Written by Kim & Greg Fischer
Their names are Fida, Junette, Charlotte, Sherree, Fatan, Renata, Natalie, Ursile, Bibicha, Sila, Makapula, Binda, Ana, Dina. They come from Spain, the Netherlands, the Congo, Angola, South Africa, the Philippines, the United States. They speak French, English, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and local dialects from Africa. Some are here as refugees, fleeing danger, separated from their families with no news of the safety of their loved ones. Others are here in São Paulo as a result of drug trafficking, awaiting the rest of their parole sentence and hoping to return to their home countries once they receive clearance from the government…and earn the necessary funds for the flight home. These women, all foreigners, live together in Casa de Acolhida (House of Welcome), run by Associação Palotina, a congregation of Catholic sisters started in Italy in 1838. These thirty foreign women, and their five children, live together in the home, sharing responsibilities and receiving kindness in the form of shelter, food, education, and guidance in adjusting to Brazil. Various social groups attend to these women, providing various skill classes. Fellow Maryknoll Lay Missioner Carolyn Trumble and I became one of these groups after meeting with the staff and women to discuss their needs. At the meetings, we learned that the women had needs in the area of physical exercise, due to a very sedentary lifestyle and lack of access to facilities. The women of Casa de Acolhida expressed the most interest in an exercise class, especially one featuring dance. So, Carolyn and I started an aerobics class to meet the physical and mental needs of the women and to build community in a house of strangers.
In our early classes, participants were hesitant and self-conscious. As we gently invited more and more women to participate, enthusiasm grew. We dance without shoes, since none of the women own tennis shoes. We dance along to aerobics and Zumba videos, learning the moves together. We dance to fast and slow-paced songs, though I was told by Renata that we “need more music for women aged fifty and up.” We adapt to the needs of the group, which include women from all nationalities and languages. One of our most enthusiastic participants is five-year-old Victoria. She is so far from her home in Africa, yet displays so much unbridled joy; the other women can’t help but join her. After we finish our set, several of the women ask to repeat certain songs, notably the one with the attractive male dancers. We laugh, dance, and talk about our lives before Brazil and our experiences in Brazil. Some of the women struggle greatly with finding their way here; in many ways their struggles align with my early days here – struggling with a new language, figuring out government procedures, learning the subway system, finding housing and work. All of these challenges allow us to connect, despite the fact that we don’t always speak the same language and grew up in cultures continents apart.
Dina is one of many immigrants struggling to find work. In a city of 11.3 million people, there is a lot of competition, and for someone who is just learning the language and customs, opportunities are scarce. Understanding how to find the available opportunities is even more limiting. I spoke with Dina one night after our dance class, and she expressed her frustration with finding work. God really does work in wondrous ways, for I was able to guide her to my husband’s ministry with the Scalabrinian Missionaries. While the aerobics class is my work, my ministry is so much more than that. The class is simply the medium through which I can support and reach out to these women.
Dina did follow up on Kim’s directions and made her way to the Missão Paz (Peace Mission), where the Scalabrinians attend to immigrants and help them find work. Dina entered Brazil as an immigrant and eventually spent some time in one of the city penitentiaries before moving into the Casa da Acolhida in the east zone of Sao Paulo. When she came to me, the only paperwork she possessed were legal documents stating her release date from prison. To obtain employment in Brazil, much like the US, requires specific papers issued by the government regardless of citizenship.
The Scalabrinian mission was founded by the forward-thinking Blessed Giovanni Battista Scalabrini (d. 1901), an Italian bishop, whose focus was on assisting immigrants and promoting progressive rights for the working class in the 19th century. Missão Paz has pastoral workers, many of them lay people, addressing various areas of concern for newly arrived immigrants to Brazil. There are social workers to help meet housing needs, necessary documentation, and medical issues, a lawyer to help with specific legal matters, a Scalabrinian priest for those wishing to discuss spiritual matters, an assistant to enroll immigrant children into school, a volunteer who teaches a basic Portuguese course for non-fluent immigrants at the center, a volunteer assisting immigrants in registering for professional courses and registering for a more advanced Portuguese course, and a social worker who runs a mediation center for immigrants looking for jobs and businesses looking for prospective employees. The Scalabrinians also maintain a center for research of migrant issues and, through the larger religious order, publish a monthly magazine highlighting immigrant issues. Between the various staff members and volunteers, Missão Paz has the ability to effectively communicate with any immigrant who speaks Portuguese, Spanish, French, Creole, English, Italian, or Japanese.
While Dina’s focus is on obtaining employment and building a life for herself in her non-native country, she had some work to do with documentation to reach that step. Since Dina is not proficient in Portuguese, I took the time to explain the documentation process, answered her questions and aided in providing translation to English, one of Dina’s native languages, when she met with the social worker who specializes in documentation. Through the assistance of Missão Paz, Dina received the information she needed to empower herself to continue in her process of integrating into a new country and (eventually) seek employment to gain a form of financial security and independence.
Dina’s story is not that different than the vast number of other immigrants coming to Brazil through São Paulo, which has basically turned into the 21st century version of Ellis Island as foreigners seek their “Brazilian Dream.” About 40 immigrants come to the mediation center on the days it is open. Usually it takes immigrants a month’s worth of visits to eventually find an employer. Despite the difficulties immigrants face coming to a new country, a barrier with language is lessened at Missão Paz. I am able to offer translation assistance to those immigrants who do not speak Portuguese meet with prospective employers about the possibilities existing within the business. While it is a small contribution in the larger picture, it crosses the language barrier many immigrants face.
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you made me welcome (Matthew 25:35). Brazil has welcomed us with open arms, support, and great kindness; in our work with the immigrant and refugee community, we work to do the same for others coming in to this beautiful country.