“When I left [Venezuela], I said, ‘I will be the resistance in Brazil because I will have a voice and I will tell the world who we are”. One of the pioneers of the first Boa Vista Welcoming Centre, Ms. Alba Marina is certainly a force of resistance in Brazilian lands – and still offers support to her compatriots so they can have a smoother transition when they arrive into another country.
Working in partnership with the NGO Fraternity Without Borders, Alba managed to put into practice the dream of creating a housing space in which the stigma of a refugee was denounced and deconstructed. In operation since December 2017, the Welcoming Centre is in constant transformation by those who call it home. “We don’t have a standard, a model, like ‘that’s how we had planned it’ here. It’s a lot based on our hearts, our logic and our common sense. It depends on what we want to improve and what we can do with the tools we have in our hands,” she says.
This is what makes the Centre so distinct from the region’s shelters, which are under the administration of the United Nations and the Brazilian Army, for example. There, each person is responsible for some kind of task or activity to keep the structure functioning, from cooking to entertainment for the children. “We don’t compete with anyone, because we don’t do the same work,” Alba says. “It’s my dream that we become a point of reference and importance in the world. A reference for humanity especially those displace – the immigrants, in a situation of refuge, crisis, and protagonists of their lives, capable of having control of their own lives. They just need to be seen, for people to believe that they can do things”, she adds with the sparkle in her eyes with a strong belief in social change. But it goes beyond that.
What makes the Welcoming Centre special is the vision behind Alba’s dream and hope that there is the story and linkage in every person who, just like everyone else there, was forced to be a migrant. There is a person whose resistance and bravery is to find a home away from home. “I even said once that the immigrant was an orphan from ‘there’. That it searched in the eyes of others, the lost gazes; that it searched in the hugs it received in Brazil, the hugs from friends, the love of thy neighbour; and the coffee here, it tried to feel the taste of coffee there. Our whole process is a process of ‘where is what I left behind’ and ‘the life I used to live, I want it again’. It’s a constant struggle because one had no option but to leave”, Alba narrates with the pain that only those who have experienced the hardship of having to leave home.
Alba carries in her words the wisdom of those who understand how important it is to welcome and look at the other with empathy because she herself experienced what it means to be displaced leaving everything she loved behind. “I never thought in my life that I would leave Venezuela. Now we are being forced to be immigrants without consent and any preparation. And the other countries are being forced to receive immigrants in retrospect. Because when I was in my country and saw immigration in Europe I thought ‘ah, they’re in Europe’. Don’t you know that you can be one of them?”
Alba reflects on how this process could be made easier, less painful if tolerance was cultivated before nationalism. “You are educated to be a nationalist. You are educated to think that what is yours is better than others. That’s bad. You have to be educated to be a citizen of the world. To see everyone as human beings, to be tolerant and to love others, to love the mixture. The Latin Americans are a total mixture, you know. How can we forget this reality? Why aren’t we reminded of this from the beginning? It would be much easier. We would accept each other. You would be able to look into my eyes and see ‘you’re just like me’”.
With sorrow, Alba still mentions the greatest pain of this whole situation is the loss of cultural identity loss and being stateless. “They asked me once, ‘Do you want to go back?’ I said, ‘Man, I want to go back. But could I go back?’ No. First, because I have nowhere to go back to. The country where I grew up, is not a country anymore. The structure is there, but my neighbours, my friends, my culture, my society, the one that educated me, doesn’t exist. It was destroyed”, she says. “I see them dying of hunger. And not only from hunger. To die from infinite sadness is the greatest lost and tragedy of humanity. People are dying from sadness. We were known as the happiest people. We still laugh at our misfortunes, sad as we are, but what I see today is desolation. People are walking with their shoulders down, their heads down, sad eyes…tired. What have they done to my country? I don’t know,” she says with the tired eyes of those who feel for her people.
Even so, Alba is hopeful and strives for a solution: “create things,” just like she did with the Welcoming Centre in Boa Vista. “We have to show the world who we are. To be Venezuela, not Venezuelan, outside Venezuela. Anywhere in the world. So that, when the day comes, we can go back and re-build our country and ourselves. A better country. It doesn’t mean it’s the best country, but what we thought our country was, you know? That’s what I have to tell you”, she concludes with a steely determination and the strength to resist and move forward.