The initial encounter the immigrants face when crossing the border is the military. This indeed may be a source of fear and concern including some other parts of Brazil; but not in Pacaraima. In the border city between Brazil and Venezuela, the military extends it’s welcome and helping hand.
The Operação Acolhida (Operation Welcome) was launched last year as a humanitarian mission in Roraima to “serve the Venezuelan brothers who arrive in the country,” according to the Ministry of Defense. And how impressed I was to learn that the army has, indeed, a “Friendly Hand,” that is quite different from their “Strong Arm” – insofar as military’s talk is concerned & certainly the images that perhaps is better known of.
During the time I was there, the army’s presence was felt, whether in the exercise of humanitarian actions or in the mentions in all the interviews I was able to conduct with people involved in the migratory influx.
That’s why I’ve decided to follow their work closely at the Pacaraima Triage Centre (Petrig). “We are a reference in the world. The peace missions of the Brazilian army are internationally recognised, but little is said about it”, says Major Marcus Fabius while walking me on a tour around the structure set up especially for the mission in June 2018.
All the necessary documentation for the entry of new migrants is processed here; including vaccination, work permit and ID. It is also at the Triage Centre that organisations such as UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), IOM (International Organization for Migration) and UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) are gathered to provide support in matters including shelter, sexual health to name just a few.
With all the processes put in place, what caught my attention was the intimate details of humanity. The conversations, acts and gestures of kindness that I constantly witnessed at the Centre. I saw true affection and welcome expressed both in the tired gaze and sincere speech of all the officials I spoke with who told me about the emotional challenges of being immersed 24 hours in the mission; to scenes of an officer playing with a little girl who approached him with a bottle of water.
The Welcome Operation has opened it’s compassionate arm, showing true welcome. This is what I observed walking past the vaccination area and the Officer told me that the hardest part was hearing the children crying in fear of the vaccination. To calm these fears, they entertained the children by putting together a catalogue of movies in a USB including cartoons in Spanish to screen on the waiting space TV as a welcome distraction for the little ones.
The Welcoming was also present in the banner “Tu familia puede saber que estás bien. Contáctala” (Your family may know that you are well. Contact them) to advertise the free service of the Red Cross for Restoring Family Ties. Amidst all of these, officers working showed dedication in all facets of the welcoming including the moment a UNHCR agent who was about to give me an interview stopped everything she was doing to look after a pregnant woman, holding another child in her arm asking “please” for shelter because her kid was hungry and she had nowhere to go.
The full involvement of the military in the mission was complex and non-stop as Major Fabius explained to me in greater detail for example about the temporary accommodation facilities of the Petrig. Careful assessments are made to identify those eligible to spend the night at the emergency accommodation that has a maximum stay of 24 hours and is primarily for high risk immigrants before being sent to an official UNHCR shelter for further action and processing.
The Major’s voice is heavy when he tells me of the difficulty of making the decision of who is the most deserving among the already vulnerable. “It is very difficult. We see people in all kinds of situations here. The other day we had a family with eight children, there is no way we can leave them on the street. The heart gets tight when we have to decide who goes and who stays,” says the Major.
Lieutenant Bruno, the temporary Accommodation Coordinator, shares these feelings too. He mentions the emotional stress of dealing with human vulnerability on a daily basis since he started serving on the mission. But he also stresses the gratitude he feels for being part of the Operation due to the affection he gets back from those who are welcomed. “We even had a child that was named after me here. It was published on the Acnur Americas Instagram account”, he says with the emotion of those who will have a story to keep with affection forever.
I end my visit to the Triage Centre by asking Major Fabius about his opinion on the importance of the Welcome Operation. And the answer was compelling with a deep sense of pride and duty. A feeling I knew all too well on my experience here. “If the situation were contrary, I would like the Brazilian people to be welcomed in the same way that we welcome the Venezuelan population here. Welcoming the immigrant is a work of valuing life”, he concluded.