Good neighbours: In Brazil, hard-hit communities get a hand from volunteers—and the UN
New Language, New Way of Life
Every Thursday, Jennifer Barros goes to Rondon 3, a refugee camp in northern Brazil near the border of Venezuela. The camp hosts 844 Venezuelan refugees and migrants, and Jennifer teaches Portuguese there.
Kaleth Colmenares, 12, is always waiting for Jennifer at school. Last February he started attending a Brazilian public school and was still adapting to the new language when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Now, once a week, he gets tutoring sessions in several subjects, not least of all Portuguese.
Jennifer taught in public schools but then found a way to put together her passions for languages and cultures. She began work at Súper Panas, or “Super Friends,” a UNICEF and Pirilampos Institute initiative where she teaches Portuguese and coordinates recreational activities for Venezuelan children.
The switch from teaching at a school to teaching at a refugee camp was “a shock” at first, Jennifer says. “We need to develop different approaches to capture the students' attention. We are not only teachers we are social workers.”
Before the pandemic, “classes were vibrant and cheerful, and we built a strong bond with students. When the pandemic started, the biggest challenge was to avoid personal contact with the students,” Jennifer said. Not only could teachers no longer give the students a hug to welcome them to class, they had to adhere to strict COVID-19 safety measures. But the bond continues between teachers and students.
Kaleth persists to complete his school assignments, and appreciates Jennifer´s efforts. “I like to have teachers help me because they want me to learn,” he says. “And teacher Jenni likes when I write beautifully.”
Working to Survive, Day After Day
Two years ago, Débora Rodrigues was doing an internship at a UN agency in Austria, and couldn’t imagine where destiny would take her. When she was offered a post at UNFPA in her home country of Brazil, she grabbed her backpack and crossed the world. She is now the coordinator of UNFPA Brazil’s office in Manaus, where she leads the humanitarian team in the northern state of Amazonas during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In that role, she coordinates the crisis response among the migrants and refugees, with a focus on sexual and reproductive health and preventing gender-based violence.
If that weren’t enough, another emergency happened within the existing one. In January 2021, the health system of Amazonas collapsed and the capital faced a shortage in its oxygen supply. Débora led UNFPA's emergency response to ship 60 oxygen cylinders to the local maternity facility, where babies and pregnant women needed help. The donation was significant, but the need is still great. “There are many premature babies and pregnant women with COVID-19 at the facilities,” reports Débora, “and oxygen is needed for obstetric procedures.”
“We have been working to survive, day after day,” she reports. The work is tough but inspiring. I am another person [now],” she says. “I feel fulfilled and I truly believe in what I do.”
Laranjal do Jari is a city in the far north of Brazil, home to some 50,000 souls. One of them is Estephany Oliveira, age 22. She was away at university in another part of the state in March 2020 when classes were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Classes didn’t resume until November, and even then, they were online only.
It struck Estephany as unfair that some students would be able to continue their studies online while others could not, especially indigenous people in poor rural areas, where internet service is spotty.
“I wondered how these people were coping now [during the pandemic],” she recalls telling friends. “We must do something.” Together, this groups of friends launched the Solidarity Laranjal project to help struggling families. In addition to Estephany there was Clélio Monteiro, Éder Serrão, Julison Pinheiro, Leandro Araújo, Maiki Willyson, Maylon Andrei, Natangilson Moraes, and William Júnior, ages 22-27.
With a list of the neediest families in the area, the young helpers visited families, took notes on their needs, and started a crowdfunding effort. The first haul was USD $18 and some food, which they combined with some of their own money to buy more food.
To inspire confidence, the students received the donations at a church. They placed donation boxes in supermarkets. Promoted the initiative on Instagram and Facebook. In addition, they used social media to establish a record of purchases for donors and photos of food stamps.
Since the first delivery was made on 14 May, the group has delivered 186 food stamps, face masks and supplies of hand sanitizer, along with information on preventing COVID-19 and a WhatsApp number where people could nominate other families or ask for help.
They delivered the food by car, by a motor-powered canoe called a catraia, and even by canoe, which they paddled to a neighbourhood in Laranjal do Jari. The UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS) bought over 4,000 food stamps with funds from state governments, and they were distributed by Rede Amapá Solidário, which has several partners, such as Solidarity Laranjal.
The students are now planning more food purchases and other services: test prep, English lessons, and kids’ activity days. Inspired by her parents, who always helped those in need, Estephany says, “Everybody can help somehow.”
Produced and translated by UNIC Rio. Written by Ester Correa Coelho (UNICEF Brazil), Fabiane Guimarães (UNFPA Brazil) and Lívia Alen (UNOPS Brazil). Edited by Paul VanDeCarr, Development Coordination Office. To learn more about the work of the United Nations Country Team in Brazil please visit: Brazil.UN.org.