Making a house a home

Amy Armstrong, 24 from Liverpool, is part of a group of nine young CAFOD supporters who have travelled to Brazil for World Youth Day. They spent the first ten days of their trip in São Paulo visiting CAFOD partners. Here she is talking about some of the highlights about her trip:

Amy Armstrong in Electropaulo

Amy Armstrong in Electropaulo

“Driving down the bumpy roads of São Paulo, I have never seen such juxtaposition in a city. There are workmen busy on the roadsides building new condos for the wealthy, who travel to work by helicopter, yet behind the machinery and the scaffold, behind the drone of helicopter noises, stands one of São Paulo’s many favelas. Towns compacted with houses that have no windows and poor or no sewage systems. What is astounding about São Paulo is all the derelict buildings. These buildings could house everyone living in the favelas – which could eradicate the image of poverty in the city. And the locals are aware of this. There is a buzz about the city. There are people who want to bring about change. There is a movement who are determined to get better housing. And these people are some of CAFOD’s partners.

One such partner, APOIO, is a fantastic housing movement who currently help 15,000 families fight for better housing rights. Each month, they receive requests from another 4,500 families who are dreaming of a better home, away from the compactness of the favelas.APOIO has been in partnership with CAFOD since 1978, after meeting through the Spiritan Fathers. The president of APOIO, Manoel, said that the partnership shows that no matter where people are, they will always be concerned for their fellow brothers and sisters around the world. Manoel is an inspiring man. He is from Spanish decent, and is determined to make a difference in São Paulo. I have never met a man who is prepared to go to such great lengths to achieve so much for others.

APOIO fight with and on behalf of others. They face obstacles everyday. The rehousing process in São Paulo is like a lottery. Families can wait years to be given social housing by the Government. But APOIO stands beside them each step of the way. Everyone has faith in the movement. Everyone believes that APOIO can and does make a difference to people’s lives. And that is fantastic to see and hear.

The CAFOD World Youth Day group with the APOIO team

The CAFOD World Youth Day group with the APOIO team

And APOIO’s opinion? Well, they are incredibly thankful to CAFOD and its supporters. Attending a fortnightly APOIO meeting, the attendees were filled with nothing but praise and thanks for CAFOD. Manoel said: “many people in Britain have their lives sorted, yet they are concerned about the lives of people they don’t know…they really show a universal brotherhood.”

During our time in São Paulo, we had the opportunity to visit one of the city’s largest and oldest favelas – Electropaulo. Named after families who built their homes under and around electricity pylons, Electropaulo is a vast landscape of homes made from wood and scrap metal. Homes so tightly squeezed in, sometimes with four families living in the same compound, that often you feel there is no air.

Electropaulo – one of the biggest favelas in Sao Paulo

Electropaulo – one of the biggest favelas in Sao Paulo

The surge of electricity can be heard buzzing above your head, as loud as a swarm of bees in their hive. The streets are uneven, with piles of rubbish scattered around. The houses have self-created electricity supplies, some with wires open to the elements. People would probably call them shacks, but each one of them had their own familial stamp on them, that makes them a home and unique. Residents proudly sit outside their homes, greeting you with a warm smile and a “bon dia.”

The first family we met was excited and happy to have us as visitors in their home. The father, Vanderlan, told us that they were evicted from a building they were occupying and have lived in the favela ever since. He told us not to worry as he cradled his young daughter because, “everything is going to be alright. I have faith in the movement” – a reminder of the importance of CAFOD partner APOIO for families in their area.

Ronaldo with his children and mother

Ronaldo with his children and mother

The next man we met was 35 year old Ronaldo – eyes filled with love and pride for his three children; Damiris, Deborah and Mateus. He is a single father and has been in Electropaulo for 7 years. Their home was basic, but the walls were adorned with the beautiful drawings that his children had created at school and the local recreational centre. The love that Ronaldo has for his children radiated from him: “before them, I had my life, but now I have them, I live for them.”

I would be lying to you if I told you that I didn’t find our visit to Electropaulo challenging. It’s clear that the people living there have a mountain to climb, and in my role as CAFOD supporter I feel that I’m playing such a tiny part.

However, there is hope in Electropaulo. Dona Fatima, 58, finally received social housing after spending eight years in Electropaulo. She epitomizes hope, strength and determination. She has a beautiful smile that made my heart explode with happiness. What really stood out when we spoke was the trust and respect that she had for APOIO: “if I could walk and go there and fight with them, I would. The movement has lifted me up.” Dona Fatima is a loving grandmother and she welcomes all who cross her path. APOIO has helped her so much, and meeting her gave me more hope for Ronaldo and Vanderlan. The movement changed her life, and is changing the lives of so many.

Dona Fatima with her granddaughter in her new home

Dona Fatima with her granddaughter in her new home

Standing on a busy street in the centre of São Paulo, we looked up at a previously abandoned 13 floor building, which once boasted to be one of the chicest hotels in São Paulo, but now houses a community of 300 vulnerable families.When we entered the Hotel Lord, we were taken in an entrance that would’ve been a staff entrance in the hotel’s hay day. The front was bricked up by the Government so that nobody could get in. But, in October 2012, a group of homeless families in the middle of the night occupied the building. This is known as the “party day”.

We stood just in the doorway, looking down on a bare, dark and cold corridor. But awaiting us just around the corner, was a beautiful bright foyer covered in dark marble and gold framed mirrors. There was a crowd gathered to greet us and tables adorned with food donated by the families. I was taken aback by this warm welcome of what began to be complete strangers to me: Who knew that these people would soon be opening their lives up to us?

After we ate breakfast (again!), Maria the occupation co-ordinator, took us to meet some of the families that lived in the building. As more people had moved into the hotel, the community continued to transform every part of the space created for the families. “Puxadinhas” had been created, which are temporary improvised partition areas, made of plaster board walls. There is enough room for beds and a kitchen-lounge.

And so we embarked on our tour. Each floor houses at least 16 families and each room was unique to suit the family. Some of the first people we met were Carolina and Geronimo Moura, who live on the first floor. As we were invited into their home to meet them and 3 of their children, I was shocked to learn that they were only three years older than me. I guess that this was the way in Brazil, that people marry young and have children at a young age. Their home was simple, but they made it their own with what they had.

Carolina told us that they were one of the first families to live in the occupation in the Hotel Lord, and they had been evicted from 4 previous occupations they had lived in. She said that she had lost lots of jobs and her children lost their places at school every time they were evicted. They had also lost their belongings. I was struggling to understand why they still believed in the movement and kept faith in the fight. She said “what gave me the strength to continue were my children and the movement. We are united here. We are very close and we’re giving each other strength.”

Amy and Aisling with the Moura family

Amy and Aisling with the Moura family

I wondered what made Carolina and her family want to live in the occupations, rather than the favelas, which is one of the things Brazil is known for. She told us: “Life in the favelas isn’t easy… we don’t have a fixed address. We can’t open a bank account or get a job. But after I came here, I managed to do these things.” She now works in a cake factory and two of her children go to school. To help give back to the community in the Hotel Lord, she also runs the lift, taking people to and from various floors. For this service, each family pays 10 Reais a month (about £3.50) which pays towards lift monitor and lift repairs. This allows them to have a dignity in knowing that they are paying their way for their home.

Moura Family

Moura Family

We were fast running out of time, which was just flying by! Lots of other families wanted to meet us and by the time we’d visited the Moura family we had already met three other families. But, we had heard about an inspirational man who we really wanted to meet. His name is Edmilson Pinto, and if anyone can depict hope in an occupation, then it is him. Edmilson is 38 and studies tecníco de alimento (the composition of food), and works in a company restaurant. He is a gentle man, with a brilliant smile and a personality that can lift anyone’s spirit.

Edmilson and his sons

Edmilson and his sons

What struck me the most when meeting him is that he told us he was cynical, at first, about the movement. I wondered why he was dubious and what made him change his mind. His opinion of the movement now is filled with praise as he says “I not only came to live here, but I became part of the family and now I can’t live without it.”

We met Edmilson’s son, who had a sour face on because he wanted to be at the Hippy-Hoppy (Hip-Hop) party downstairs. They teach the children dance and rap every Saturday, and Danielson, Edmilson’s son, was desperate to be with his friends, evidence of how much of a community had been created here. Edmilson had told Danielson and his older brother, Jefferson that they had to come upstairs and greet the visitors. Danielson agreed to let us take a picture of him if he could go straight to the party afterwards. We took the picture and he was straight out of the door and ran with such enthusiasm to his friends!

One of the main focuses of the movement is the children’s wellbeing, and this means a lot to Edmilson. You can tell by his whole demeanour that his family mean the world to him, and he would do anything to better their lives. He said “the movement made sure there were school places for my children”. It is so important to Edmilson that his place of residence is a home, not just an occupied building. The Hotel Lord is a family for all, a place of safety, refuge and joy: “our home is not just the flat, it’s the whole building where my children can play and make friends. When you live on your own there is no one to look after each other. Here we can leave the children behind, knowing that there is someone to look after them. I not only came to live here, but became part of a family.”

Before leaving, we asked him what his dreams were for the future. He shot up from his seat with such pride and brightness in his eyes. He showed us a small cardboard box that he had displayed on top of the telly. It was the packaging that he hoped would one day contain his dream: his culinary invention of a 100% veggie burger. Edmilson wants to make a life out of commercialising his own inventions that he created from his studies and have his creations displayed on the shop shelves. At that moment, my heart burst with hope for Edmilson and his family. My prayer is that his dream comes true and that he achieves the life he most truly desires.

Our guide, Maria, believes that you can’t muzzle the homeless. There is one thing that stands out most in the Hotel Lord community: determination. Every person in the occupation dreams of being re-housed. The young people want to study, go to University and be lawyers and authors. Their parents, like parents everywhere, are determined to provide the best for their families and see their children succeed. I stood back and just admired these people. The community proved to me that you can create great and wonderful things from nothing. They have created a home, a community and a joyous environment that any age, race or religion can come to. They demonstrate that there are no boundaries when it comes to people being happy. Have they taught me anything? Of course: never give up.

The projects we visited have taught me that we must continue to support APOIO through the work of CAFOD, and even if just one family can be rehoused through our support, then we have done something truly amazing.

I think that I can speak for everyone when we say that São Paulo has been one of the greatest places we have ever visited. It has brought us so many joyous moments as a group and has been filled with so many emotions, meeting some inspirational people. But I think that, as a group, we will always remember the laughter that we shared in São Paulo. And that laughter definitely increased when we met the MDF group that we are travelling to Rio with!

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We were invited to Mass by Fr. Assis, a Spiritan Father from Cape Verde who is based in São Paulo. The Mass was in a beautiful Church in São Mateos, near a favela called Divineia. The Parish itself was welcoming 100 young French people who were staying in the Parish as preparation for World Youth Day. The atmosphere was incredible. There was excitement amongst the locals who were welcoming us all into their Parish. The music was joyful, and everyone was so welcoming. They even sung a welcome song to us before the Mass began. It finally hit us: World Youth Day is on its way…

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After Mass, there was a rush of people coming to greet us. They were introduced as the MDF group who would be travelling to Rio de Janeiro with us for the World Youth Day celebrations. They are vibrant, jovial people with large and bubbly personalities. Unlike how we would greet new visitors at home, with the polite handshake, the MDF group embraced us like we were family members returning from a holiday. It was completely natural and we all immediately felt at home.

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MDF is a CAFOD partner which works in the favelas. They are a group set up by the Spiritan Fathers and work closely with young people. They fight for housing rights in the favelas. They particularly focus on young people, so the group that we are travelling with take part in a lot of activities such as Catechesis. They are doing fantastic work in the favelas, and you can sense the camaraderie amongst them as soon as you meet them.

We walked as a group to Divineia were we were going to spend the afternoon getting to know the MDF group and to have a beautiful lunch together, prepared for by one of the group’s grandmothers. It was a jam packed afternoon: singing, dancing and getting to know each other. Within an hour, the language barrier suddenly didn’t exist when we were able to talk about different music we liked or which Harry Potter films we thought was the best!!

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The MDF group are now staying with us at our lodgings in the Arsenal da Esperança. We are spending our Missionary Week here. The Arsenal offers overnight accommodation to 1250 homeless men every night, and is quite possibly one of the best set ups of homeless shelters I have ever been too. They offer courses to the men, a laundrette, shop…you name it, they have it! Even down to their own bakery which has the best bread and cakes that I have ever tasted! We are volunteering during this week, helping in the kitchen and laundrette for example. It is a wonderful feeling being able to give back to the people who have made us feel so at home since we have arrived.

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Working with the MDF group has been great. They are a lot of laughs, and our spare time is spent learning Brazilian dances and songs, chatting about our families and our own cultures. When we were in Divineia, we were asked to say how we felt about meeting them and spending the day together. My reply was that “it felt like I was about to have an extension to my family” and I don’t think that I have ever said a truer word. I have known them a week, but feel like it has been a lifetime. When we see them in the morning at breakfast, our faces light up. We giggle at anything and everything and we are quickly becoming very close friends. If the MDF group do become an extension of my family, then there is one thing I know for sure: I will never be without love, laughter and dancing….bring on Rio.

I would like to thank everyone who has supported me in the fundraising for WYD. I have remembered you all in my prayers!”

All photos were taken by Joelle Hernandez!

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