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Refugees With Hopes, Skills Find Opportunity in S. Africa

The U.N. survey of some asylum seekers found the average age was 31, and that the migrants were disproportionately male, single, skilled and well educated, with two-thirds having a high school diploma or more education. By comparison, only 22 percent of South African blacks have a high school diploma, the U.N. report said.

"I don't think that refugees are taking jobs that would otherwise go to South Africans," said Fedde Jan Groot, a representative for the U.N. refugee agency in Pretoria. "They are starting little businesses and employing South Africans more often."


Axel Geraud, who holds a law degree, fled the violence in his native Republic of Congo, eventually arriving in South African, where he owns the first Internet cafe in a resort community near Cape Town. (Craig Timberg -- The Washington Post)

Geraud now employs three South Africans in his Internet cafe along Muizenberg's touristy waterfront, not far from a waterslide and miniature golf course. And though some customers express surprise that he is the owner, he said he has faced little xenophobia.

When he arrived in December 1997, he was just happy to find a haven. He had been in law school when trouble came to his country's capital, Brazzaville. Gunfire began at about 5 one morning, igniting an exodus from the city, he said.

Geraud eventually escaped to Angola, but rebel forces in that country's civil war were approaching the capital, Luanda. Every time the power went off, "you'd know the fighting was very close to the city," he recalled. "I had to leave."

He moved onto Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, where he heard that the government back in Brazzaville had been overthrown. He flew to Cape Town and soon found a home with the small Congolese community in Muizenberg.

He got a job with a security company, began working toward an advanced degree in international trade, and after two years, opened the town's first Internet cafe with two used computers and a dial-up connection.

Now, Geraud has 10 computers, all on broadband connections, and he said he planned to begin offering low-cost, long-distance calling over the Internet. He also has a minerals export business, and sends some of his earnings home to help a younger brother.

Such rapid success, he said, would have been difficult almost anywhere else on the continent, especially for an immigrant.

"Here," he said, "if you're really smart, if you can do it well, you will succeed."


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