BY Michael Swan for THE CATHOLIC REGISTER
BOA VISTA, Brazil – As soon as she fills another suitcase with food, Margaret Infante will join other refugees who cross back and forth at the border from Brazil to Venezuela to help feed starving family members. She will probably get the food, at least in part, from the Our Lady of Consolation parish kitchen. Every day the Catholic parish hands out staples and feeds more than 800 refugees who gather around the Boa Vista bus terminal.
“We have to be here for now,” Infante said. “We have to help our family back in Venezuela.”
More than three million refugees have fled crisis-stricken Venezuela. The regime of incumbent President Nicolas Maduro, who is accused of fomenting political and social upheaval and rigging the Jan. 10 election, is facing a challenge from the opposition leader, Juan Guaido, who has assumed the presidency with the backing of more than 50 nations, including Canada.
With no end in site to the political and economic crisis, and as extreme food and medicine shortages continue, up to five million more Venezuelans are projected to flee the crisis-stricken nation this year. Those who are stuck in the neighbouring nation of Brazil are cautious about making any plans to return permanently to their home based merely on a political change. The problems run deeper than the presidency, said 53-year-old Ramon Piamo.
“It’s bad there because you can’t eat,” he said. “At least here (in Brazil), if you work you can eat.”
“People are dying in Venezuela of malnutrition,” adds a woman beside him who gives her name as Jhovanna.
Piamo and his family of five share a tiny apartment in Boa Vista with another family of three. It costs 430 reais (just over $150 Cdn) per month, an immense sum for refugees who are unable to find work. Feeding the family requires Church handouts and knocking down mangoes from neighbourhood trees.
The Piamos are among the vast majority of some 30,000 refugees in this city of just over 300,000 who live outside official refugee camps. As of Feb. 18, there were 5,831 people in official, army-run “abrigos” or camps — about 20 per cent of the Venezuelan refugee total in and around Boa Vista.
Eighteen-year-old Andranik Isaac Piamo Petrosian, married to Aura MacGregor and with three-year-old daughter Eriannys, can’t see himself returning home soon, whatever the outcome of the Guaido-Maduro saga.
“No money to go back,” he said.
Most people are reluctant to give their names and even more reluctant to have their pictures taken. They grimly joke about Maduro’s reach and his eagerness to punish his enemies. But Wilmaris Del Valle Arredondo is so angry she just doesn’t care. Holding her daughter, she invites a picture.
“Put it in a big headline,” she says. “It was a great country. It’s been ruined. Maduro is not worthy to be president. He ruined it all.”
These refugees, however, are better off than about 100 Indigenous refugees settled in a camp in an empty lot outside the city centre. By early morning the mothers are trying to tidy up their sparse possessions around a couple of dying fires. They are surrounded by children. Their homes are their hammocks.
Noticing the obviously well-fed visitors, the Indigenous hold out their hands, palms up just below their chins, and make a motion with their four fingers toward their mouths. They are hungry.
A few Indigenous are in an official, army-run camp just for Indigenous refugees. They have more space and an opportunity to work at crafts, allowing them to earn money.
“They’re not prisoners here. They come and go,” said army communications officer Col. Carla Beatriz Medeiros.
The army’s mission to the migrants in Roraima, Brazil’s most northern state, is humanitarian, Medeiros said. But while the army erected the camps and supplied 500 soldiers to maintain order, the programs are delivered by volunteers, the Church, NGOs and United Nations agencies.
“We have a kind of know-how,” said the officer from Brasilia, who first worked on a humanitarian mission in Haiti. “We say in the army, we are a strong arm and a friendly hand. In this case, it’s a friendly hand,” she said.
Scalabrinian Sr. Valdiza Carvalho co-ordinates a dizzying number of Catholic agencies working to serve the Venezuelans both inside and outside the camps — the Centre for Human Rights, the Scalabrinian Institute for the Human Rights of Migrants, the Jesuit Refugee Service, the Catholic Ministry to Migrants of the Diocese of Roraima, Caritas Brazil and the Reference Centre of the Federal University of Roraima. She keeps these groups in touch with various United Nations agencies and maintains lines of communication with the army.
All these agencies, with support from the Church, are trying to serve the most vulnerable among the refugees, said Carvalho.
From the parish to the diocesan human rights centre, the Church agencies concentrate on helping women who are pregnant, young mothers and those who have suffered abuse. Women, children and Indigenous are suffering the most, she said.
“Roraima in general is dangerous for women. The migrants are even more vulnerable,” she said.
Many of the women she sees are pregnant. Last week one of them was just 14 years old. Some of the mothers are hoping Brazilian citizenship will give their children an advantage.
For other women, there’s just one option left for them to feed their families.
“Prostitution is a big problem,” said Carvalho.
Along with this industry goes human trafficking, underage prostitution, child sexual abuse and an atmosphere of violence.
Inside the camps sexual and domestic violence are the biggest problem the agencies confront, said AVSI Brasil community participation officer Beatrice Rosetti Betti. Men who are unable to work and unable to provide for their families fall into a kind of depression that can turn some of them into a threat to their own families.
By Jo Griffin for BBC
On the first day in her new cell, Tatiane Correia de Lima did not recognise herself.
"It was weird to see myself in a mirror again," says the 26-year-old mother-of-two who is serving a 12-year sentence in Brazil. "At first I didn't know who I was."
The South American country has the world's fourth largest prison population and its jails regularly come under the spotlight for their poor conditions, with chronic overcrowding and gang violence provoking deadly riots.
Lima had just been moved from a prison in the mainstream penitential system to a facility run by the Association for the Protection and Assistance to Convicts (Apac) in the town of Itaúna, in Minas Gerais state.
Unlike in the mainstream system, "which steals your femininity" as Lima puts it, at the Apac jail she is allowed to wear her own clothes and have a mirror, make-up and hair dye.
But the difference between the regimes is far more than skin-deep.
The Apac system has been gaining growing recognition as a safer, cheaper and more humane answer to the country's prison crisis.
On 20 March a new Apac jail opened in Rondônia, the first in the country's north, taking the number facilities run by the association countrywide to 49.
All Apac prisoners must have passed through the mainstream system and must show remorse and be willing to follow the strict regime of work and study which is part of the system's philosophy.
There are no guards or weapons and visitors are greeted by an inmate who unlocks the main door to the small women's jail.
The inmate leads the way to the "conjugal suite", a brightly decorated room with a double bed where women are allowed to spend private time with partners visiting from outside the jail.
She then shows visitors to a room where women are labelling bottles of soap that will be sold outside.
Apac prisons were set up by a group of Catholics in 1972 and are now co-ordinated and supported by the Italian non-governmental organisation AVSI Foundation and the Brazilian Fraternity of Assistance to Convicts.
AVSI Brazil's vice-president, Jacopo Sabatiello, says love and work are the priorities in these penitentiaries. "Here, we call everyone by their name, not by a number and not by nicknames, which they might have acquired during a life of crime," he says.
By Jo Griffin for The Guardian
Renato Da Silva Junior harbours ambitions of becoming a lawyer. There is just one obstacle: he is a quarter of the way through serving a 20-year jail sentence for murder.
“My dreams are bigger than my mistakes,” says Da Silva, a slightly built man with a broad smile. “I am doing everything to get out of here as soon as I can.”
Da Silva, 28, an inmate at the men’s prison in Itaúna, a town in Minas Gerais, south-east Brazil, is chipping away at his sentence and has already reduced it by two years through work and study at the Association for Protection and Assistance to Convicts (Apac) prison. Here, inmates wear their own clothes, prepare their own food and are even in charge of security. At an Apac jail, there are no guards or weapons, and inmates literally hold the keys.
A visit to the Apac men’s and women’s prisons in Itaúna subverts all expectations about the penal system in Brazil, where overcrowding, squalor and gang rivalry regularly cause deadly riots. These widely reported outbreaks are one reason Brazil’s penitentiaries are often regarded as a ticking timebomb where inmates languish in inhumane conditions with little chance of rehabilitation. Brazil has the world’s fourth largest prison population.
In Itaúna, the main door of the men’s jail is opened by David Rodrigues de Oliveira, a recuperando or “recovering person”, as inmates are known in the Apac system. This word is displayed alongside his name on a lanyard that also states his category of regime: closed, semi-open or open. In contrast with mainstream prisons, Apac inmates are addressed by name rather than number.
Another reason inmates uphold the strict routine of work and study required by Apac – under which no one is permitted to stay in their cells unless they are sick or being punished – is that an escape attempt would return them to the mainstream system, which all inmates have experienced before.
No detail of the contrasting regimes escapes the inmates. “Here we eat with metal knives and forks, while there we are given plastic, as if we are not human beings,” says recuperando Luiz Fernando Estevez Da Silva. “It’s not only the criminal who goes to jail, it’s his family. There, relatives who visit are strip-searched.”
Twenty or more people crammed in a cell, filthy mattresses and inedible food are common complaints in mainstream prisons. Apac prisons, coordinated and supported by the Italian AVSI Foundation and the Brazilian Fraternity of Assistance to Convicts (FBA), impose a limit of 200 inmates to prevent overcrowding. New arrivals come with shoulders bowed and hands behind their backs, says Da Silva, and they first have to learn not to stare at the floor.
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