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Theatre raises health awareness and strengthens bonds in Rio

News Stories, 26 November 2008

© UNHCR/V.Graziano
The Play's the Thing: Young Angolans and Brazilians send out a message through drama in a Rio shantytown.

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil, November 26 (UNHCR) A line from Shakespeare's "Hamlet" came to mind last week in Rio de Janeiro during a theatrical performance by Angolan refugees and migrants with Brazilian actors.

"The play's the thing in which I'll catch the conscience of the king," says the tragic, brooding Danish prince. But in Rio, the play was the thing in which the cast caught the conscience of the audience and each other about serious health issues that affect the lives of migrants, refugees and locals.

"Prevention is the Solution" was staged last Wednesday in the city's poverty-stricken Vila do João district as part of an awareness campaign on HIV/AIDS and reproductive health being organized as a special project of High Commissioner António Guterres. The run-down area is home to a community of several hundred Angolan refugees and migrants.

The first-night audience comprised young people from the district. UNHCR and its local non-governmental organization partner, Ação Comunitária do Brasil (ACB), are confident that their enthusiastic reception will be repeated during coming performances at seven state schools in Vila do João and surrounding communities. The next show will be this Saturday.

The UNHCR campaign aims above all at strengthening the links between refugees, migrants and Brazilians by bringing actors from both communities together and by jointly spreading awareness about vital sexual health issues, especially reproductive health, HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases and safe sex. These are far more of an issue in deprived shantytown areas such as Vila do João than in more affluent areas of the seaside metropolis.

"It is a fantastic opportunity to make new friends, locals and Angolans, and I am learning a lot about these important issues," said cast member Domingos Manuel da Silva, a 27-year-old Angolan refugee who arrived in Brazil 10 years ago to escape civil war. "We are [also] helping other young people understand how to enjoy their youth without harming themselves," added the journalism student.

Glauco Gonçalves, ACB's coordinator in Vila do João, says the drama project has already had a very positive effect in the deprived area. "We are breaking barriers and prejudices about these issues. They are young people from different nationalities who are passing on the messages, helping their own community."

Gonçalves also noted that the project was helping to break down social barriers between the communities. "The Angolans are beginning to feel part of the community," he said. "Now, young Angolan refugees and migrants and Brazilians have the opportunity to be closer."

Rodrigo Cardozo, the Brazilian director of the play, agreed. "During the short time we have had to work on this, I have been able to discuss daily issues with the actors and analyze the differences between these two cultures, including customs, food and music, as well as their similarities," he said.

Aside from the drama performances, UNHCR and ACB will distribute awareness material, including pamphlets and videos. Some 4,000 condoms will be handed out for free at a health centre in Vila do João.

Brazil is home to around 3,800 refugees from more than 70 countries, with Angolans representing the largest group. There are almost 1,700 Angolan refugees in the country, most of them living in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. They fled to Brazil in the late 1980s and early 1990s to escape the civil war in Angola.

By Valéria Graziano in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil




UNHCR country pages

HIV and Reproductive Health

Treatment for HIV and access to comprehensive reproductive health services.

Public Health

The health of refugees and other displaced people is a priority for UNHCR.

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There are roughly 105,000 refugees in South Sudan's Maban County. Many are at serious health risk. UNHCR and its partners are working vigorously to prevent and contain the outbreak of malaria and several water-borne diseases.

Most of the refugees, especially children and the elderly, arrived at the camps in a weakened condition. The on-going rains tend to make things worse, as puddles become incubation areas for malaria-bearing mosquitoes. Moderately malnourished children and elderly can easily become severely malnourished if they catch so much as a cold.

The problems are hardest felt in Maban County's Yusuf Batil camp, where as many as 15 per cent of the children under 5 are severely malnourished.

UNHCR and its partners are doing everything possible to prevent and combat illness. In Yusuf Batil camp, 200 community health workers go from home to home looking educating refugees about basic hygene such as hand washing and identifying ill people as they go. Such nutritional foods as Plumpy'nut are being supplied to children who need them. A hospital dedicated to the treatment of cholera has been established. Mosquito nets have been distributed throughout the camps in order to prevent malaria.

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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.

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