Voices from the Field: Catalina Sampaio, UNHCR Brazil

“Most members of my family were once refugees. Their experience […] is my biggest inspiration to continue helping refugees.”

25-year-old Catalina Sampaio has been working for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, in Brazil since 2014, first as a Protection Assistant in Boa Vista and now as Head of Field Unit in Manaus. In her new role, she is responsible for leading UNHCR’s response to the arrival of Venezuelans. Here, she shares some highlights of her experience doing the work donors like you make possible.


Can you describe UNHCR’s work in northern Brazil?

Our job here is to support the Brazilian Government, to guarantee proper protection to support refugees and people who have been forcedly displaced, mainly Venezuelans, so they can have a safe place to sleep, access to food, clean water and medicine. Last year, more than 10,000 Venezuelans benefited from emergency shelter in the north of Brazil and over 4,000 were relocated to other cities with UNHCR and partner support.

Why is this work so important to you?

Most members of my family were once refugees escaping political persecution in South America. The international aid and protection that they received were fundamental to rebuilding their lives. Their experience, what they went through, is my biggest inspiration to continue helping refugees. It is very important to me to be able to offer life-saving protection to those facing a journey similar to the one that my family faced.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

The goal of my job is to coordinate UNHCR’s activities in Manaus, supporting the government to ensure that refugees and displaced persons can access their rights, in this case mainly Venezuelans. When we first encounter refugees and asylum-seekers, usually they are in extremely vulnerable conditions and in need of immediate assistance. Some people arrive terribly burned by the sun, and hungry. Some have walked over 200 km to get here.

When they arrive, they often do not have information about where to go, so that is why the reception centre in Pacaraima, run by UNHCR and partners, is so important. There they get a basic notion of the services available to them here in Brazil, such as health services. They are very supportive of each other, so they communicate and organize to ensure that everyone is aware of their rights. Watching them rebuild their lives and become stronger and more confident is very rewarding. It also makes me happy when I witness them regaining their independence – and once that happens, they always want to share the news, telling me, “Look, I can take care of myself, I am fine, I am living my life”.


“Most members of my family were once refugees. Their experience […] is my biggest inspiration to continue helping refugees.”


What is the hardest part?

On the other hand, it is challenging when we cannot assist, individually, all the cases that come to us. There are many times when we have to address multiple cases with different risk levels and we are not able to respond to every case immediately. In situations like this, due to limited resources, we need to sort out what is urgent, what requires action within less than 24 hours, from what can wait up to 72 hours. We know that in a humanitarian crisis, everything is urgent. So, the hardest part of this job is having to identify and rank priorities.

For instance, this happened with the increasing number of Venezuelans arriving in Boa Vista, the city where I work. Our role in identifying those in need of urgent help began at the Simon Bolivar public square in Boa Vista’s city centre, where the majority of recently arrived and now homeless Venezuelans had been sleeping. With the correct information, we were able to relocate all of them to a shelter. Offering protection to so many people at once felt great.

What was the highlight of your work last year?

My best memory is from May 2018, when UNHCR together with other partners opened the Jardim Floresta temporary emergency shelter – the first in the area –where about 600 vulnerable people who had been living on the streets were finally able to sleep in safety.
We helped with the voluntary settling in of families with small children, women, elders and men that required immediate


About: Venezuela Situation
Over three million Venezuelans have left their country since 2014, due to the ongoing political, human rights and socio-economic developments, and their outflow accelerated in 2017 and especially 2018. This is the largest exodus in the recent history of Latin America, and people continue to leave Venezuela due to violence, insecurity and threats, and lack of food, medicine and essential services. The majority are families with children, pregnant women, elderly people, and people with disabilities. UNHCR is responding to the growing needs as the numbers continue to increase. We are working to ensure the most vulnerable are protected with shelter, health care, and documents which will allow them to access services, so they are not living in precarious situations, exposed and at risk.