Homesick urban refugees use the internet to integrate and keep in touch

News Stories, 8 February 2010

© UNHCR photo
A young African uses one of the computers at the internet centre run by SESC Carmo in Sao Paulo.

SAO PAULO, Brazil, February 8 (UNHCR) It's a long way from home for African refugees and asylum-seekers in Brazil, and life can get pretty lonely. But the more resourceful ones, with UNHCR's encouragement, have been using the internet to reach or stay in touch with family and to ease their integration.

Take Euphrem D'Fagbenou, who felt really cut off after arriving in Brazil a year ago from his native Benin in West Africa. But his life changed after he started using an internet café in Sao Paulo run by Refugees United, a Denmark-based organization that helps reunite refugees through its web site.

"I talk online with my relatives in Africa at least once a week. But I also come here to meet friends that I have made in Brazil, look for jobs and read news about Sao Paulo," said the 23-year-old, who fled Benin after suffering persecution for his membership of a trade union.

Yonas Samuel fled Eritrea in 1998 to escape persecution for his political activism and he also found it difficult to adapt after arriving in Brazil from South Africa in 2009. Above all, the 53-year-old was worried about his wife and daughter, whom he last saw two years ago in Zimbabwe, before heading to South Africa.

Samuel also found out about the Refugees United centre in downtown Sao Paulo, which provides free internet use to refugees and asylum-seekers on Mondays and Saturday. Once on a computer, he logged onto the Refugees United site and registered.

In his profile, Samuel noted that his nickname was "espresso." His wife, who had also signed on with Refugees United from her new home in the United Kingdom, read his profile and realized that this man was her husband. Espresso was his favourite drink and the family always teased Samuel about this.

He and his wife were soon chatting online. "It was very exciting," recalled Naomi Maruyama, a Refugees United volunteer who was with Samuel when he made contact with his wife online. "He said we gave him back a reason to live." The couple hope to be reunited in the UK, where Samuel's wife has refugee status.

These two examples show how access to computer technology can help refugees and asylum-seekers in urban centres around the world. More and more outlets offer access to refugees. Samuel for instance, also uses the computers at a downtown centre run by SESC Carmo, a private sector-funded social services organization that works with UNHCR in Brazil.

SESC Carmo's internet café has 16 computer terminals, which are maintained by volunteers and available to refugees as well as the general public. "About 120 refugees use our computers every week. Each person can be connected for up to 30 minutes a day, but we still have queues," revealed Denise Collus, a social worker with SESC Carmo.

She said more and more refugees and asylum-seekers were using the service, explaining that "the internet helps to break the solitude that many of them feel." For some, it is the only way to keep in touch with relatives overseas, while others find it invaluable for their integration. "The online search for employment has become quite common," Collus said, adding that many refugees use their e-mail address for all correspondence.

Collus said that most of those using the internet were aged between 20 and 35 years old, while noting that "the refugees who come to Brazil are usually well educated." A lot of them read newspapers from their countries and listen to regional music online.

And they can rely on a lot of sympathy from the volunteers at the internet cafes, such as journalist Karin Fusaro, whose Jewish ancestors survived the Nazi occupation of Poland and emigrated to Brazil in the mid-1950s. "I always had an unfulfilled desire to work with refugees because of this past," she said.

Meanwhile, Euphrem D'Fagbenou is happy for the first time in years. "I have made many friend here, including other refugees and the Brazilians who work here as volunteers [for Refugees United]," he said. "Here I feel at home."

By Carolina Montenegro in Sao Paulo, Brazil