Carine, worker in the Brazilian favelas: “Among these challenges, we try and offer new paths”

“It feels like yesterday, but it’s already been 20 years.” Carine has been working for 20 years in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, for the French association Claire Amitié which supports girls and young women to find trust and fulfillment. It appears as a complete necessity: corruption, violence and drugs trafficking are part of inhabitants’ daily life.

When Carine and I meet, she is on holiday in France. She lives in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, since 1996: she didn’t think at first that what was supposed to be a simple reconnaissance mission in order to create a new Claire Amitié foster home was going to be such an adventure, both in her professional and personal life.

Carine has been working for Claire Amitié since she was 19 years old: this French association was created in 1946 by Therese Cornille. This woman was leader of the Young Christian Workers movement, and was startled by young people she met after WWII: “a girl had nothing and came to find a job in town, another one was sleeping in a cave…” Carine explains. Therese Cornille was hopeless: her movement couldn’t support these young women. So she started writing in a small notebook the situations of different young people she ran into, and expose it to cardinal Liénart. The cardinal was really moved by all these desperate cases, and asked Ms. Cornille what could be done to help. Cornille answered: “My family and I were really poor but we loved each other, we shared tasks and responsibilities… I picture small houses in which young women could find a family balance, a professional balance, too. We would share tasks, and every girl would try and find a training program or a job to start from scratch in life.” 70 years later, the small association from Northern France grew much more than imagined: there are now 20 foster houses, including abroad: Niger, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Cambodia, Brazil… The list is quite long. Foster houses openings are set when local cardinals call: many are worried of the youth situation in their town being left to their own devices or exposed to daily violence.

26767626364_4134cb96c9_kKids in the Jaragua favela, Maceio, Brazil, © Martin Leonhardt via Flickr.

This type of call incited Claire Amitié to develop an interest for Brazil and its favelas, violent neighborhoods, at the end of the 1980s. Therese Cornille died in the late 1980s; once the opening in Burkina Faso succeeded, new President Christiane Muller decide to turn to Brazil in 1994. Carine’s support is requested: “In May, I received a call from Christiane who asked: “Would agree to go to Brazil for a reconnaissance mission, it wouldn’t commit you more than that.”” Back then, Carine had worked for Claire Amitié for 18 years in France, but had a growing interest in international foster homes, especially in Africa. But there were only full teams there. “The point was just to go and see how things went in Salvador, see what the cardinal was expecting. I discovered a people I didn’t know at all, I couldn’t speak the language…” Carine recalls.

She understands really quickly that what was supposed to be a simple two-way trip was going to be a much bigger commitment for her: “I immediately loved the Brazilian people: I discovered faith and joy despite ordeals, despite penury in the favelas. At first I wasn’t expecting so much poverty. But in the meantime, there was love of life, hope that put difficulties aside quite a bit. When the Cardinal hosted us, he took us all with such seriousness, asking so many interesting questions – how did we see things in Salvador, on the fact that so many young people were in difficult situations and had little answers… I was so moved, I felt so affected I couldn’t speak.”

I immediately loved the Brazilian people: I discovered faith and joy despite ordeals, despite penury in the favelas

The arrival in Salvador starts in 1995, especially with the search for a house to establish Claire Amitié’s headquarters – Clara Amizade in Portuguese –: “We wanted to live in the poorest area of the town, where there are many favelas, but every time our prayers took us to the other side of Salvador, where there is a really touristic neighborhood and beaches… and a lot of prostitution. We understood that it was the right thing to do, since we wanted to prevent young girls from falling into this sort of dramatic situations. We looked for houses, we found a beautiful house that belonged to a herdsman who had 14 children and wanted to sell his place. There was a beautiful space, a lovely garden and a well. It was a place in which we knew we couldn’t host everyone, but which was promising.”

Since its opening in 1997, the Brazilian branch of Claire Amitié posts impressive results: thousands of girls and women have been welcomed, 320 young girls and women, aged 8 to 29, are currently supported by the association. The team counts 18 staff members, administrative, educative, maintenance, accountability, social assistance services included. Carine specifies that they are also “volunteers who work part-time, or who are coming to some events; there are also administration council members: a network of 15 families or so who support us, who give their competences on the administrative, financial plans, in terms of potential reforms too.” This is not an extravagance when knowing more about the risky context for young girls and women of Salvador.

Permanent threats and enormous challenges

Carine identifies three main threats in favelas. The main danger for the youth “is normality. It is so normal to use, sell, spread drugs… We worked in a specific favela for a long time: people were so used to seeing us that they were selling drugs in front of us, taking drugs in front of us, counting their money in front of us… They are not even hiding anymore.” The risk of being enrolled in drugs trafficking is real: it provides easy money and ladder in drugs trafficking is simple to climb. “There are those called “olhiero” – those who are looking into the streets, who are on roofs, who are playing dominos – you feel like they are doing nothing else for hours, but it is actually a job: they are surveying the streets. So they have a very precise schedule, they have phones, some of them have guns. Then there are those we call “planes”: they are carrying drugs from one neighborhood to another. Sometimes kids are playing this part: when they are arrested by the police, they are generally released – you can’t imprison a 7-year-old. And then there are the managers.”

The main danger for the youth in favelas is normality. It is so normal to use, sell, spread drugs…

Carine admits it is even more difficult to avoid this field when many families have at least one relative – brother, sister, father – who is involved in trafficking, and is sometimes imprisoned because of it: “It is the best way to join. We are trying to show young people that there are other means of being happy: your loved ones aren’t happy in prison – this is not compulsory, you can earn money differently, you’ll be proud of it. When you earn money from drugs business, it is badly earned and badly spent.”

The second danger “is violence. There are numerous settling of scores in drugs trafficking, many people aged under 30 die.” Beyond this violence, which is strictly related to drugs business, the police are far from being innocent: “In order to impose their power and their strength, the police are shooting randomly, there are stray bullets and kids or women sometimes get shot. (…) The police are entering houses, stamping their boots, opening doors: they want to collect people. Children and babies are sometimes there, but the police are here all armed and all in violence. It is impossible to live in a favela and escape violence: when there are police raids or firings, everybody has to go home, there are a lot of curfews.” Carine mentions that the association stays away from these harsh realities: “We are not changing the situation in neighborhoods, but we are clearly changing personal situations. Young people who live in a background where there is alcohol and drugs, but who made the choice of not drinking and not doing drugs: there are improvements in their families’ life and in their own, they are making personal choices because they want a greater happiness, a well being.”

We are not changing the situation in neighborhoods, but we are clearly changing personal situations

The third threat is prostitution: “in an environment where partying is really present, with drugs and alcohol, it sometimes comes with it… Also, young moms who can’t offer a decent life to their kids can be reduced or condemned to this “activity”. Or young women who become drug-addicts and need money to pay their consumption. They’re not living a happier life, and their poverty unfortunately remains the same.

A strong identity and word-of-mouth: Clara Amizade’s greatest allies

In order to encourage girls to join Clara Amizade when it started, employees – including Carine – were walking in favelas with small plastic boxes in their hands, in which there were “crochet yarn and needles”: “they were many shows on TV in the 1990s were female characters wore crochet scarves, it was extremely trendy. Girls and teenagers were fascinated by this. We went into the neighborhoods, we chatted with them in houses, yards we were lent”, Carine explains. Step by step, the association had the possibility to create partnerships with the church to get rooms in favelas. These rooms became community centers: these are places of meeting between Clara Amizade and young girls and women. A mobile unit is deployed everyday in one of these three centers.

 10410315896_13d29b4bd6_kFavelas in Rio de Janeiro, © Dany13 via Flickr.

Clara Amizade also benefits from a very efficient publicity: word-of-mouth. “Girls who were welcomed or who are currently welcomed give our contact details. Also, young girls may have tee-shirts of the association, and when they go home, their friends may ask them: “Where did you get it? Where do you come from?”” According to Carine, it is also the promise of “a human, social, civic development” from the association that makes young people eager to come and benefit from this training program.

A duality between leisure and professional trainings

What does Clara Amizade offer its young members? “Among these challenges, we try and offer new paths: yes, you were born in a favela, but you can live differently, with dignity. In Salvador, we welcome girls: children, teenagers, and young women – aged 8 to 29, who are living in favelas.” For kids aged 8 to 12, the aim is simple: “getting them out of the streets, offer them nice activities because at school, classes are overloaded, teachers are put in awkward positions so they are not really motivated, they are often badly paid compared to the responsibilities they can get… Girls don’t always spend good times at school or don’t have fond memories of it. We offer them fabric paintings and dance classes, arts and crafts.” For teenagers aged 13 to 18, Clara Amizade organizes practical classes: manicure, African braids, hairstyling… For adults, training programs are becoming more professional: “there are classes of professional hairstyling and makeup, organized by a specialized organism. These courses are organized on a long-term basis, for about 6 to 7 months, every afternoon. The diploma they obtain in the end is valid in the entire country and abroad.” Groups have common training programs in common: “a human and spiritual training session”, but also fraternization classes. It is a central point in Clara Amizade’s activities: “we work on what creates love of life, the joy of being well together. This idea of fellowship and organizing parties is important, it gives a meaning to life. We are having creative parties: every girl can bring her own talents, there is an exchange of expressions”, Carine explains.

In line with this, Carine describes an annual event, the talent shows, where young people are creating performances and showing their talents to the public: dance, theater, poems… Since public school doesn’t have the means to let young pupils express themselves, Clara Amizade push girls into speaking in public: “Don’t hesitate to take the microphone, come with us and sing, learn to be yourself, dare say who you are, take your own space.It gives them confidence, a love of life also because they are discovering their talents. People see and notice them because they are able of doing wonderful things, beautiful expressions, beautiful dances that have a sense… People see and notice them because they are able of doing wonderful things, beautiful expressions, beautiful dances that have a sense… They are able to discover their talent for writing poems when they used to have difficulties to read and write”, Carine details. This happiness is felt not only by the kids, but also by their parents: “They are grateful to see their children’ progresses, seeing young people who are no longer into the streets, who are eager to go to school, who want to learn more, young people who show and exploit their talents. Families are looking for our support because they feel helped in an environment where they are losing control, because everything goes to violence and drift.”

Parents are grateful to see their children’ progresses, see young people who are no longer into the streets, who are eager to go to school, young people who show and exploit their talents

Clara Amizade went even further by opening an IT laboratory, thanks to the financial support of a Vatican foundation. Because of the strong demand, the association made this center accessible to boys, but also to parents. “We told them once: “There are two kinds of illiteracy: not knowing how to write and read, but also not knowing how to use a computer or the Internet.” Some parents came to us and expressed a lot of dismay: “We have never had access to the Internet, we can’t help our children, we have no idea how to deal with it.” That is the reason why we opened the IT laboratory to parents who had never had access to the Internet before. It is a joy for parents and their children, who are able to help their mom or dad with how to use a computer.” A professional necessity underlies the creation of the IT laboratory: “Even if children can’t develop their IT skills daily like someone who has a computer at home, they can come back to the laboratory if necessary: they have needs or skills to develop. I think it is essential to join the labor market.”

Outfit, investment, regularity: Clara Amizade’s requests towards the youth

The organism asks its young members to demonstrate their volunteering. And then, based on this feature, “making beautiful things, good things, whilst maintaining a certain consistency. Activities are free but we are asking them to participate by being helpful, by doing something that is accessible for them – for instance, bringing empty cartons of milk to recycle.” It can also be providing some help with communication for parties and events – up to 300 meals can be served over these days, which constitutes a great financial support for Clara Amizade –. Beyond this strong commitment, the association demands a certain outfit: “they can wear a short skirt when they are in their neighborhood, with a plunging neckline and a tee-shirt that shows their belly button – but when they come to the foster home, they have to wear a proper outfit. It is normal to get dressed to take part to activities, we are not at the beach.” Clara Amizade also tries and diversifying of young people’ cultural references: “We are not dancing any old how. There are going to be lots of different dances: modern, ballet, Afro-Brazilian… – but we won’t accept degrading dances. We also offer lots of different music. For instance, there are songs that are called “pagode”. Foreigners who hear it find the rhythm really pleasant; but when you start understanding the lyrics, you find it less pleasant, and when you understand double meanings, even less! We won’t forbid this music because it is part of their repertoire, of their neighborhood, of their life. But we are going to learn other songs, and sing together.” Another major point for Carine, because danger around the kids is real: “We also help them to think, because drugs are all around. There are also piercings and tattoos, which can be harmless acts, but when we have a 12-year-old buying huge needles to pierce her friend’s tongue, without any hygiene, it is extremely dangerous. We have to intervene, meet with their parents, and say “Here’s what we took away.” It settles a dialog and responsibilities.

Carine mentions the friability of families in favelas: “Families are mainly composed of single mothers, with several kids born of different fathers, and sometimes the father of the last-born.” In some families, fathers are taking the leadership to offer a more stable life to their children: “We are happy to see responsible fathers, to be able to talk to them when they come to register their kids to activities. They can be counted on the fingers of one hand, but they do exist.” However, in a majority of situations, Clara Amizade notes the great involvement of families: “there is a strong love that exists, including in the most destructured families, there is a fight for survival. Mothers are able to make extraordinary sacrifices to support their kids. We are witnessing tremendous tokens of love in families.”

Love stories, fighting for life and self-fulfillment: a stroll in Carine’s memory

Carine can attest of many incredible stories, to the extent that she pauses to think for a long time when searching for stories that marked her mind over the past 20 years: “There are so many stories that affected me – way too many. Many faces are coming to my mind, from various ages, lots of families too…” She mentions in turns: “This 9-year-old girl who says “When I dance, I feel beautiful.” This is an enhancement of herself. There is also this young woman who took sewing classes with us, and now owns a bathing suits workshop. She sells in her favela, but also outside: it enables her to live and to support her family. Or this other woman who is a hairdresser and can work from home, and take care of her sick husband as well as her children.”

There are so many stories that affected me – way too many. Many faces and families are coming to my mind

Two other stories particularly struck Carine, in family situations that were complicated if not desperate: the first one is about Joselice, a 27-year-old woman, and her daughter Mirella. “Joselice faced violence from her father, who was an illiterate man from the countryside, and her mother abandoned her daughter because she was tired of her husband’s violence. This girl came to our foster home when she was 12 or 13: she was happy with the activities, dancing capoeira, discovering friendships… Because of her father’s violence, she got involved in romantic relationships that didn’t work out, she had a kid really quickly. At first, her daughter Mirella was the fruit of her pain, the fruit of her father’s violence who forced her to go and search something else. We helped her during her pregnancy and her beginnings as a young mom. She had to stop going to school, but we supported her into going back to school, and then finding a training program in hairstyling, she also attended a training program in manicure. Eventually hairstyling didn’t really suit her, so we helped her finding a training program in the restaurant industry. Nowadays, she is skilled in all of these fields, so she has a job, she can raise her daughter. It’s a new reality for her. She is typically a young woman who would have ended up in prostitution or drugs if she hadn’t met us. Joselice made giant strides by rebuilding her life and a future with her daughter, whom she learned to love.”

The second story concerns a mother, whose husband abandoned her and their three kids. “She came to our beauty center, she was having major issues. Guess who encouraged her to join hairstyling classes? Her 13-year-old son, who took care of his youngest brothers and supported her mother: “Mom, I know it’s hard but you’re going to make it.” She now owns her own hairstyling salon, and can offer a better life to her kids and maybe afford a different education for them. I really remember this kid, he came to see the place where his mom was taking classes and he told us his determination of helping his mother. So the mother was even more motivated to make her way because she had her children’ support – despite their youth, their fragility as kids, but also their strength of saying “We are going to help you, you will succeed.”

This mother was even more motivated to make her way because she had her children’ support – despite their youth, their fragility as kids, but also their strength of saying “We are going to help you, you will succeed”

It is hard to measure Clara Amizade’s benefits since its opening in Salvador. Carine admits she is really surprised when knowing of all the happy endings for former young members: “Many of them are happy and blooming today. Last year, we worked a lot on a book and on a movie (Être et devenir femme de Maroussia Klep, éd. Nouvelle Cité, Editor’s Note)… When searching for girls we had welcomed in the past, we’ve realized the significance of our action, to an extent we did not imagine.”

Capture d’écran 2017-08-10 à 21.54.25

Screenshot from Clara Amizade website, all rights reserved.

In this climate of permanent violence and distress, Clara Amizade’s actions are vital: Carine asserts she is happy when seeing young people “who’ve come a long way, from families with awful difficulties and wrenched situations – favelas still have open-air sewers – but despite this reality, they strongly believe that they are going to do well. It gives me great hope, it reinforces my faith. This solidarity is a reality that changes the world, the people, the families…”

Carine is realistic about Clara Amizade’s actions’ significance: “We can’t change it all: there is nothing we can do against corruption, or against violence of drugs trafficking. But there are deep changes on personal and family plans, that make people happy, and us as well when we see these positive evolutions.”

Even she regrets some wealthy people’s behavior when facing poverty in favelas – “Lots of people say ““There is no point starting because there is too much to do. We shouldn’t give anything, because if we start, we are lost.” This selfishness develops an even bigger violence.” – Carine remains categorical on the fact that every small gesture matters: “When you are on field or when we start doing a small thing, the smallest we give gets multiplied, above our own strengths and weaknesses. They are things that become reality beyond ourselves: we mustn’t be afraid of getting started.”

Featured image: Bailique, Amapa, Brazil, © Nicolas Rénac, May, 4th 2012 via Flickr

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