• Text size Normal size text | Increase text size by 10% | Increase text size by 20% | Increase text size by 30%

Colombian refugee's love of wine helps his integration in Brazil

Telling the Human Story, 10 May 2012

© UNHCR/L.F.Godinho
Ricardo selects a bottle of wine for a discerning customer.

RIO GRANDE DO SUL, Brazil, May 10 (UNHCR) It's a good thing that Ricardo* has always been a wine lover as the Colombian refugee's hobby has helped him land a plum job in the hospitality industry in southern Brazil.

The former policeman has made the most of his opportunities since arriving five years ago in Rio Grande do Sul state, where he is one of almost 250 resettled refugees mostly from Colombia and the Middle East. Unlike, Ricardo, many of these urban refugees struggle to get by and need help from UNHCR partners, such as the Associação Antonio Vieira (ASAV).

Ricardo has done much better than most of Brazil's urban refugees; he manages a popular bar in a tourist town (which cannot be named for protection reasons) in the state. He rents a three-bedroom apartment, drives his own car and is married to a Brazilian woman, who teaches at a primary school after taking their baby daughter to a local kindergarten.

He had, however, to start at the bottom difficult for someone who had built a good career in the southern Colombian province of Caquetá, where he took part in government-driven efforts in the late 1990s to end years of conflict. When this process failed, his life was in danger and Ricardo fled to nearby Ecuador, where he was recognized as a refugee in 2004.

A year later he was resettled in Rio Grande do Sul, where he decided to learn Portuguese before looking for a job. He received assistance and support from UNHCR and the ASAV in a town influenced by Italian and German settlers and a far cry from his Amazonian home region.

But Ricardo had been an amateur oenologist in his home country and he used this to his advantage. After getting up to scratch with his Portuguese, and feeling comfortable in his new home, he got a job as a waiter in a big hotel. In his spare time, he trained to become a qualified sommelier (wine waiter), and he also met his future wife there.

Impressed by his dedication, skill and leadership qualities, his employers soon promoted Ricardo to become a maître d'hôtel. The head of a local social organization, meanwhile, asked him to set aside some of his spare time to train waiters about wines and how to deal with customers.

During one of these training courses, he was invited by a businessman to head a popular downtown bar, "Los Gatos,"* where the in-crowd go to drink, eat and dance.

Ricardo works six days a week with Monday off from 4pm till late. Ricardo is in charge of a team of 29 waiters, six chefs and four cashiers. They really earn their daily pay in a hot spot that gets more than 600 clients a night.

"A job is everything. Without a wage, it is impossible for anyone to become self-sufficient and integrate with the host community," stressed Ricardo, who was proud of his achievements since arriving here.

Self-reliance is a top priority for most of the integration projects that UNHCR organizes for urban refugees in Brazil, which hosts almost 4,500 recognized refugees from more than 70 nationalities, according to official figures. And Rio Grande do Sul state hosts most of the resettled refugees.

The UN refugee agency and its partners help refugees to find employment or to start their own businesses. UNHCR also works with the Ministry of Labour, other state authorities and the private sector to help refugees get jobs. UNHCR and a human resources company recently launched a data base with the CVs of refugees mostly in Sao Paulo that can be accessed by companies looking for staff. Some refugees have already been offered work.

UNHCR tries to make sure that all refugees and asylum-seekers have access to Portuguese language classes, professional courses and micro-credit programmes. Brazil's refugee legislation also guarantees the issuance of work permits and ID cards, which are essential for finding employment.

"A paid job is a powerful tool for integration," Andrés Ramirez, UNHCR's representative in Brazil, stressed. "More than half of the refugees under our mandate worldwide reside in cities and towns, which are thus legitimate places for refugees to enjoy their rights," he added.

Meanwhile, back in "Los Gatos," Ricardo looked for a special bottle of wine in the cellar. When he found the right vintage, he turned to UNHCR with a big smile. He had finally found his metier. "Here in Brazil, I feel enriched and appreciated for my professional skills," he sighed happily.

* Names changed for protection reasons

By Luiz Fernando Godinho in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil




UNHCR country pages

Local Integration

Integration of refugees in the host community allows recipients to live in dignity and peace.

Integration Initiatives: Supporting Next Steps

An inventory of opportunities and needs in the integration of resettled refugees

Colombia: Life in the Barrios

After more than forty years of internal armed conflict, Colombia has one of the largest populations of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world. Well over two million people have been forced to flee their homes; many of them have left remote rural areas to take refuge in the relative safety of the cities.

Displaced families often end up living in slum areas on the outskirts of the big cities, where they lack even the most basic services. Just outside Bogota, tens of thousands of displaced people live in the shantytowns of Altos de Cazuca and Altos de Florida, with little access to health, education or decent housing. Security is a problem too, with irregular armed groups and gangs controlling the shantytowns, often targeting young people.

UNHCR is working with the authorities in ten locations across Colombia to ensure that the rights of internally displaced people are fully respected – including the rights to basic services, health and education, as well as security.

Colombia: Life in the Barrios

Indigenous people in Colombia

There are about a million indigenous people in Colombia. They belong to 80 different groups and make up one of the world's most diverse indigenous heritages. But the internal armed conflict is taking its toll on them.

Like many Colombians, indigenous people often have no choice but to flee their lands to escape violence. Forced displacement is especially tragic for them because they have extremely strong links to their ancestral lands. Often their economic, social and cultural survival depends on keeping these links alive.

According to Colombia's national indigenous association ONIC, 18 of the smaller groups are at risk of disappearing. UNHCR is working with them to support their struggle to stay on their territories or to rebuild their lives when they are forced to flee.

UNHCR also assists indigenous refugees in neighbouring countries like Panama, Ecuador, Venezuela and Brazil. UNHCR is developing a regional strategy to better address the specific needs of indigenous people during exile.

Indigenous people in Colombia

Panama's Hidden Refugees

Colombia's armed conflict has forced millions of people to flee their homes, including hundreds of thousands who have sought refuge in other countries in the region.

Along the border with Colombia, Panama's Darien region is a thick and inhospitable jungle accessible only by boat. Yet many Colombians have taken refuge here after fleeing the irregular armed groups who control large parts of jungle territory on the other side of the border.

Many of the families sheltering in the Darien are from Colombia's ethnic minorities – indigenous or Afro-Colombians – who have been particularly badly hit by the conflict and forcibly displaced in large numbers. In recent years, there has also been an increase in the numbers of Colombians arriving in the capital, Panama City.

There are an estimated 12,500 Colombians of concern to UNHCR in Panama, but many prefer not to make themselves known to authorities and remain in hiding. This "hidden population" is one of the biggest challenges facing UNHCR not only in Panama but also in Ecuador and Venezuela.

Panama's Hidden Refugees

Too Much Pain: The Voices of Refugee Women, part 1/6Play video

Too Much Pain: The Voices of Refugee Women, part 1/6

Stories of refugee women who have undergone Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and are engaged to end this practice. These women explain their experiences of flight, asylum and integration in the EU.
Our Sister, Our Mother - 2013 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award Laureate
Play video

Our Sister, Our Mother - 2013 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award Laureate

The 2013 winner of UNHCR`s Nansen Refugee Award is Sister Angelique Namaika, who works in the remote north east region of Democratic Republic of the Congo with survivors of displacement and abuse by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). She has helped over 2000 displaced women and girls who have suffered the most awful kidnapping and abuse, to pick up the pieces of their lives and become re-accepted by their communities.
South Sudan: Surviving the LRAPlay video

South Sudan: Surviving the LRA

In South Sudan, former captives of the Lord's Resistance Army get vital help in rebuilding their lives and tackling their lingering fears.