Disability, but not disempowerment: Women refugees and migrants get a boost from a training programme in Brazil

Disabled Venezuelan women refugees and migrants take a job training course with the “Empowering Women Refugees” project in northern Brazil.
Caption: Venezuelan women refugees and migrants take a job training course with the “Empowering Women Refugees” project in northern Brazil.
Photo: UNHCR/Allana Ferreira

You wouldn’t guess it by looking at the building from the outside. Just a small, standard office building. Nothing remarkable.

But inside the meeting rooms of migrant shelters in northern Brazil, dreams are being hatched. 

One woman wants to work in computers. Another wants to get a job as a kitchen assistant. The dearest wish of a third is to make enough money to pay for her daughter’s knee operation. 

The dreams may seem small, but the women tend to them with great care. 

The dreamers? Women who’ve fled the violence and economic ruin in their home country of Venezuela, and sought safety and work in neighbouring Brazil. They’re part of a UN-sponsored vocational training programme. Most of the women speak only limited Portuguese, the language of Brazil. And each of the women we spoke with for this story has a disability. 

Caption: Venezuelan women refugees and migrants take a job training course with the “Empowering Women Refugees” project in northern Brazil. The classroom is wheelchair-accessible, and sign-language interpreters are on hand. “This is part of the UN’s commitment to leave no one behind,” says Niky Fabiancic, Resident Coordinator of the UN in Brazil.

Photo: UNHCR/Allana Ferreira

“It’s hard for refugee women to get jobs. It’s even harder for those with disabilities,” says Niky Fabiancic, the Resident Coordinator of the UN in Brazil. “These women have climbed metaphorical mountains to get where they are.”

The UN is helping them along in their journey. At government-run shelters in the northern state of Roraima, groups of 20 women at a time take an 80-hour course called “Empowering Women Refugees.” There, they learn about Brazilian culture, entrepreneurship, customer service, sales, and social and emotional skills. 

The course is an initiative of UN Women, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and the Global Compact Brazil Network to help refugee women get jobs. In addition to providing vocational training, the project works with private-sector partners to identify job openings and place graduates in them. The project has the support of Facebook and Iguatemi, and partners with an inclusive-education nonprofit called Turma do Jiló. 

Caption: “People with disabilities need to be taken into account,” says Nelys Gamboa, age 56, who uses a wheelchair. She has not been able to get formal work since arriving in Brazil, as language and accessibility make it difficult to find a job. But taking the “Empowering Women Refugees” course has been a boost. Back in Venezuela, Nelys was a kitchen assistant and is now preparing to find a job in this area in Brazil. “People are often surprised at what people with disabilities can achieve,” she says. “I want to triumph and I will.”

Photo: ©UNHCR/Lucas Novaes

These women are among more than 600,000 migrants and refugees who’ve arrived from Venezuela in recent years. About 40% of them are still in Brazil, while others have returned home or moved on. With help from the government’s “Operation Welcome,” many displaced Venezuelans are getting food, shelter, health care, and a shot at a new life in Brazil. So far, the government has helped 43,000 Venezuelans settle in municipalities around the nation. More than one in four of them are women. 

The vocational courses are held in places with wheelchair access. Sign language interpreters are on hand. Not all of the students have disabilities. Some have family members with disabilities. Some are over 50. Some are the sole providers in their family. Some are LGBTI. 

Caption: “My goal is to be able to save money so that my daughter, who also has dwarfism, can have an operation on her knees,” says Carmen Bermúdez, age 50, who crossed the border into Brazil two years ago and seeks to provide better living conditions for her children who are in Venezuela. After a few months in Brazil, she ran out of rent money and was left on the street. That’s when she sought out Operation Welcome. “Thank god they cared about me,” says Carmen. “Here in the shelter they even made a small laundry basin so I could feel comfortable. It makes me feel good.”

Photo: UNHCR / Lucas Novaes

“Empowering Women Refugees includes women with disabilities in the labour market,” says the UN’s Niky Fabiancic. “This isn’t just an act of charity. This is part of the UN’s commitment to leave no one behind. We are one world. We are one people. And we are better off for the contributions of women with disabilities.” 

Caption: “I was born with paralysis in half my body. My mother has supported me and taught me that my disability would not be an impediment for me to succeed in life,” says Dashly Gonzalez, age 21. Back home in Venezuela, she worked in schools, clothing stores, and family homes. Now, she and her mother are both taking the “Empowering Women Refugees” course. Dashly wants to work in computing so she can support herself, her mother, and her two daughters, one of whom has autism. "Regardless of my disability” she says, “I have my dreams and I will achieve them.”

Photo: UNHCR/Lucas Novaes


Produced by UN Brazil. Written by Lucas Novaes Ferreira, UN Brazil, with editorial support from Paul Vandecarr, Development Coordination Office. To learn more about the work taking place in the country visit:

UN entities involved in this initiative
UN Women
United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Goals we are supporting through this initiative