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




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Assessing Refugee Needs in Brazil

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.

Assessing Refugee Needs in Brazil

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.

Statelessness among Brazilian Expats