African Refugees Relay Their Struggle for Survival in Duque de Caxias

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Mariza Reis Almeida had already worked for the Duque de Caxias Municipal Education Secretariat in Greater Rio de Janeiro’s Baixada Fluminense region for ten years when she finally received the news she had been waiting for: a new department called the Special Affairs Division (DAE) would be created. The new agency, with its somewhat mysterious name, would realize the local government’s decision to form a team to serve the approximately 60 African refugee families who have been arriving since early 2014 in Gramacho, a neighborhood located some 15 minutes by train from downtown Duque de Caxias.

Almeida had known the agency was in the works for several months. As a member of the Saint Vincente de Paulo Society, a non-profit organization that provides assistance to the needy, she had received a request from Caritas, an NGO linked to the Catholic Church with social projects including initiatives that serve refugees: there was a need for a commission in the municipal diocese to expand refugee assistance. “It was a fairly urgent request since Caritas had learned that the first ten people with refugee status had arrived in Rio. And that this number might grow,” Almeida explained.

The request from Caritas reflected just one more account among many of human suffering as a consequence of the civil war in the Congo. The endless, to date 23 year-old conflict, is considered one of the largest holocausts in the history of humankind. Militias and rebel groups, seeking valuable ore to smuggle, attack villages, rape women, and kill innocent people. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is rich in natural resources and beauty, and could be the image of a tropical paradise in the heart of Africa if not for the greed of neighboring countries and international companies for gold, diamond, cobalt, copper, coal and coltan (a metallic ore containing tantalum used in the production of electronic components of cell phones, tablets, and computer processors). Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi are among the neighboring nations smuggling resources across the border. A series of wars have already left approximately six million dead since 1993.

It is from this scenario of horror and exploitation that Christine Kamba, 27, fled. Born in the city of Bandudu, in the Kenge province, she says with a smile that Gramacho “seems like a small rural town.” After two years in Brazil, she finds herself jobless. She has four children, including clever 16-month-old Emanoel. Relying on donations to get by with dignity, she has attempted to hold down two different jobs with little success. First, she was employed as a domestic worker while pregnant with her youngest child. Although her employer assured her that she did the housework efficiently, she was let go for reasons she still does not understand. “She simply said that I wasn’t up to the task because I seemed too tired and sad, but I tried hard, and I wasn’t sick,” she laments.

The second job was as a clerk in the Cobal do Humaitá marketplace in Rio’s South Zone Botafogo neighborhood. Nowadays housekeeping and caring for her children occupy her time. She counts on her husband, also unemployed, to help raise the kids and share the tiring workload. Her happiest moments are when she warms up to sing gospel praises at an evangelical church near her house, close to the Rui Barbosa Municipal School in one of Gramacho’s busiest areas.

While they are free from the particular form of daily oppression they dealt with in the Congo, adapting to life in the Baixada Fluminense has its own set of challenges for refugee families. In the midst of Brazil’s current economic crisis, most of the refugees, like many Brazilians, are unemployed. Some of them are highly qualified professionals, but the fact that many are just beginning to master Portuguese makes it difficult to find work. In the Congo, a former Belgian colony, communication takes place in French along with dozens of local dialects and languages, such as Lingala. “At our first welcome meeting with the refugees at the diocese in Duque de Caixias we tried to communicate with them. Only hours later did we understand that they were dying of hunger,” Almeida explained.

Speaking Portuguese, however, wasn’t difficult for one refugee. Hailing from Angola, the former Portuguese colony that shares a border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Dorcas Marta Lituanga offers quite the surprising coincidence for Christine Kamba. Having met Kamba in the town where they now live (they prefer not to reveal their address for reasons of security), Lituanga also has a toddler just over a year old named Emanoel. Moreover, the 21-year-old Lituanga’s life story is similar to that of the Congolese refugee.

Angola boasts vast natural resources, including extensive mineral and oil reserves and, since 1990, the economy has seen a significant upswing. However, Angolans’ standard of living is still low, with some 70% living on less than US$2 per day while life expectancy and infant mortality rates are among the worst in the world. In addition, economic inequality in Angola is extreme. These factors were the main reasons Lituanga crossed the Atlantic.

“I lived in Luanda, the capital city, but my mother couldn’t afford to support us. Since I knew some people in Rio de Janeiro I tried to find a way to come here, and I did,” says the young woman, adjusting Emanoel’s blue cap, which hardly fits on his head of thick hair.

Comparatively, one might say that Lituanga has been luckier than Kamba. A series of advantages helped her to realize her plans. One of those was access to social media, which facilitated communication with people who could help her leave Angola. I ask why she chose Brazil: “I could have chosen any place in Europe, like France, but it was very expensive and I don’t know any other languages. I feel better about starting over here,” she explains. However, the process wasn’t always easy. Like Kamba, Lituanga was pregnant when she arrived in Brazil, which marks the third similarity between the pair of them. “I found out when I got here. I had my baby in a municipal hospital in Rio, far from here. I was all alone,” she says as she stares at the floor, looking lost in thought.

Far from their homeland and in shaky financial conditions, both women enrolled in Bolsa Familia, the federal government’s cash transfer program. They get by on only R$105 (US$35) a month, along with donations of food, clothes, and housing provided by Caritas. “We get very little help from the government. All our documents are temporary. We don’t have an identity or [social security] card. I know it’s hard even for Brazilians to find work, but it’s very trying to live like this,” complains Kamba.

Even as they recollect their dramatic and tragic histories, their faces show signs of hope. When the interview is over, they leave with smiles, gather their small children and go on their way. They give the impression that if they made it this far, they will persevere.

This article was written by Fabio Leon and produced in partnership between RioOnWatch and Forum Grita Baixada. Fabio Leon is a journalist and human rights activist who works as communications officer for Fórum Grita Baixada. Fórum Grita Baixada is a forum of people and organizations working in and around the Baixada Fluminense, focusing on developing strategies and initiatives in the area of public security, which is considered a necessary requirement for citizenship and realizing the right to the city. Follow the Forum Grita Baixada on Facebook here.