Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Feature

‘We had to flee’

Nine women lay bare why they went to Brazil and what they experienced once they got there. Not all migration stories are the same.

18 March 2021, 5.30am
Congolese displaced by fighting queue for food in 2012.
James Akena/Reuters/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

I was born in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but I didn't really grow up there. My father was a civil servant at the Ministry of Health. We had to travel a lot for his job and we lived in many different parts of the country. The last province we lived in was Bandundu, which was my father's home province. In December 2018 a massacre happened in a place called Zumbi. I don't want to go into too much detail, but my father was killed during this massacre. We had to flee, and while I was running away I got lost from the rest of my family and from my husband. We went on different paths.

With a group of people, I fled, through the forest, in the direction of the Congo River. We managed to reach a place called Brazzaville, but a lot of people died on the way. The government welcomed us in Brazzaville, but the whole journey had been really difficult. I was pregnant and my health condition had worsened. I ended up falling ill with anaemia.

People in Brazzaville supported me to escape and seek refuge in Brazil. Yet life here has proved difficult as well. I can say that I am still going through difficult times. In Brazil, my first struggle came from having to face rejection. I was constantly rejected by people. When I arrived I lived in a shelter with Venezuelan immigrants, and they rejected me a lot because I am black. They said that blacks were dirty among many other sad things. I lived in this shelter for two months before they sent me away for no reason.

I still struggle with the Portuguese language, and I didn't know how to defend myself at that time. But, with the help of some African friends that I met in Brazil, I managed to get a place to live. I went to live with a male friend, but he actually had other intentions. He wanted to go out with me and I didn’t want that. Sometimes he would come home drunk and try to force me to sleep with him. He would eventually give up after I refused and pushed him away for a while. I believe the only reason he didn’t abuse me was his fear of losing his regular immigrant status, but he often used to get naked or change in front of me. Sometimes he left his bed and jumped into mine, wanting to sleep with me, as if we were a couple.

One Saturday night I reached my limit. I saw that he really was going to abuse me that night, so I just prayed for protection and for dawn to come so that I could leave. In the morning I left the house and all my things behind. I had no alternative. I told him I would come back soon, but I knew I would not go back there again.

I had a little money, 800 Reais, that I had earned by making African braids in a mall. I went to talk to the pastor of my church and sought help to find a place to live. The pastor referred me to an African family’s house where I could rent a room. I paid 300 Reais for rent and we shared the other bills, plus food. The woman in the house, however, did not allow me to cook. She was the only one who could cook. On the days she decided that she was not going to cook, I could not eat. I once spent three days without proper food. Because of that, and many other problems, I had to leave that place as well.

I did not know how or if I was going was to be able to pay the next month’s rent.

I didn’t know where to go, so I simply sat at Itaquera metro station until 5 pm. I then called a brother from church. I told him that I did not have a place to sleep or any money. I had a few clients for hair braids lined up, but I would not get any money for at least one week. His wife wouldn’t let me come to their house, but he bought me food, helped me find a cheap hotel, and paid for two nights there. After those two nights, another friend from church took me to an even cheaper hotel and paid for me to stay five nights. Meanwhile, I kept working and was able to find a new room to rent.

I paid one month’s rent and moved to this new house. At the time I did not know how or if I was going was to be able to pay the next month’s rent. But I had no choice. I could not sleep on the streets pregnant and I was not able to go to a migrant shelter in the city – this was all happening to me just as the COVID-19 pandemic was starting in Brazil.

Luckily I managed to find some good Brazilians who helped me a lot. One of them, a woman, spoke French. She gave me her number and told me to contact her if I needed help with translation or anything else. In the end of February, I lost my pregnancy and called her. She was really upset about it and started helping me. She got in touch with some friends of hers who work at an NGO – they are all Afro-Brazilians – to see if they could help me out as well. I got very ill and began to haemorrhage, so they took me to the hospital and looked after me as I didn’t speak Portuguese. They saw I didn’t have food or proper clothing – I had left all my stuff at the house of the man who tried to abuse me – so they bought me a new fridge, food, and clothes.

For few months, during the pandemic, these Brazilians brought me food and paid my rent. But three months ago, they stopped paying my rent. They told me that their financial situation is also difficult at the moment. I’m trying to pay the rent with the money that I make from the braids that I do, and sometimes people help me out. And even though the Afro-Brazilian from the NGO stopped paying my rent, when they have some money leftover at the end of the month they call me and give me 100 or 200 Reais.

Many of my problems also come from the fact that I don’t have a bank account in Brazil. Sometimes people want to send me money or get me a job, and they ask for my bank account, but I don’t have one. I have tried to open an account, but at the bank they ask for National Migration Registry Card and I don’t have one. So, since I got Brazil, my life, especially my housing situation, has been very difficult.

M. S., One year in Brazil

This series has been financially supported by Humanity United.


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