Christmas of the stateless people

We translated an article about Casa do Migrante, a Refugees United’s partner, which offers shelter to the refugees that arrive in Brazil.

This is the original link (in Portuguese) of the article published in O Estado de S.Paulo newspaper. (,0.php)

Good reading!

Refugees United

Christmas of the stateless men

In a shelter located in São Paulo city, they celebrate this date far away from their origins, their cultures and their relatives

Along with the holiday memories that the Sierra Leonese Alimamy Mohames, age 25, carries, lies one of a large party throughout the streets of the city of Masiaka. “During this time of the year, all you see is joy over there”, he remembers, with nostalgia in his eyes. “The national soccer tournament is over, everyone celebrates and, on Christmas day, there is an enormous show for the people. Despite being a Muslim, I like to give out presents and have a drink with my mates.”

The last December 25th, however, was different for him. Mohames could not celebrate with his friends and relatives. Living in Brazil since October 19th, he spent Christmas in Paraná, with refugees from Ghana and Senegal, in search of a job. Mohames says he fled from his country, “in order not to die”. Estado spoke with him on the last December 22nd, at the Casa do Migrante, an institution supported by the Catholic Church in downtown São Paulo. At that time, Mohames was already packing for Paraná.

Threatening notes
There are currently 80 men and 20 women living at the Casa do Migrante’s 30 bedrooms. They are mostly individuals who have sought asylum in Brazil due to racial, social or religious persecution in their homelands. Other have suffered severe human rights violations. For having been attacked, raped, rejected, offended and faced with death threats, they are considered refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Mohames’ story is a living example of that. In the 90s, when a civil war overtook the African country, his family did not accept to join the rebels who were taking the president down. In 1997, the same year in which the coup took place, his mother and father were killed by soldiers. “The rebels attacked my house on my birthday”, he recalls, with tears in his eyes. “Look at what they did”, he says, showing a picture of his mother with her throat cut – her head separated from her body. “They used to send copies of this photo to me, alongside a note which said: ‘you were lucky’”.

Indeed he was. Mohames only escaped the massacre because on that night he was sleeping over at a friend’s house. He had just turned 12. After becoming an orphan, he was raised by an uncle and two older brothers (one of them does not have his arms, cut down during the war). “Even after the peacekeeping troops entered Sierra Leone and ended the conflict, they continued to persecute me”, says Mohames. He also expresses a certain pride of the fact that the rebels hated his father for having been a notorious oppositionist to them, and especially because of the success he had achieved in his city. “I am a professor, graduated in Linguistics and currently studying Sociology, I speak eight languages and was elected the second best student in my country. This irritated them”.

As time went by, the threats became more frequent. “I would find threatening notes on top of my bed when coming back home”, he says. In August, a friend of his father gave him airline tickets to come to Brazil and imposed on him: “go and make your life longer”. Mohames first traveled to Senegal, where he waited for his flight over here. He has arrived around three months ago, in Sao Paulo, and with only USD 100 in his pockets, he started living at the Casa do Migrante, from where he left, alongside other refugees, in hope of finding a job in a meat producer industry at the southern State of Paraná.

The Sierra Leonese is one of the 4.2 thousand refugees in Brazil who will spend the holidays away from their home countries. “I won’t even celebrate, because I don’t have enough happiness for that”, he indicates. “I am in a land in which I cannot communicate, because I don’t speak Portuguese. I can’t find a job, I can’t share the knowledge I acquired in the university, and I live without my friends and siblings”.

Not everyone who is facing the same situation as Mohames looks at this time of the year with sadness, though. The Sudanese Yvon Paka, who arrived at the Casa do Migrante on October 3rd, is filled with joy. Smiling, he feels very happy for celebrating Christmas with his roommates. “I love Brazil”, he says in a poor and accent-heavy Portuguese. “Over here there are no dead children on the streets and I can walk around fearless”. A Christian, Paka was persecuted by Muslims, the predominant religion in Sudan. “They will curse, rape, beat and kill those who are not like themselves”, he reports. “I hate them”, he says, while helping his friend Mohames, a Muslim, to pack his bags. “But the ones who are here at this house are nice”, he highlights.

Paka celebrated Christmas’ Eve with a supper alongside his colleagues from Casa do Migrante. Four cooks prepared ten kilos of rice, seven of potatoes, 20 of manioc flour, two turkeys and seven hams. For dessert, 200 stick-ice creams were served. “This is a much fuller dinner than most of them would have had in their home countries”, says the priest Mario Geremia, vice-director of the house and coordinator of the Pastoral do Migrante. The table was set by a group of refugees and immigrants. “They need to feel at home here and, by consequence, take care of this space as if they were in their own homes”. The priest believes that organizing a Christmas supper is a way of showing them that they have found shelter, and that they are now protected and among friends.

The Nepalese Kamal Galltam loved the food. In poor English, he defined: “good”. Galltam arrived in Brazil a year ago. He says he lost his house in Nepal in 2007, when an avalanche hit his house and killed his parents. He came to this country illegally, down at ship’s basement. When he arrived here, he lived in the streets of Sao Paulo, without any money or food, and speaking no Portuguese. Police officers found him in these conditions and took him to the Casa do Migrante. Underfed, he spent two months having only milk. Today, he says he still has severe headaches everytime he is hungry. At the table, besides his refugee colleagues, Galltam ate two plates full of ham, rice and manioc flour. And even if not being able to speak his colleagues’ languages, hugged everyone, wishing them Merry Christmas.

“This is a true Babel Tower. With only one difference: despite the language barrier, everyone understands each other”, defines the priest Geremia. “They take this institution as their true home”, says the social worker Marcia Lourdes de Araujo, who works there with 30 other employees from the most diversified areas. “Because of that, they create strong ties with the other refugees and employees. The social worker becomes a mother, the doorman becomes a brother, the roommate suddenly is a best friend…”

Lives at a crossroad
Born in Eritrea, Rahwa Micael, age 28, has been in Brazil for a year – with her son Natan, age 2. She was a radio operator for the Armed Forces in her country, but turned the job down in order to work as a waitress in the neighbouring Sudan. “The military came looking for me at my parents’ house and, as they did not know where I was, they ended up being arrested”, she recalls. From Sudan, she managed to get a ticket to Brazil. “I miss my parents and my husband, who is living as a refugee in Egypt”, she says, right after making a call on the public phone installed at the Casa do Migrante.

Eric Nawike, age 19, from Ghana, still does not know everyone at the house, where he arrived only a few days ago. His father was killed at the civil war. He decided to flee from his country in order not to have the same destiny. “I boarded a ship, hiding. I did not even know where it was going to”, he reveals. “I spent two weeks aboard, as a clandestine”. In Santos, where he disembarked, he begged for money in order to buy his bus ticket to Sao Paulo. His dream is to find a job. In Ghana, Nawike was a carpenter. About Brazil I only knew two things: one, it is the land of soccer, and two, there are many Catholics here”, he says – himself being a Catholic.

Also from Ghana, Inusah Abubakar, age 29, arrived in Brazil two months ago. “I came here in order to make my life longer”, he summarizes. As his fellow country man, he’s lost his father in the civil war. There, his family has a rural property with cattle. “They sold some cows in order to pay for my airline ticket. If we had enough money, the entire family would have come”.

Antonio Roldan Gomez, age 31, came from Cuba. “I belong to a party which is oppositionist to the government”, he explains. A political prisoner, he managed to flee and start a life in Paraguay. After that, he spent one year hiding in Foz do Iguaçu, in Parana, until he could come to São Paulo, hitchhiking, a month ago. “I haven’t seen my young son, my wife and my parents in four years”, he says. “I can’t go to Cuba, or else I will be arrested. And they do not give permission for my family to leave from there either”. He complements: “One day, if I can, I will bring my entire family here and live in Brazil for the rest of my life”.

According to the UNHCR, most of the 4.2 thousand refugees from 75 nationalities currently living in Brazil are from Africa. In second place is South America. The largest group of refugees is from Angola: 1,688 have found shelter here. After them are the Colombians (598) and Congolese (392). Around half of all refugees are in the State of Sao Paulo.

“They flee especially from nations in a state of civil war, and they choose to come here because it is a welcoming country, with fragile borders. They arrive penniless”, explains the philosopher and lawyer Guilherme Assis de Almeida, coordinator at the State Committee for Refugees of São Paulo, which accounts for State offices and institutions who give assistance to this sector. “And they are happy here due to the fact that they do not face constant threats and are not under death risk as in their home lands. So, in my opinion, they end up spending much merrier holidays”.

Source: O Estado de S.Paulo


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