Atypical Quarantine: How Refugees Live the Coronavirus Crisis in São Paulo

Casa do Migrante, in the center of São Paulo, gathers 68 people of 16 nationalities; the residents have agreed to social distancing

São Paulo, April 13, 2020 – After two months looking for work, with interviews and admission exams done, Venezuelan Asia Carreño was ready to start working as an attendant at a cafe in São Paulo. That was when the pandemic of the new coronavirus arrived in Brazil. The establishment closed its doors on what would be the first new day of employment. Asia lives in Casa do Migrante, in the center of São Paulo, with dozens of foreigners who experience social isolation in a peculiar way, with its challenges and surprises.

“I felt bad for not being able to work, but I was told to not worry because health came first. The day by day it’s not easy, but I’m interested in living with so many different cultures together,” says Asia, who is 58 years old and comes from Ciudad Guayana, the sixth-largest city in Venezuela.

The quarantine restrictions of those who can stay gained atypical outlines in a space where 68 people of 16 nationalities currently live. While the cases of Covid-19 increase in the city, it is necessary to overcome problems of coexistence among residents who are not from the same family but need to take care of themselves as if they were.

“We made a deal. Those who agreed to stay at the shelter had to agree with the rule of not going out so as they don’t put everyone’s life at risk. They started to adapt. We eat meals, have activities, and even an interest in reading has increased. On the other hand, if the need to spend more time at the shelter creates the possibility of exchange, it also creates a spark. Sometimes prejudices that were previously hidden in relation to one population or another arise, and not everyone understands the same way that the moment is delicate,” explains Fr. Paolo Parise, Coordinator of Missão Paz, which includes the Casa do Migrante and several initiatives to welcome and train refugees.

Every afternoon, Fr. Paolo, also a migrant, talks on the internet with his parents, who live in Northern Italy, a region that is very affected by the coronavirus.

“From the beginning, I have followed the seriousness of the situation generated by the pandemic. And that is why I am on people’s feet, explaining that it is no joke and many people are dying. My sister and my brother-in-law work in a hospital and describe the situation,” he says. Fr. Paolo says he keeps calm sharing the work with a team that “wears the shirt”, and also by work on the computer, conversations with refugees, collaborators and moments of spirituality.

Among migrants, the concern about work and sending sustenance to their countries of origin is what take peace away. Many sought help from the shelter’s social workers to find out about the benefit promised by the government during the epidemic. The other day, employees of a Basic Health Unit came to give a lecture at the shelter on disease prevention. Unexpected friendships and children who storm the shelter with the universal language of play alleviate the tension of the quarantine.

“We woke up, had coffee, helped with the cleaning, sometimes we read. The other day they brought nail polish and painted our nails, fixed our hair. We even had a samba class”, says Asia.

The most complicated, she confesses, “is to be patient and understand other cultures.”

“Communication is a damned barrier. Sometimes I say something that seems kind to me, but to the others, it sounds like an insult. Then an argument begins. We try to resolve between us, but when it doesn’t work, Mrs. Márcia comes in as an intermediary”, tells the Venezuelan.

“Mrs. Márcia” is Márcia Lourdes de Araujo, Coordinator of Casa do Migrante. She is even a more attentive listener in these quarantine days.

“They are relieved to be here, but they are also suffocated because they are not in their own home and have to share space with people of different views, ways, smells. In the beginning, they put a lot of pressure to leave; they made excuses because they felt incarcerated. Now fear made them feel the importance of care,” says Márcia.

To avoid crowds in the cafeteria, some chairs were removed, and the shifts were extended so that everyone could eat. Refugees help clean the shelter, the cafeteria, the courtyard, and other common areas. The inner courtyard garden is the favorite place to rest and chat on the cell phone, with a view of flowers, trees, and an Acerola tree.

The news, or the lack of it, distresses some residents. Africans complain that they know little about what is happening on their continent. Others are surprised by the increase in cases in developed countries like the United States but say they do not feel bad.

Contact with the outside world through social media brings relief to other migrants. It is by cell phone that Venezuelan Salvador Herrera, 50, has news of his son who stayed in San Cristóbal. Two months ago in São Paulo, he said he was grateful to have a roof, food and the friends he made, among Venezuelans, Africans and Haitians.

“The annoying thing was to have stopped taking a Portuguese course that I loved. Speaking Portuguese would certainly help me get a job. But it stopped everything,” says Herrera.

He will also leave at the end of the quarantine; he says he has accepted a job offer as a construction worker.

“Every night I ask God for this to pass without major consequences, and for us to return to normality to be able to work, and in good health,” he says.

Until then, activities in the shelter do not cease. On Sunday, residents participated in a religious celebration.

“It was exciting to see everyone together, from different religions. I think that when we go through all this, we will even miss each other,” says Asia.

By Elisa Martins