“Leila, I have not taken a vacation in two years. I’ve been in the migration influx for two years”, is what Miriam shares with me as we talk at the historic wooden table of the Casa da Música (House of Music). Major decisions about the welcoming of immigrants in Pacaraima took place here: First meeting of UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), IOM training (International Organization for Migration), the decision to open a shelter for the Waraós and many others.
“Maestrina” of the Canarinhos da Amazônia Choir, Miriam has been working with young people and children at risk since 1997.That’s because Miriam is very dedicated and love what she does, in her own words, a way to “rekindle dreams”. First in Boa Vista, Roraima’s capital city. Then, on the Venezuelan side of the border, in Santa Elena de Uiarén, with Brazilian children living there. Until the project had to be moved to Pacaraima in 2017 and focus on immigrants.
For her, it was necessary to move the Association to the Brazilian side again when the political situation in Venezuela reached critical point which meant the project could no longer run. “It was interesting because I realised [in Santa Elena] that ‘look, you cannot continue in this system that is devastating the country’. We looked deeply and saw that, suddenly, everything was in chaos. So, we see a political system that didn’t work. As well intended as Chávez was, it didn’t work. It’s very simple to understand that”, she says.
The Choir then gained the status of “guiding thread” of what is, in fact, a whole system of support and welcome for Venezuelan families in Pacaraima. Miriam is a point of contact in town for newly arrived migrants. Much more than a “Maestrina”, she also plays the role of friend, psychologist, social worker, lawyer … and whatever it takes to ensure the safety of those who need help. “We work with families, job support and training for women, empowerment and protection. This has strengthened the Association’s standing. Anywhere we go, we are carrying this historical patrimony of rescuing people’s lives”, is what she tells me how the Canarinhos da Amazônia works.
In our conversation, just before the kid’s choir arrived for lunch, she tells me what it’s like to “deal with hunger every day” since moving to Pacaraima. “When the children arrive, when they cross the border, they come in a deplorable state of hunger, malnutrition, despair and complete lack of perspective. So what can we do? We sit down and begin the healing process. Open their eyes, rekindle their dreams. This is the first job we do after feeding the body”.
More than that, Miriam’s mission is for people to be able to not lose hope, find their balance and sense of normalcy back after from the chaos across the border. “If you ask me, what is the Casa da Música all about? It is a peaceful space of coexistence. What happens there? Everything. All the best. Do you understand? There, people go and have food, have affection, have shelter, have protection…People rekindle their dreams, they once again have peace in their lives”, she tells me. “You can only go forward if you are harmoniously in peace with yourself. If you don’t know exactly where you are and what you are doing, you cannot go anywhere. You need to find this balance to know what you want and be able to keep on going”, she sums up with the wisdom that only those who dedicated their lives to guiding paths could have.
Being a “dream enchantress” in a crisis environment, however, is no easy task. Miriam has faced extreme conflict situations at the border. One of the episodes that she tells me with indignation was when a group of protesters set fire to the place where about 30 Venezuelan families lived in downtown Pacaraima in August 2018. “It was horrible. It was very complicated because you didn’t know who to turn to. The city seemed to be on fire, everywhere you looked around was on fire. It was me, myself, and these people. It was traumatic”, she recounts with the intensity of who lived the horror of human barbarism and fought to be able to shelter everyone in her house.
She tells me that everything got better organised after the arrival of the Brazilian Army for the humanitarian mission, called Operação Acolhida (Operation Welcome). But that the xenophobic feeling is still present. “[The xenophobia comes] Primarily from the public power that encourages this. Looking with the eyes of other people, there are many who didn’t understand and who don’t accept. ‘It’s an invasion in my country, in my territory, in my city’”, she says.
Another vital moment in the crisis that she recently shared with me through a message – was on February 23rd of this year, when there was a failed attempt to send humanitarian aid to the other side of the border and the Venezuelan army opened fire on people trying to cross to the Brazilian side. “I have no ideological reasons to defend this despicable Maduro. I look ahead. I look at the human being, you know? I see the people who are running and crossing the border by the illegal paths, desperate men and women. Two years of living inside this migration crisis, body and soul and feeling on the skin, seeing dreams destroyed and trying to rekindle others. But today is the day that I feel more powerless”, she tells me with the pain of those who fight for love in a war dominated by power politics.
And yet, Miriam endures and continues to find strength to go forward. And live one day at a time. Following her mission of rekindling dreams of hundreds of families who arrive at Pacaraima without knowing what the future holds and haunted by a past filled with terror, hunger and misery. “Somehow, we need to have our Garden of Eden, which is our moment of peace in the things that we believe. And we have to believe that they are there to help us, that the universe is not this chaos that we live on the planet”, she concludes with hope.