Colombian refugees get chance to start anew in Brazil

Brazil has accepted more than 100 Colombian refugees in the last two years under its resettlement programme. These resettled refugees enjoy schooling opportunities, Portuguese classes, skills training, advice on job placement and micro-credit projects to help them set up small businesses, among other assistance.

Resettled in Brazil, this woman-headed refugee family is now buying a house.   © UNHCR Brazil

RÍO GRANDE, Brazil, March 11 (UNHCR) - Mariana will turn 12 this month. At her age, many girls look forward to becoming adults. For Mariana however, adult life has come too soon. Now in a new country, she can finally enjoy being a child again.

Since losing her mother three years ago in the Colombian conflict, Mariana has been taking care of her four siblings, cooking and cleaning. Last year, the five children and their father Enrique [not his real name] were resettled from Ecuador to Río Grande Do Norte, in northern Brazil. This year, for the first time since her mother's death, Mariana can look forward to going to school again, learning and playing with children her own age.

Enrique can also finally breathe a little easier. A self-taught environmentalist and expert on agriculture, he currently provides professional advice to cooperatives on setting up self-sustaining agricultural projects, from vegetable plots to fish farms. "Now I hope to get a loan to buy a motorcycle. That way I can go more quickly from one cooperative to another," he says.

Enrique has also bought the family a home with UNHCR's help. The refugee agency made the first payment, and he will be paying the rest over three years. "Most importantly," he stresses, "I feel secure living with my children in Brazil."

Enrique and his children are among the 75 refugees resettled in Brazil last year, more than triple the number of refugees resettled in the country in 2003. Almost all are Colombians who were in Ecuador and Costa Rica. They settled in Río Grande, São Paulo and Porto Alegre in the south where UNHCR and its partners have designed programmes to help them integrate in this new society.

Brazil first began receiving refugees for resettlement in 2001. Although the programme is not exclusively designed for Colombian refugees - the first resettled refugees were in fact Afghan - it has become increasingly geared to their reception. Over the past two years, Brazil has received 105 Colombian refugee men, women and children.

At a meeting in Mexico in November 2004 to commemorate the 20th Anniversary of the Cartagena Declaration, the Brazilian government proposed the setting up of a regional resettlement programme for Latin American refugees.

The idea is to provide sanctuary to those in the region fleeing conflict and persecution, while also helping the countries which currently receive the bulk of Colombian refugees, namely Ecuador and Costa Rica. The proposal was welcomed by participants from other countries at the meeting and included as one of the main points of the Mexico Plan of Action.

Under this programme, Brazil also wants to provide women who head their own households with the opportunity to forge a better life for their families. It has already received six women-headed families, all Colombian.

Like other refugees arriving under the programme, these women receive Portuguese classes, job training and advice on job placement in addition to UNHCR assistance to cover nursery costs for small children, so that they can go out to work.

Fabiola, a single mother of eight children, has been finding it very hard to feed them. For the past three years, her two eldest children have been working rather than going to school to help her out.

Last year they all arrived in Río Grande. Fabiola has managed to buy a house with UNHCR's help and is taking classes to learn how to make crafts which she hopes to sell. Her two oldest children are back at school. In the afternoons, they study carpentry in a shop.

In spite of the many challenges Fabiola and other refugee women like herself have to face, in some ways they are integrating more successfully than some of the refugee men and women who do not have such large responsibilities, for instance, some of the refugees who arrived alone in Brazil.

As UNHCR's partners have pointed out, some of the refugees have problems integrating because of their unrealistically high expectations of what they are likely to achieve from the outset in economic terms. They are easily discouraged and stop participating in language classes, job training and other similar activities that are crucial when it comes to finding work.

UNHCR has been working together with its Brazilian partners, as well as staff in Ecuador and Costa Rica, to ensure that refugees have as much information as possible on the challenges they are likely to face upon arrival.

One of the tools they use is a video in which refugees from different countries already in Brazil share their challenges and experiences, and emphasize the importance of personal initiative and the willingness to learn new skills. At a meeting with UNHCR staff, one refugee who arrived in 2003 said, "After seeing the queues for employment, I had a much better idea of what to expect."

Jaime is one refugee who adapted to his new environment with a lot of energy. Upon arrival in Brazil, he quickly became aware of the huge gastronomy market. UNHCR helped him take courses in international cuisine, and today he is Second Chef in one of Porto Alegre's most important hotels. He has managed to help two other resettled Colombians find work at the same hotel, and will soon be joined in Brazil by his teenage daughter.

Brazilian authorities have announced their readiness to accept at least 275 resettled refugees in 2005. The number of actual arrivals, however, will depend on the funds that UNHCR can raise for the programme. At the moment, funds are guaranteed for the resettlement of 75 refugees this year.

The first group of 18 refugees was formally accepted during a meeting in February. Once they are in Brazil - no date has been set yet for their arrival - this group will be among the first to benefit from a redesigned UNHCR micro-credit programme in Brazil, to help them set up small businesses.

Like many of the other refugees who start anew in this frequently warm and generous society, they are also likely to enjoy the support of their receiving communities. In the past, the neighbours and friends refugees made in Brazil demonstrated their solidarity in many ways, from helping them find jobs to lending them their own television sets.

By Thais Bessa and Luis Varese, UNHCR Brazil
with Nazli Zaki, UNHCR Argentina