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Building a bridge from Brazil to Africa

News Stories, 10 February 2005

© UNHCR/G.Gutarra
A refugee band from Angola plays a concert in Brazil. The Angolans have assimilated well.

SAO PAOLO, Brazil (UNHCR) Seated in his São Paulo apartment among bongos, tambourines and paintings of savannah sunsets, Mikanda*, a soft-spoken 38-year-old, tells the story of his arrival alone in Brazil from Angola 10 years ago. A young man in search of religious learning and a future as a priest, he did not know then that in this new society he would embark on a completely different mission.

Soberly dressed in suit and tie and looking very serious, Mikanda recalls that he was in Brazil when he learnt that his father had been imprisoned back home. A member of Angola's ruling MPLA party (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola), his father was accused of sympathizing with UNITA (Union for the Total Independence of Angola) rebels.

Mikanda organized a campaign in São Paulo for his release, and gathered hundreds of signatures. He wrote an article on politics and the war in Angola, which was published in Folha de São Paulo, one of Brazil's most important dailies.

"I then found out from friends in Angola that the Angolan Ambassador in Brazil was indignant, and that I had been declared a persona non grata in my country," he says. "That also had to do with the fact that while in Angola I had participated in a party which worked for peace, and had refused to join the army."

Mikanda applied for asylum in Brazil in October 2000, and was granted refugee status by the Brazilian refugee committee, CONARE. This was one of the most violent periods in Angola's civil war, and CONARE recognized another 300 Angolans at the same time, applying the Cartagena Declaration.

The Declaration widens the definition of refugees to also include those who have fled their countries because they were threatened by generalized violence or internal conflicts, among other cited circumstances seriously disturbing public order.

In the meantime, Mikanda had changed academic course, earning a degree in Economics from the University of San Francisco in São Paulo. It was his decision to join the newly formed African Friends and Students League however, that would lead him to become an artist, a teacher and policy advocate.

The League was born in 1996, when some 400 students mostly from sub-Saharan Africa but also from Brazil, Cuba, Morocco and Algeria got together in the midst of a growing Black-consciousness movement in Brazil. The movement is spearheaded by lawmakers, human rights activists, painters, musicians and just about anybody eager to carve out a larger role for Brazil's black population in the country's political and social life.

According to different sources, about 45 percent of the population is of direct or partial African descent. The Afro-Brazilian population is disproportionately affected by poverty and studies show that child labour, illiteracy and infant mortality are higher among this group.

In recent years the government has introduced a number of different measures to promote racial equality, including a federal government quota system for hires and race quotas in several state universities. It also became mandatory in 2003 for all public schools to include the history of Africa and black culture in Brazil in its curricula.

The African Friends and Students League is one of the non-governmental institutions playing an active role in the Black-consciousness movement. Mikanda quickly made its mission his own: promoting African culture in Brazil to strengthen ties between this Latin American country and the African continent.

He started by buying an amplifier and printing t-shirts with a small loan which he got from Cáritas, UNHCR's partner in Brazil. He used the materials when he went to schools to tell African stories, and soon decided to offer live music as well. "And that's how we started playing music," he remembers.

Today, he is the League's President, and has also set up an office, "Moments of Africa", which offers different aspects of African culture. Visitors can partake in theatrical presentations, dances Kizomba or other dances mostly from southern and western Africa live music, story-telling, film presentations and food tasting. It is a vivid experience not least because of the bright batik and other traditional clothing worn by the performers, including Mikanda himself.

This proud Angolan is motivated not only by his strong desire to see Brazil integrate more fully its African population, but also by the conviction that if Brazilians get a close experience of African culture, they are more likely to take an active stand on issues of importance on that continent.

"Why did Brazilians not organize a single march for peace in Angola? When persons have really experienced a taste of Africa, sung to its tunes and danced to its rhythm, they react differently. In times of war on our continent, this is also reflected and may have an impact on Brazil's foreign policies," he says.

Mikanda has been invited to give many lectures and to organize public events hosted by companies, clubs and schools all over the country. The League has also recently developed an educational programme to train 80 school teachers in African culture, history and oral tradition an aspect of the culture Mikanda is particularly interested in transmitting, "because it is just as important for Afro-Brazilians to have access to their ancestral past".

In November 2004, the League was invited to take charge of a 20-day event in São Paulo's largest metro station to mark the city's 450th anniversary. Afternoon passengers were treated to different activities every day, from a South African fashion show to a talk on African hip-hop culture.

Full of energy and hope, Mikanda has big plans for the future. "The market for Africa in Brazil is huge, I would like to set up six new offices like the one in São Paulo. This work helps build a relationship between our peoples and establishes a solid base for peace."

* Not his real name.

By Wellington Carneiro in Brasilia, Brazil
and Nazli Zaki in Buenos Aires, Argentina




UNHCR country pages

Assessing Refugee Needs in Brazil

UNHCR staff have been visiting and talking to urban refugees around Brazil to assess their protection needs of refugees and other people of concern. The refugee agency, working with local partners, carries out a three-week Participatory Assessment every year. UNHCR uses an age, gender and diversity approach during the exercise. This means also talking to minority and vulnerable groups, including women, older people, those living with disability and more. The findings allow UNHCR to develop an appropriate protection response. This year's exercise was conducted in five cities - São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Brasília, Rio Grande de Sul and Manaus. Refugees taking part said the assessment allowed them to share views, problems and solutions with UNHCR and others. Various stakeholders, including government officials, aid workers and academics, also participated.

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Statelessness among Brazilian Expats

Irina was born in 1998 in Switzerland, daughter of a Brazilian mother and her Swiss boyfriend. Soon afterwards, her mother Denise went to the Brazilian Consulate in Geneva to get a passport for Irina. She was shocked when consular officials told her that under a 1994 amendment to the constitution, children born overseas to Brazilians could not automatically gain citizenship. To make matters worse,the new-born child could not get the nationality of her father at birth either. Irina was issued with temporary travel documents and her mother was told she would need to sort out the problem in Brazil.

In the end, it took Denise two years to get her daughter a Brazilian birth certificate, and even then it was not regarded as proof of nationality by the authorities. Denise turned for help to a group called Brasileirinhos Apátridas (Stateless Young Brazilians), which was lobbying for a constitutional amendment to guarantee nationality for children born overseas with at least one Brazilian parent.

In 2007, Brazil's National Congress approved a constitutional amendment that dropped the requirement of residence in Brazil for receiving citizenship. In addition to benefitting Irina, the law helped an estimated 200,000 children, who would have otherwise been left stateless and without many of thebasic rights that citizens enjoy. Today, children born abroad to Brazilian parents receive Brazilian nationality provided that they are registered with the Brazilian authorities, or they take up residence in Brazil and opt for Brazilian nationality.

"As a mother it was impossible to accept that my daughter wasn't considered Brazilian like me and her older brother, who was also born in Switzerland before the 1994 constitutional change," said Denise. "For me, the fact that my daughter would depend on a tourist visa to live in Brazil was an aberration."

Irina shares her mother's discomfort. "It's quite annoying when you feel you belong to a country and your parents only speak to you in that country's language, but you can't be recognized as a citizen of that country. It feels like they are stealing your childhood," the 12-year-old said.

Statelessness among Brazilian Expats

UNHCR resumes return operation for 43,000 Angolans in DR Congo

The UN refugee agency has resumed a voluntary repatriation programme for Angolan refugees living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Some 43,000 Angolans have said they want to go back home under a project that was suspended four years ago for various reasons. A first group of 252 Angolan civilians left the UNHCR transit centre in the western DRC town of Kimpese on November 4, 2011 They crossed the border a few hours later and were warmly welcomed by officials and locals in Mbanza Congo. In the first two weeks of the repatriation operation, more than 1,000 Angolan refugees returned home from the DRC provinces of Bas-Congo in the west and Katanga in the south. Out of some 113,000 Angolan refugees living in neighbouring countries, 80,000 are hosted by the DRC.

UNHCR resumes return operation for 43,000 Angolans in DR Congo

Almost Home Play video

Almost Home

Former Angolan refugees, in exile for as many as three decades, are given the opportunity to locally integrate in neighboring Zambia with the help of UNHCR and the Zambian Government.
Angola: Home At LastPlay video

Angola: Home At Last

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