Monday 20 January 2020

'I feel ashamed that they come here to be treated like this. Third world students need our help'

Parish Priest Fr Martin Pender highlights the plight of a South African student who can't afford to study in Ireland

Fr. Martin Pender and Terence Sabasaba
Fr. Martin Pender and Terence Sabasaba

Pádraig Byrne

When young Terence Sabasaba left his native South Africa for Ireland, he left behind him a place of unimaginable violence, cruelty and hardship.

Having seen all manner of murder and violence on streets roamed by bloodthirsty gangs, he was brought under the wing of Wexford town native and Parish Priest in Ballymitty Fr Martin Pender, who had been ministering in his township for quite some time and who aimed to bring him away from the bloody streets of South Africa and provide him with the gift of a proper education.

However, upon arriving in Ireland on a temporary visa and having been accepted by IT Carlow to a Computer Science course, Terence and Fr Martin were shocked to find that they were expected to pay nearly €10,000 in college fees - the rate set for students from outside the EU.

A native of the Lwandle township on Cape Town's west side, Terence was born into difficult circumstances. The middle child of three, he always showed great promise in his studies, something which was nurtured by Fr Pender.

'Things are very bad there,' Terence explained. 'It's tough. There's lots of violence. It's not good for someone just trying to make a living. There are lots of robberies and murders. People are killed in the township every weekend.'

A bright young man, Terence longed to escape from streets that run red with blood as gangs bitterly for territory and control.

'People are living in horrible conditions in shacks there,' said Fr Martin, who ministered in Lwandle for seven years. 'This breeds violence and contempt and the police can't cope, so the gangs take over. If you're not from their area, they attack you. Those who want to escape that environment and study are looked down upon and anybody, like Terence, who tries to better themselves becomes a target. I've experienced this myself over many years. Robberies, violence, murders, it's daily routine. There are killings in the townships each and every week as gangs set about claiming territories. It's gotten worse in the last seven or eight years.'

While violent incidents are commonplace on the streets, Fr Pender says, by and large, he was given a free pass from the gangs as they recognised him as someone who was trying to do good and help in the local community.

Having studied Computer Science at Stellenbosch University for two years, Terence was financially excluded after he was unable to pay fees. According to Fr Martin, the system for awarding bursaries to the university represents what he calls 'a form of psychological apartheid' that sees promising young black students excluded.

'Just recently there was a campaign called "fees must fall" during the course of which students burnt down the library. The violence is horrible.'

Fr Martin, who has done major work in funding education programmes for South African children in the past, vowed to help Terence with his predicament and offered to house him in Ballymitty, Co Wexford, and pay his college fees for him to attend the Wexford Campus of IT Carlow.

'I wanted to take him out of that environment where there was a threat to his life,' he said. 'I don't want one of my students to end up in a morgue, it's as simple as that. I wanted him to come here and go to IT Carlow. An African who goes out and obtains a European qualification has a greater opportunity to get a good job. He needs an internationally recognised qualification and they are excluding people who can't pay in South Africa. The apartheid system continues.'

Having arrived in Ireland, Terence faced some issues immediately.

'The way he was treated at Dublin airport was a scandal,' said Fr Martin. 'Terence had his visa in order and a letter from me saying that I would support him, but he was stopped and interrogated.

'They took his phone from him and scanned his messages. I was calling from outside and was worried sick that something had happened to him.'

'I did feel a little bit discriminated against, Terence said timidly. 'They kept me for over an hour and I didn't know what to do or what would happen.'

Having finally made it into the country and down to the sleepy village of Ballymitty and the parochial house there, Terence faced more problems in relation to taking up a place in college. Having demonstrated his talents and being provisionally accepted to the Computer Science Course, Terence received a letter from IT Carlow saying he must pay €9,750 in fees.

'To ask him, a person from a third world country, to pay those fees is a scandal,' Fr Martin said. 'I was willing to pay for his education and provide him with a place to live here with me. For an EU student it costs €3,000 for the course. I was willing to pay that out of my own pocket for Terence to get his education. But I think it's disgraceful that they are judging him by the same criteria as wealthy American and Asian students who come to study here because it's cheaper.'

IT Carlow have told Fr Martin that their hands are tied and there's nothing that they can do, leaving Terence in limbo as his visa draws to a conclusion.

'I am longing to study in Europe to broaden my perspective and gain experience,' he said. 'I want to be able to go back and help others who are willing to study. I used to help out at local schools back in South Africa free of charge before I left. I would like to be able to go back and help once again with my qualification.'

'I would feel so sad if this doesn't happen for me. My dreams would be dashed. Going back would be a horrible experience. My mum, she is a single mum, and she was excited for me to be here and hopes that something can be done so that I can come back and try to better all our lives.'

Father Martin revealed that Terence still suffers nightmares from his difficult life in Lwandle and wakes in the middle of the night with the sound of gunshots ringing in his ears owing to a recent incident which nearly saw him shot. His neighbour was not so lucky and lost his life.

'I have had this boy's mother on the phone to me, pleading with me to save her boy's life,' he said. 'That's why I'm determined to do something for him. This is a human thing, not a religious thing. I went to Africa to help people. Those who make these decisions without any regard to these people's circumstances should spend a day walking in their shoes. I feel ashamed that they come here to be treated like this. Third world students need our help.'

Fr Martin recalled another horror story whereby a friend he had made in South Africa attempted to visit him in Ireland, but was turned away and denied a visa.

'This guy was refused a visa,' he said. 'He returned to South Africa and a couple of days later he was car-jacked. They put a gun to his head. They trampled on his head.

'They bundled him into the boot of some other car and eventually dumped him out on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, leaving him to walk miles and miles in the middle of winter to get home. That would never have happened if he had been here with me as we had planned. I felt sickened by it.'

For Terence, he is left with an anxious wait. Unless some kind of resolution can be reached urgently, he will return to Lwandle no better off than when he arrived, falling straight back into a danger-zone and with no hope of raising the finances necessary to complete his education.

Wexford People

Most Read