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The Scalabrinian Family in Brazil joins initiatives to assist those striving to adapt to a new country

Prioritizing mental health

 Prioritizing mental health  ING-047
24 November 2023

Martha María Gavilán’s greatest sorrow when she emigrated from Cuba in 2018 was not leaving her homeland and family. It wasn’t even the never-ending journey by air and land that brought her to São Paulo, Brazil, 6,500 kilometers from Havana. The greatest source of despair for this 47-year-old teacher was to find herself with no prospects for a future after arriving in the megalopolis with her son. She had hoped to settle in Argentina or Uruguay, but her meager savings disappeared so quickly that she was forced to seek shelter at a charity — an unimaginable predicament for her until that moment. That’s how one evening she found herself at the door of the Casa del Migrante of Missão Paz, an institution run by Scalabrinian missionaries.

“I spent three days in a room crying and crying because it felt like the end of the world for me,” she recounts. But soon, her sadness turned into hope. At Missão Paz, she was given Portuguese lessons, assistance for the procedures to obtain residency in Brazil, and she found her first job as a maid in an international hotel. Later, she held various jobs: cleaning manager at an events center, assistant electrician, and today she works as a saleswoman in a well-known clothing store. However, it was the psychological support she received that marked the turning point for her, as it provided her with the tools to overcome all the challenges of the often two-year-long adaptation process that migrants go through.

According to Berenice Young, a psychologist at Missão Paz, arrival at the chosen destination is the most critical moment for migrants because it forces them to ask a series of questions that don’t have immediate answers. “They have to learn a new language, navigate the city, understand how the Brazilian state works, what the requirements and documents are, figure out how to survive in those early days, and whether they will ever find work,” the coordinator of a psychological support program for newcomers explains.

This is a short therapy program, consisting of about twelve sessions over three months, which is sufficient time for individuals to understand themselves and the dynamics of adapting to a new society. It prevents the initial instability from leading to despair and a desire to return to their home country when they feel they cannot be self-sufficient. Berenice Young assures that interventions of this kind are very effective, although there is a small percentage of people that fall into depression or exhibit psychosomatic problems. These individuals are sent to specialized migrant health centres, where they receive more extended treatment.

A very similar perspective is held by audiovisual director and Rap singer Narrador Kanhanga, who leads an association of over 1,500 Angolan families living in the state of Rio Grande do Sul in the city of Porto Alegre. He settled there in 2005 and, like many of his compatriots, he too faced the psychological strain of integration. Today, he cooperates in facilitating the employment and integration of newcomers and reducing issues related to obtaining documents.

“When a migrant decides to leave their country, they more or less know what they will have to face before arriving in a new one. But what they don’t know is what awaits them once they arrive, who will be there waiting for them, who are the people who can help them, and this creates trauma, significant stress for mental health,” Kanhanga explains.

Psychologist Rodrigo Lages e Silva, a researcher at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, recognizes these symptoms as the so-called Ulysses syndrome, a situation of emotional distress caused by a strong sense of uprooting and not belonging to the place where the person has settled.

“We see people who, after facing many difficulties during the journey, arrive and try to rebuild their lives hoping to find more favourable conditions, but what they find are new difficulties,” the psychologist observes.

According to Lages e Silva, this is primarily due to the limitations that migrants face in navigating a new city, finding housing, integrating into educational and healthcare systems. He sadly acknowledges that in Brazil, there are still instances of racism and xenophobia.

Narrador Kanhanga and Rodrigo Lages e Silva are part of a vast network of institutions that collaborate with cibai , the Italo-Brazilian Assistance and Migration Study Centre. This institution, founded by Scalabrinian religious in Porto Alegre in 1958, was originally established to welcome Italian migrants who arrived in this region of southern Brazil. However, over the course of history, the places of origin of migratory waves have changed, and cibai has assisted people from 52 different nationalities. Today, the majority come from Venezuela, Haiti, Senegal, and Angola.

cibai ’s director, Father Adelmar Barilli, leads a comprehensive response model for migrants, primarily focusing on those who have just arrived, so that none of their most urgent needs go unmet: clothing, food, accommodation, language, employment, psychological support, and more.

“It wouldn’t make sense to provide only housing, food, or documents. We aim to offer migrants comprehensive assistance,” he emphasizes. The priest observes that a delay of integration into the new country can lead to an increase in mental health problems, as is the case in northern Brazil, in the Boavista region. There, Venezuelans, after crossing the border, sometimes stay up to two years before moving to another region to start a more stable life.

In Porto Alegre, Scalabrinian sisters are fully dedicated to the cause of migrants. For 23 years they have had an office at the international bus station to connect with people from the moment they set foot in this new land. They also manage four health centres at different locations in this city of one and a half million inhabitants. Furthermore, its from where they implement the “Legame” program, an effective system of “teleassistance,” that is free and confidential, for those seeking psychological support to better cope, more with the difficulties of migration than with mental issues.

“We provide them with a telephone line so they can call mental health professionals, both psychologists and psychiatrists, who offer support on a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly basis, depending on each individual’s needs,” explains Sister Jakeline Danetti. If this telematic support is insufficient, they are directed to in-person therapeutic treatment.

The extensive family of Scalabrinian fathers and sisters also works closely with public entities and civil organizations in Brazil, creating multidisciplinary cooperation networks to ensure that migrants are increasingly welcomed, protected, promoted, and integrated into society.

Reportage produced in collaboration with the Global Solidarity Fund.


By Felipe Herrera-Espaliat
Vatican News correspondent in Brazil