Home » Faith Formation and Pastoral Care » São Paulo the Ellis Island of Latin America

Written by Maryknoll Lay Missioner Greg Fischer:
Since beginning my ministry work in conjunction with Missão Paz, I have seen thousands of immigrants come in and out of our doors. In essence, São Paulo has become the 21st century version of Ellis Island. While their needs are diverse, these immigrants all come under the same condition – looking to establish themselves in their new home.
Lines waiting outside Missão Paz
One particular case struck me as being exemplary of the difficulties some people experience in the social and economic transition to Brazil. A family of three arrived in May from Pakistan. They had fled the country seeking refuge in Brazil from the violence afflicting the northern border with Afghanistan where the Taliban maintain a strong, disruptive presence within Pakistani villages. The parents, Farooq and Bad-e-Saba, were in their late 40’s/early 50’s – they appeared to bear their advancing age heavily – and followed the traditions of their Muslim heritage including Bad-e-Saba wearing the hijab. They came to Brazil with their five year old son who, I believe, has a mental disability.
Long lines wait for entry to Missão Paz during the humanitarian crisis in April-May, 2014
The transition of the family was especially hard. The parents came to Brazil speaking English but didn’t know anything in Portuguese; their son only spoke the native language. When they first arrived, I assisted them as their English translator with settling into the Migrant House, registering for Portuguese class and registering their son for preschool at a nearby location. All three aspects of the transition were difficult; they were living in a house with people who came from cultures very different from their own, the son with his mental deficiency would be going to a school with only Brazilians and could not understand instructions given by the teachers and the Portuguese class was held 3km away at night – which also meant that their son would have to accompany them for the 2-hour class. Kim and I had an old stroller that we gave the couple so they could use that to transport their son to Portuguese class in the hopes it would help.
Farooq’s previously held a job in Pakistan as a math teacher; through the work mediation he found a job as a dish-washer within a restaurant. Sadly, for someone who had a higher degree of education, this was the best he could find for the time being. Whether he can move to a different field more suited to his level of experience and education in the future is a giant unknown.
At one point, Farooq came to find me at the Work Mediation. He and Bad-e-Saba were no longer taking the Portuguese class; between the long walking distance at night, his work schedule and not having a babysitter available during the course, it was too much to handle. They were also trying to find a job for Bad-e-Saba, which was also proving difficult. The preschool program for their son was only a half-day program and it was difficult to coordinate his care while searching for employment.
While describing the personal struggles, he started to break down and began tearing up. The process – the difficulties – was overwhelming him and his family. Trying to balance all these aspects in addition to adapting to a culture vastly different from one’s own could overwhelm anyone. I offered him sympathy and tried to assist him finding a possible employer match for Bad-e-Saba, but nothing came of it.
An employer meets with prospective employees through Missão Paz’ placement services
He and his family have since moved on from the Migrant House; I hear they are now living in the nearby area, but I don’t know more than that. I don’t know if the apex of their difficulties passed nor do I know if they were more successful in the job market. Their story is only but one example of what many immigrants and refugees go through in the integration process. It’s difficult and it’s rough. For Farooq and Bad-e-Saba the decision to leave Pakistan was less a choice and more a requirement. When personal safety of a spouse or child is at risk, there is only one choice to make.
We through the pastoral offer what help we can to help ease the burdens of the transitions, but sometimes it still doesn’t feel like it’s enough, especially when trying to address individual needs out of a giant influx of immigrants. I think of Farooq and his family often and hope for resolution and security in their situation.
The Scalabrinian order was founded by the forward-thinking Blessed Giovanni Battista Scalabrini (1839-1905), 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, health and children education needs, necessary documentation, registration  for professional courses and registration for Portuguese courses, help run a mediation center for immigrants looking for jobs and businesses looking for prospective employees, a lawyer to help with judicial matters, two Scalabrinian priests for those wishing to discuss spiritual matters and coordinate the Latin American communities spread throughout various areas of the greater São Paulo region. The Scalabrinians also maintain a center for researching 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. 

Erik Cambier
Erik Cambier served as Maryknoll lay missioner for 25 years, in Tanzania, the United States, Venezuela and El Salvador.