This post is a real story about immigrants and an event that took place exactly six years ago. Dec 6 is a very special date for me because it is my canniversary. It is the day I landed in Canada and became an immigrant myself. Reflecting on my own experiences in the last four years has given me a whole new appreciation for the struggles of some immigrants of colour that chose Curitiba, Brazil, as their new home.
To give a little context, Curitiba is one of the “whitest” cities in Brazil among the state capitals. Due to the colder climate, it was the preferred destination for the massive wave of immigrants from all over Europe in the twentieth century.
Sometimes, living in a city with millions of people can be a very lonely experience. This is especially true if you are denied access to a lot of the things a city has to offer in terms of natural, social and built infrastructures.
We can be in the same city and still worlds apart. This was certainly the case for the refugees from Haiti living in Curitiba, the city where I lived. In general, we were inaccessible to each other. With their visa status, they couldn’t apply for a job in my company. They couldn’t afford to live in my neighbourhood. They lived either in tiny shitty apartments downtown or in the outskirts. They wouldn’t shop in the organic market I used to go to. And they didn’t attend the cultural events I was used to either because they couldn’t afford them, were unaware or worse, they wouldn’t be allowed to be there without retaliation. For the majority of the privileged population, including myself, they simply didn’t exist.
In my last blog post, I wrote about some of their hardships after the earthquake in Haiti, including xenophobia and anti-black-racism. The reason I said I was prepared to listen to them was because of what I had learned in Curitiba a few months prior to that workshop.
I first became aware of Haitian immigrants because on my bicycle I experience the city at a much slower pace. Riding downtown I could capture a lot of details from the street ballet. People’s faces, what they were doing and on many occasions even what they were saying. Those fleeting encounters didn’t really give me any insight into their lives. Definitely, it was not enough to create a bond or to really see them and their struggles. But to me, it was the first step, because at least they were real.
I realized that it was necessary to close the gap between us when it became public that thirteen harassment and assault cases against black refugees had been reported. The general consensus was that the real numbers were much higher. Typically, many of those tragic episodes went unreported.
Finding a job, even a survival one, was extremely hard and they had practically no social assistance from the government. Losing their job meant starvation, homelessness and the prospect of losing their right to stay in the country. Under that kind of pressure, they would submit themselves to the most precarious conditions.
Despite the multiple harassment cases against the black refugees, a lot of people in Curitiba was sympathetic to the newcomers, especially those who had the opportunity to spend time with and get to know them a little better. That was the case of a group of Portuguese as Second Language teachers. When the information became public, the teachers started looking for ways to show solidarity to the Haitian community and contacted the Pocket Square to organize a public festival in Celebration of Haitian Culture. The event was called “Plas Ayisyen – We are all immigrants”.
The Haitian community was involved from the beginning, deciding about the activities, promotion and date. We had a packed event with a photo exhibition, music, dance, stencil workshop, roundtable discussions and food (including Joumou Soup, a symbol of Haiti’s independence). For many of them, it was the first time they attended a public event like that in Curitiba.
The pocket square was emerging as a public space that represented equity, diversity and collaboration. It was a perfect place to welcome new friends and we wanted to send a strong message to say:
You are welcome. We are so glad you are here!
They were seen, they were heard, they were celebrated. The event not only brought some joy and dignity to their lives, it also provided them with a safe space. They learned that the pocket square was a safe haven to make new friends.
Fast forward to 2020 and here in London Ontario I am learning about the inequality issues in my new country and figuring out what we, as a community, can do about it. Engaging with the Black London Network seems to be a good starting point.