Internet helps refugees to overcome loneliness in Brasil

UNHCR Brazil has featured an article on Refugees United and its efforts to reunite refugee families. Please, find bellow the translation of the article. This is the link of the original one in Portuguese. (

Asylum seeker in Brazil uses the internet to contact family in Africa (Photo: C. Montenegro/© ACNUR)

Internet helps to overcome loneliness in Brazil

The Eritrean Yonas Samuel arrived in Brazil early this year, coming from South Africa. Years of fleeing from several African countries. Desperate to find his wife and daughter he left in Zimbabwe, he found the solution in a site specialized in reuniting the refugees.

For the asylum seeker Euphrem D’Fagbenou, who came from Benin a year ago, the internet helps to overcome the homesickness and is also a tool for social inclusion in Brazil. “I often talk online with my relatives in Africa, at least once a week. But I come here to meet friends I made in Brazil, find a job, read news about Sao Paulo, “said the young man, 23, who left his country after suffering persecution for being part of a union group.

The two cases are examples of how the internet today is part of the routine of refugees in urban centers and helps them to adapt to the new host country. In a city like Sao Paulo there are more points of access to the internet to serve the refugees. Two spaces increasingly sought are the free of charge internet rooms of Refugees United (RU) and SESC Carmo, both located in downtown where the access to those places is easy due to the many options of public transportation.

D’Fagbenou is a regular visitor of Refugees United (RU), an international organization that promotes refugee family reunion around the world by the web. “Here I also made many friends; I met other refugees and the Brazilians who are the volunteers in this space. Here I feel at home, “says the African.

At RU’s office, 14 volunteers support refugees and asylum seekers twice a week. Many of them have personal and family stories similar to the refugees’ and therefore sympathize with the work. “My family survived the Holocaust; my mother was born in Poland and came to Brazil when she was 11 years old. My grandparents met again in the midst of war with the help of Red Cross and they fled to Brazil as stateless people. I always had an unfulfilled desire to work with refugees because of this past, “says journalist Karin Fusaro, RU’s volunteer since early 2009.

On Refugees United site, refugees register in anonymously and confidentially way into a database, indicating personal characteristics (such as scars and last name). Data that only family and close friends could recognize and use to find them again. Samuel is the successful story of RU office in Brazil. The organization is headquartered in Denmark and has a branch in United States.

He registered in RU, after receiving a suggestion from RU’s partner NGO Caritas in Sao Paulo and a week later received the first contact from a woman refugee in the United Kingdom, who was seeking for her husband for years. Samuel was recognized by his wife because he mentioned the word “expresso” in his profile. “The family used to make fun and call him this way because it was his favorite drink,” says the lawyer Naomi Maruyama who witnessed the message exchanges between Samuel and his wife on the internet. “It was very exciting. He said that we gave him back the reason to live, “she added .

Businessman and political activist in Eritrea, Samuel was emigrating from one country to another in searching for protection from persecution since 1998. He lived in Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and South Africa before arriving in Brazil. He sought his family for a year without success. He tried to contact them by telephone, letters, friends and relatives, but the solution came with the Internet.

Before the expansion of the internet, the refugees used to ask for help of compatriots who came from their home countries, in order to get news about family and relatives. Today, these people also read newspapers from their countries and listen to regional music through the computers.

“Until 2001, the Internet services were more restricted in this city. Today several subway stations and bus terminals rely on access points to the web, “said Denise Collus, social worker of SESC Carmo. Since 2000, the city of Sao Paulo has implemented the program AcessaSP to promote digital inclusion and today there are 512 free access points around the city.

“Here at SESC, about 120 people use our computers every week. Each person can be connected for up to 30 minutes a day, but we still have queues”, adds Denise. At SESC Carmo there’s a free internet room with 16 flat screen computers, waiting room and professionals that guide the users.

According to Denise, the demand for the service by the refugees has increased in the recent years. “The internet today helps to break the solitude of many of them. There are more and more cases like the one of a young Cuban woman that through the web has accompanied the growth of her son who stayed with relatives in their homeland, or a Congolese refugee who spoke for five years with his wife and children in Africa through the internet, “she explains.

“The online search for employment also became quite common. For many refugees the email is their primary address because they don’t feel comfortable in sending the contacts of the shelters where they live to the potential employers , “says Denise.

The majority of refugees who use the SESC’s Internet services are 22 to 35 years old and had accessed the web before. “This is because the Internet has become increasingly popular, but also refugees who come to Brazil usually are well educated and had access to high level scholarship in their countries,” adds Denise.

Source: ACNUR


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