It was a nice and cool spring morning, an eclectic group of about 25 people was sitting in a small university classroom anxiously waiting for their instructor. The diversity was visible in their ages. It included kids, young adults and seniors. But they were much more diverse than that. They were elementary school teachers, celebrities, entrepreneurs, housewives, politicians… They also had a few things in common, as we all do. They had recently lost (almost) everything! And they were trying to find a new normal.
A few weeks earlier, I had been contacted by a friend, a professor from a prestigious university in the south region, a more “European” part of Brazil. She invited me to design and run a cycling training for Haitian refugees. I heard myself saying yes before my brain processed what that really meant. A few moments later I was at the same time thrilled and terrified.
Brazil received a huge influx of Haitian immigrants in the years that followed the earthquake in 2010. Many of them not only lost their houses and belongings. They also lost their place in a community, they lost their loved ones: children, parents, partners.
In a new country, they had to start from scratch, find a place to live, a job, learn a new language, make new friends… For all those things and many more, they needed to find a way to get around. They barely could afford public transit, let alone owning a car. Naturally, many of them resorted to bicycles. For many of the most vulnerable, cycling is the only option. But cycling in Brazil can be challenging even for Brazilians.
My job was to teach them our rules to help them ride safely. I was thrilled to help people in need with this important skill that is very dear to me. And I was terrified to face a group that didn’t speak my language (the training was all in French) and had experienced an unimaginable traumatic experience.
When I stepped into that classroom, I was immediately puzzled. Most of them were talking to each other. I could even hear the occasional laugh and at the same time, I could see a profound sadness in their faces. I was prepared to listen. I knew I had more to learn than to teach. But I don’t think I was prepared to hear what they said.
I invited them to sit in a circle and introduce themselves. The first round was quick. Not many words, mostly names, places, dates and ages. Second round I asked what they are doing in Brazil now regarding work. That was sad but predictable. A tiny young woman with a large smile told us she was cleaning bathrooms in bus stations. A 58-year old man told us he was working in construction laying bricks. All the others, except the kids, had similar stories. They were all doing things like serving tables, cleaning, doing hard physical labour or unemployed.
They looked even sadder, an agitated sadness and they were looking at me in a way that to me, signalled they had more to say. I decided to have a third round. I pondered about that next question for many days before the workshop. I wanted to ask them about Haiti, their former life, but I didn’t know if I had the right to touch on such a delicate subject. I wanted to know, I wanted to learn. I could feel that I cared about them more when I listened. And it turned out they needed to talk about that out loud.
The young bathroom-cleaning woman was the first to speak again. Her answer made it clear why. She was so outspoken because she was the anchor of a national TV news program in Haiti. Only then I realized how the group, especially the kids, were clustered around her. She was a celebrity!
The brick-layer was a grade four history teacher who loved kids and books. Others shared how they lost their whole family. It dawned on me how much grief and pain they were carrying, how much they left behind and how beautiful they were. I was struggling not to cry when one of them said: “You know, despite all that happened, the earthquake was easier than what we have to face here now.” And a second one added: “Yeah… some Brazilians are not so nice…” and everybody nodded, keeping their heads down.
I knew exactly what they were referring to, I just couldn’t hold it anymore and I cried hard. They were talking about xenophobia and racism. Physical and verbal aggression against black refugees and more veiled systemic racism that makes every waking moment a little bit harder for them. And yet, the group in front of me was not making any accusations, pointing fingers or “looking for a fight”. They just said that some of us are not “very nice”. I felt ashamed, powerless and utterly sad.
My professor friend was there with a couple of other assistants. They were clearly embarrassed and also crying. There were some awkward minutes following that. It was the first time our Haitian friends had a chance to share something like that with people who were not Haitian refugees like them. It didn’t solve their problems and yet it helped all of us. They felt heard, they felt seen.
All that process took much longer than I had planned. It took exactly what it had to take. We didn’t have much time left to learn the rules of the road and go for a bike ride together on that day, but there are certain things that can wait and there are others that cannot.