Migrants in Brazil Fighting Xenophobia with Education

It was 30th of December 2013 when a tentative coup d’état in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) by the opposition failed and Steven’s father, was sent to prison.  A member of the opposition, he somehow managed to escape from prison after 4 months, fleeing to eastern DRC, where the government has less control.

 “The judge said since my dad had escaped from prison, I should go to jail in his place. That is when my mother decided to organize a way for me to escape, since the government was planning to send me to prison for 5 years. I felt I was already dead,” explained the 17-year old. 

Steven’s mother chose to send him to Brazil because in the previous years there had been many political refugees from DR Congo in Europe and when some of them were sent back to the African country, they were killed or sent to prison. Steven’s mother wanted to send him to a country far away from DR Congo to make sure he would be safe.

“I arrived in Brazil like a cat in a bag, without my family,” said Steven who was sent to Caritas, a faith-based humanitarian organization, when he arrived in São Paulo in 2014.

Steve now speaks Portuguese fluently and is finishing high school in Brazil. He is also one of the 14 teachers of the project “Abraço Cultural”, where, besides cultural workshops, migrants are teaching English, Spanish, Arabic and French with a cultural perspective. This initiative created by two NGOs, Adus and Atados, aims to deconstruct the prejudice and stereotypes against migrants and to help them better engage with the Brazilian society.

“We want to help them to strengthen their self-esteem and also give them a source of income,” explained Luiz Henrique Reggi Pecora, the coordinator of the project. Abraço Cultural has more than 100 students and 14 teachers at the moment.

Even though the global perception is that Brazil is a laid back country with a considerable mixture of different ethnicities, prejudice against migrants is an issue in Brazil.

Mari Garbelini, a lawyer who is studying Arabic through ‘Abraço Cultural’ says, “People have prejudice against dark skin color and different religions. Some even say that Brazil is facing an economic crisis and these people (migrants) come to steal their jobs.” She also believes that the migrants from Africa are more targeted than other migrants, mostly because of their jobs (street sellers) and their skin colour. Some publications on the internet about the project have received racist comments calling the migrants “terrorists” and “robbers”.

The organizers believe that ‘Abraço Cultural’ might be an important tool to help change the negative perception of migrants. Currently, Brazil is home to only 7,946 refugees, according to the National Committee for Refugees (CONARE). The majority are Syrian (1,894) followed by Colombians (1,300), Angolans (1,072), Congolese (829) and Lebanese (394). Although the number of recognised refugees is low, the total number of asylum applications has increased by over 930% between 2010 and 2013.

The ‘Abraço Cultural’ project is still in pilot phase and the students seem to be enjoying the experience, especially the cultural workshops. “My favorite one was Arabic culinary. We have made Falafel and Tabuli … in the background they were playing music with drums, it was great,” Mari remembers. Before start teaching, all the migrants go through an instructional training given by volunteers. Luiz says that those looking for language classes at ‘Abraço Cultural´ already have a more open mind, but the visibility the project is gaining via the media and also when the students share their positive experiences they are having with the migrants, is reaching people who are more resistant to migration and gradually softening attitudes.

Steven says that he is glad to have the chance to be part of Abraço Cultural´, but that life in Brazil is still not so easy for a migrant. “I will be happy in Brazil, when I will organize myself, but I am not organized yet. I still live in a shelter. I talk often with my mom on the phone and she always say she's fine, but I know that in reality things are not going well there.  I'm worried about my family.”