by Sylivia Koberwa
Humanitarianism is defined by several principles: humanity, the belief that all humans are equal and have inalienable rights; impartiality, the insistence that we help those who are most in need and that we do not play favourites; neutrality, the commitment to action that does not intentionally benefit or hurt one side or another; and independence, the attempt to ensure that the action is not connected to parties who have a stake in the political outcome of the emergency (Barnett, 2014, p.2). This text analyses the relationship between African refugee mothers, their survival dynamics and humanitarianism in Rio de Janeiro during the Covid-19 pandemic.
My choice of approach arises from the stereotype that mothers and children are “mere victims.” Equally, Barbara Harrell Bond (2002, p. 52) argues that humanitarianism is about defending, advocating and securing the enjoyment of human rights. It also implies a shift from seeing beneficiaries of humanitarian aid as “victims” to be pitied, to survivors of adversity - who often demonstrate unimaginable strength and dignity in the most adverse circumstance”. The research methodology is inspired by my own ethnographic participant observation as an asylum seeker in Rio de Janeiro and observations from some African refugee mothers and their children living in Rio de Janeiro.
Dawn Chatty (2014, p. 80) mentions that anthropology's unique contribution to the field of refugee and forced migration studies includes carefully documenting what happens to people, their culture and society when they are forcibly displaced and wrenched from their territorial moorings, or indeed, when they are dispossessed through processes of forced sedentarisation and involuntary immobility. I, therefore, intercalate personal reflection and engagement with the forced migration literature to achieve this goal. The idea is to directly merge my first-hand experience of exile with the literature on forced migration to give an image of how African refugee mothers obtain humanitarian aid and survive in Rio de Janeiro and how COVID-19 has affected their struggle.
Experiences before the Pandemic
In 2018, I had to bite the bullet, MOVE to Brazil and make a fresh start with my 18-month old daughter after the brutal murder of my late husband in Uganda. We were hosted in Rio de Janeiro by Sheila, a Brazilian lady who was a friend to my late husband and later guided me to a humanitarian organisation and the federal police, where I sought asylum.
I visited the humanitarian organisation to ask about my daughter joining a public daycare so that I would look for a job. The social worker asked me what help I needed precisely, even after explaining. I was astonished, but I told her that I needed a recommendation letter to take to daycare schools. In my mind, I thought that everything would be a walkover, but I needed to follow the “protocol” of applying to the Education secretary like any other native.
I got this information from the three schools we visited with Sheila, which left me wondering why the social worker would not give me the correct information. I questioned if she knew the proper procedures for putting a refugee child into a public school. First, one needs to identify the schools in their residence, choose five options, and access the Rio de Janeiro municipal council’s website. Not forgetting internet access is key to completing the task. Then, fill in the child and school’s information. A registration number is generated at the end of the process for future use.
I waited for six months before receiving a phone call from the daycare school where my daughter started school.
There existed no formal procedure for ushering in refugees at this organisation about essential information and public services like the “CPF,”[i] an eleven-digit number that serves as an identification of taxpayers in the Income Tax and enables access to services and the “SUS”[ii] card that guarantees public health to the population in Brazil. A simple brochure in different languages like Portuguese, French, Spanish, English, and Arabic would be far better; for Harrell-Bond states that until refugees have access to effective legal remedies, humanitarian assistance will continue to be inhumanely delivered to refugees. (Harrell-Bond, 2002, p. 52).
I went back to the social worker to seek jobs information after a long haul of waiting for their contact. Shockingly, she told me that only private or institutional cleaner jobs could be available, though she was unsure because I did not speak Portuguese. She said she did not guarantee anything, despite sending my curriculum vitae to the organisation’s email address after requesting it. A volunteer translator enabled this meeting.
The undermining view of refugees is critical in understanding that the social worker did not think of asking me about my professional abilities and skills. Although she was aware that I had a higher education degree, fluency in English, and professional experience in banking, she had my CV at hand. This clearly shows that the mothers’ academic backgrounds and professional experiences before the displacement and integration processes are not considered by humanitarian sectors regarding professional insertion. This strongly contributes to the reproduction of the trope that refugees are “mere victims.” Moreover, this aligns with Harrell-Bond's seminal work (1986), in which she argued that refugees are not a priori dependent and passive, but rather that humanitarian institutions and political structures have created and even demanded the dependency of forced migrants upon donors and providers of assistance.
Then, in January 2020, I participated in the selection process at Abraço Cultural in Rio de Janeiro, the English course that Maimuna, an African refugee mother and former English teacher, had recommended to me. Maimuna played a significant role in getting to know the course, realising my potential to teach English professionally in Brazil, and feeling welcome in this country. I was approved as an English teacher. This course is significant in my life because it offers employment opportunities to persons in refugee situations. Even though I spoke some Portuguese, I didn’t feel integrated into Brazilian society. When I started to teach English in this course with centrality to the Global South, I developed a sense of purpose and belonging.
This work gives visibility to the agency of refugees because it allows us to deconstruct the idea of an opposition between refugees and hosts, who are considered agents (supporters, hosts, donors). Refugees are also their hosts and supporters. This experience allows problematising monolithic views, such as that refugees are not agents in this process. Several authors have recognised this problematisation as necessary (MALKI, 1995; HARRELL-BOND, 2002; PACITTO and FIDDIAN-QASMIYEH, 2013). Many mothers help each other through referrals and recommendations about jobs, public schools, hospitals, work permits and general survival ideas by themselves. As was the case between Maimuna and me.
For the first time, the image of an asylum seeker was optimistic as I started teaching my Ugandan culture to the natives at this course and could afford a small apartment for my daughter and me.
Patricia Hill Collins has pointed out that while motherhood is a contradictory institution that is experienced in diverse ways by black women, it can be empowering: “[m]otherhood can serve as a site where Black women express and learn the power of self-definition, the importance of valuing and respecting ourselves, the necessity of self-reliance and independence, and a belief in Black women’s empowerment” (Collins, 2007, p. 108). Similarly, these mothers strive daily to break stereotypes and barriers they face in society, even though their potential is generally belittled.
Life during the pandemic
In March 2020, I started to teach and just after moving to my apartment, the Covid-19 pandemic set in. Everything almost came to a stand-still. We entered into the quarantine period. I was in a state of panic as the course stopped classes. I was cut off from my friends and had no physical help. Then there was the worry about my daughter's well-being and the new bills I had just acquired.
From the several interactions with the mothers, our main goal was to be able to support ourselves and children independently and try to live a normal every-day life. By the same token, Karen Jacobsen (2014, p. 99) argues correctly, “Millions of forcibly displaced people living in and outside camps seek to support themselves and their families often with minimal humanitarian assistance and in the face of active resistance by governments and citizens of host countries.”
In November 2020, I received an unexpected call for the first time from the organisation to pick up resources with a humble request not to inform any other refugees.
Indeed, “the world of humanitarianism tends to elude critical analysis” (Fassin 2011, 35). Why would the humanitarian organisation ask me not to inform any other refugees about the resources they were offering? Furthermore, Hamid (2012), Bauer-Amin (2017) and Souza and Manfrinato (2020) question the image of refugee people as “bodies that need to be saved,” the stereotypical imagery propagated by the media, as completely helpless and miserable. As Bauer-Amin (2017, p. 128) shows, refugees “even though they are victims of persecution, violence and more, they prefer to be recognised as active agents of their own lives”. Thus, as Jacobsen (2014, p.101) states, for refugees, losses incurred during the journey combined with a lack of access to assets in the host country means they are deeply disempowered and constrained in their ability to act and challenge rules and power structures. The strategies which refugees utilise to overcome such disempowerment are therefore of great interest, as they point the way to empowering other marginalised groups.
Agreeing with the authors above, I firmly believe that the establishment of a more sustainable system that promotes social-emotional, economic and political development is vital. It is therefore crucial that these mothers are supported to construct their lives beyond “the daily bread” and the “handouts” that humanitarian sectors give them. They have a wide range of knowledge, skills and abilities and are highly trainable. However, vainly, the aid givers continue treating them as wholly helpless and miserable.
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[i] Cadastro de Pessoa Física (Personal Registration Record).
[ii] Sistema Único de Saúde (Unified Health System).
Sylivia Koberwa is a Master’s student in Justice and Security at Universidade Federal Fluminense in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She is a refugee from Uganda and holds a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work and Social Administration from Kampala International University in Uganda. She is also an English teacher at Abraço Cultural in Rio de Janeiro. Her academic interests comprise motherhood, children, humanitarianism, human rights and social services in the context of forced migration.