matter who you are, or where you’re reading this, there are Matthew Benjamin’s all around you. You just have to open your eyes to see them. Be willing to hear someone’s story. Look forward to sharing your heart with another. Enjoy soaking in the moments where we learn from each other, and grow in love. Thank you Matthew Benjamin for reminding me how to live – I aspire to be more like you.
*names have been changed
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