House of welcome provides housing for refugees in São Paulo

Maria Vitória Paiva, project coordinator (photo: Hugo Reichenberger)

Maria Vitória Paiva, project coordinator (photo: Hugo Reichenberger)

Women from dozens of nationalities receive shelter, learn Portuguese and take professionalizing courses to adapt to life in Brazil.

By Carolina Montenegro

The simple room accommodates three beds. On the left corner, there’s a closet and a TV set. Three girls sleep there: one from Spain, one from South Africa and one from Malaysia. For a few months, this has been their home and of more than 31 refugee and foreign women who egressed the prison system.

“We speak in Portuguese and, if it gets complicated, we speak English”, says the young, shorthaired Spanish brunette, who studies Portuguese twice a week. Most refugees are from Africa, but there are also Colombian and Asian women.

Casa de Acolhida Nossa Senhora Aparecida, in downtown São Paulo, has already sheltered, in three years of operation, women from nearly 70 different nationalities. “And, as incredible as it may seem, language is what matters the least, what really matters is the welcoming”, said Maria Vitória Paiva, project coordinator.

“As the area receives women from all over the world, they wind up talking in English, or translating a bit of French to one that doesn’t speak Portuguese or even miming to communicate”, she explains.

The centennial house used to be a hostel for young people. The idea to turn the place into a house of welcome for refugee and egressing women came from Maria Vitória, who has worked for women’s rights for decades, and was well accepted by the São Vicente Pallotti congregation, the house owner.

Facade of Casa de Acolhida Nossa Senhora Aparecida (Photo: Hugo Reichenberger)

Facade of Casa de Acolhida Nossa Senhora Aparecida (Photo: Hugo Reichenberger)

Women who receive shelter can bring their children along to live together and share housework. “Each one will wash their own clothes and take care of their room and all of us rotate for cooking”, says a South African, who has been a guest in the house for four months.

She counts the days to see her four children again in Johannesburg. She’ll be on parole until February, after spending three years arrested in Brazil, sentenced for drug trafficking. “I wouldn’t have received permission to leave prison without an address”, she adds.

The shelter has a laundry, a chapel, a living room and space for craft workshops, dance classes, cutting and sewing, community therapy and psychological consulting. Purses and clothes produced in the house are sold in bazaars and on weekends, during visiting hours, cultural events and parties with cultural food are organized.

“Partnership with other NGOs is important, we here provide housing and feeding. In other fellow institutions, refugees take professionalizing and language courses”, says project coordinator. The idea is to provide safety and shelter for these women to adapt to Brazil.

When they find jobs and can afford their rent, they are ready to leave the house. On average, stays last from three to six months here.

The house is the only one in São Paulo to provide this kind of sheltering for refugee women. It is endowed by the congregation and receives donations from the community. “We are looking for more incentives and support to expand our services, if we get bunks for the bedrooms, we can accept twice as many women”, says Maria Vitória.

* Refugees United Special Reporter

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