Lara Lopes, 34, was forced to leave her country for only one reason: she is homosexual. In Mozambique, her home country, loving and having a same-sex relationship was considered a crime until 2015. She came to Brazil in 2013, running away from any more persecutions. The same happened to the Zelesa family, who left the Democratic Republic of Congo in October 2015. Formerly known as Zaire, the African nation was the epicenter of an armed conflict that has already forced more than 4 million people to leave their homes.
The number of refugees in Brazil increases every year. According to Acnur (The UN Refugee Agency), 33,866 refugees applied for a refugee status to be recognized by the Brazilian government in 2017. Officially, 10,145 refugees from 82 different nationalities are living in Brazil today. Twenty-nine percent out of this total are women.
Being in a country whose culture, code of behavior and languages are different is a challenge, and it might be even more difficult when the refugee is a woman. In this case, the social vulnerability is bigger and the odds of them getting a job are lower, even if the woman is a successful professional back home. Most of the positions offered are blue-collar jobs and, in those cases, the employees, often, favor men.
It is a humanitarian issue to give these refugees economic and social conditions to develop their lives in Brazil, as well as an opportunity to build a more diverse and dynamic society and job market.
This is the main goal of “Empoderando Refugiadas”, a project whose initiative is coordinated by the UN Global Compact Network Brazil, the United Nations, in partnership with Acnur and UN Women, along with other organizations and companies. “Refugee women bring professional background, energy, and an extraordinary strength to rebuild their lives in another country”, said Isabel Marquez, an Acnur representative.
Between 2016 and 2017, the project welcomed more than 80 women, in monthly meetings in which they received advice about their rights, professional and financial planning and entrepreneurship. Lara Lopes and young Lúcia Zelesa, 20, were 2 of the 41 women who received career counseling. By the end of this period, 20 women were already employed.
In 2018, the organization of the project will advise a group of 50 refugees. The program starts in July and ends in November and registrations are already closed. The first edition was portrayed in the documentary “”Recomeços: Sobre Mulheres, Refúgio e Trabalho” (Fresh Starts: About Women, Refuge and Work).”
Entrepreneurship as key to inclusion
“The private sector can’t see these women as victims. Instead, they should look at them as people who can contribute to the growth of companies with their talent, dreams, traditions and cultural treasure”, said Isabel Marquez, Acnur rep.
That is why the project involved Carrefour, Emdoc, Renner, Sodexo and Facebook to train these women and make it possible for them to take on positions on their structure.
Besides inclusion in the job market, developing the ability to undertake is crucial for the refugees to be able to produce income. “Entrepreneurship is an option for refugee women and a great opportunity for companies committed to the refugee cause, since they benefit from their abilities,” explained Adriana Carvalho, manager at Princípios de Empoderamento das Mulheres (Principles of Women Empowerment) from UN Women.
Two Syrian women followed the entrepreneurship steps – both in gastronomy. Salsabil Matooq, 32, splits her time between her house and children, and cooking Arabic recipes for “Cozinha de Salsabil” (Salsabil’s kitchen). Razan Suliman, 29, cooks and runs “Razan Comida Árabe” (Razan Arabic food).
“[Where I lived] I couldn’t leave my house or keep my own money. Here, I work, and I can. I can do everything. I feel free,” said Suliman.
Cooking is one of the most common alternatives for entrepreneur women. According to a survey conducted by Sebrae (an entity that promotes the development of small businesses in Brazil), food is one of the four most sought sectors by women to start a business, along with cosmetic services, cosmetic trade and domestic services. For refugee women, the market is even more attractive. In São Paulo, the city of “Empoderando Refugiadas”, there is a great demand for food diversity.
Salsabil and Razan already have a target audience for Arabic food. Lara only considered investing in this segment after hearing many people ask about traditional dishes from Mozambique.
Shortly after being part of the project, the Mozambican spent a few months formally hired by a company, but soon started working on two freelance projects. One of them is typical food from her country: Lara trains and cooks to people who are interested in Mozambican flavors.
Her other source of income are the lectures she gives on homosexuality in Africa and life as a refugee. “I couldn’t get a good job in my country because homosexuals don’t have an open job market there”, she recalls. “Many refugees leave [their homes] with nothing but their clothes on. We have degrees, but [when we get] here, we need to work on jobs that have nothing to do with what we majored in. It is necessary to understand the transition from one country to another,” she explained.
The change in young African women's lives
Gastronomy has also changed the story of the twenty-year-old Angolan Aicha Messa. The talent of this young woman lies on the other side of the counter: she was hired as a waitress of Arturito, one of the most talked-about restaurants, whose owner is Paola Carosella, judge of tv program MasterChef. Aicha thinks that Brazil presented her with a new horizon, in which, as a woman, there’s a prospect to build a new career. “In Brazil, the woman feels independent, and when you are independent, you’re happy,” said Paola, in the documentary “Recomeços”.
“This exchange of colors, music, flavors, cultures and esthetics enriches cities like New York and London so much”, says Paola. “I didn’t do charity, I hired someone who has a talent for something and that, by chance, is black, woman, and a refugee. And I embrace the differences. I am different. Everyone’s different,” she said.
The youngest member of the Zelesa family, Lúcia, also got a formal job after participating in the UN program. She was hired as a clerk at Camicado, a home and decoration store, and, in August 2018, she will be employed for a year. “When I started, I didn’t know if I would get a job. I went to lectures and started believing that refugees have the possibility to work in Brazil, and that companies accept us”, she told.
Lúcia recalls that when she came to the country with her family, she was a minor and faced her first obstacle: the language. “We got here young and in hopes of a better life. We thought it was going to be heaven, but reality was harder,” she said. “It was hard to express myself, but the Brazilian people welcomed us very well. Now I’m independent and this is the beginning of a new life.”
In Brazil, she graduated from a university course in Human Resources, and she is starting a postgraduate degree in Organizational Psychology on the second half of 2018. “My life is here, Brazil is my second family.”
Global refugee numbers
According to the latest annual report, UNHCR - Global Trends 2017, released by Acnur, today, there are 68.5 million people around the world who have been forced to leave their countries due to different kinds of conflict – this represents 1 in every 110 citizens worldwide.
The same report shows that 2017 was a record year for displacements: 16.2 million people had to move away from home, which corresponds to 44.5 thousand people in transit every day, whereas 85% of them moved to developing countries, not rich nations in Europe or North America. Fifty-five percent are from Syria (5.5 million), Afghanistan (2.5 million), and South Sudan (1.4 million) – and most of them seek asylum in nearby regions. The countries that receive more refugees are Turkey (2.9 million), Pakistan (1.4 million) and Lebanon (1 million).
Another striking part of the document states the refugees’ age group: 53% are children, including many who travel unaccompanied or separated from their families. “We are at a crucial stage, in which the success in managing the global forced displacement requires a new and much more comprehensive approach, so that countries and communities won’t have to deal with the issue by themselves,” said Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, in an official document of the organization.
“But there’s reason for hope. I make an appeal to the UN member states to support this cause. No one becomes a refugee by choice. However, we can choose to help,” said Grandi.