Doing business as a refugee isn’t always easy—but South African entrepreneur keeps realizing her dreams

Angelique Kanjirembo has a lot going for her. She’s a business owner. An entrepreneur. A traditional healer. She’s also a refugee.

Entrepreneurs across the world appreciate the difficulties of starting and running a business, particularly amid today’s global challenges. But Kanjirembo’s story is even deeper.

Kanjirembo, originally from Burundi, has resided in South Africa since she was six years old.

“We came all the way down here for a better life,” recalls Kanjirembo. “In Burundi, where we were originally from, there was war, and there was unrest,” she said. “It was pretty traumatic.”

Now in her 30s, Kanjirembo describes moving from city to city for a better life, first pursuing a career in fashion, then in retail. She uses what’s known as a “status document,” which does offer the protection of the South African government in that Kanjirembo cannot be forced to return home. But, in most instances, she can’t open a bank account.

“I’m a businesswoman without a business bank account in my name,” she says. “It makes you seem little less trustworthy when you’re an entrepreneur.”

She’s a successful businessperson: she makes beauty products as well as herbal health products such as body butters and shea butters, and she grows traditional herbs.

But having only a status document—and not an official South African identification—has not only made operating a business more difficult—it has also had a direct impact on the quality of her life. “I’m having to whip out this piece of paper when everyone else is taking out their IDs, and I’m having to wait for the bodyguard or the door guy,” she says. “Sometimes it can be socially awkward.”

For major life milestones—from buying a house to landing a job— Kanjirembo has often found that the status document simply isn’t good enough.

Renewing the document means she must show up on the day it expires—not a day later or a day earlier. The new expiration date may be anything from six months to a several years.

“I’ve just recently had it renewed online,” she said. “It was successful but I still haven’t received my hard copy—and I don’t think an email saying my paper is renewed is good enough.”

Yet her entrepreneurial dreams are thriving. “I would love to live in Greece someday—or at least own additional property,” she said. “I would love to go and travel, and teach and learn.”

She wants to consult with healers in places such as Mexico, Peru and rural China. “That would be amazing,” she said.

“Asylum seekers and refugees are human beings with feelings, with experiences,” she said.

People need to stop thinking of refugees as helpless people with fear and trauma—and start appreciating their entrepreneurial talents, believes Kanjirembo.

“There you are with everything you’ve lost—but there you are with everything you have to gain,” she says. “I would love for us to be given the opportunity to gain.”

Want to listen to the full story? Kanjirembo’s original story was recorded by podcaster Amina Deka Asma, producer of Seeking Refuge,” a podcast series included in a journalist training and networking program called “Changing the Narrative.” The project is produced by the World Association for Christian Communication and funded by the Otto per Mile foundation of the Waldensian Church in Italy. For more information—and more stories—visit the Changing the Narrative project page