By Samantha Barthelemy
Kite-surfers, body boarders, volleyball and soccer players color the coastline of Barra da Tijuca, Rio de Janeiro’s booming Miami-like neighborhood. Heavy investments are turning Barra, as the area is more popularly known, into one of the Rio’s main gastronomical and entertainment centers. It is no wonder the region has one of Brazil’s highest Human Development Indexes (above 0.9) and will soon be home to the 2016 Olympic Village.
However, drive for one hour west of the nouveau riche neighborhood and you find yourself in Retiro, Ilha de Guaratiba. Luxurious condominiums and vibrant gardens suddenly give way to unpaved roads and wooden shacks. The 18-mile long beach turns into litter-filled rivers and exposed sewages.
A mere forty-five minutes away from the country’s second largest commercial center, you encounter a region where the entertainment consists of running kites down dirt roads. The government seems to have forgotten about Retiro, given the lack of asphalt, sanitation, policing, parks, schools, buses, hospitals and community centers.
But here is also where you find Movimento Fé e Amor or Faith and Love Movement. Founded by Jesuits in 1986, this nonprofit organization works with the local community to promote education as the primary step towards social inclusion and income generation.
Within this framework, Movimento created Project Entreartes, a center which develops educational programs for children and families in poverty. The organization has over one hundred children, ages 6 to 16, enrolled in daily before and after-school activities, including reading and writing tutorials, poetry contests, recycling ateliers, sewing, acting and capoeira classes and movie-screenings.
I spent the month of August in Retiro, working with Movimento’s educators to teach children about the United Nations and its Millennium Development Goals. “You will have one hundred children under your responsibility,” Movimento’s staff said, “They are going to love you!”
We talked about the emergence of the UN and member countries’ commitment to a world of peace, the MDGs and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. We created games that stressed the importance of a healthy alimentation, recycling and respecting others. We went on ecological trash-picking walks and planted vegetable and fruit gardens.
On my second day at Movimento, seven-year old Maria de Fátima said to me, “Yesterday I told my dad everything about the United Nations and how people want peace in the world,” she said. Maria told me that her father, an illiterate construction worker, is learning to read and write with her and is extremely interested in hearing about all she learns in school.
For two weeks, I taught and learned from these children, who were so hungry for learning. Every evening when I left, the children made me promise to come back tomorrow (or take them with me).
Movimento is a place where parents leave their children while they work long hours in downtown Rio. But more than that, the center tries to fill the gaps in public services, where the national and local governments are lacking.
“These families live in conditions of extreme poverty. Some didn’t even have a fridge at home before we came,” said Michelle, the Movimento’s psychologist. “If we do not help them, who will?” she asked.
Aside from providing monthly stipends and food staples, Movimento brings in professionals from all sectors to speak to the families on issues ranging from sexual education and dental hygiene to legal rights. I was asked to talk about gender equality and the empowerment of women.
That day was both moving and humbling. Women aged from 16 to 60, listened attentively while I spoke about domestic violence and gender rights. The audience opened up to me, sharing personal stories of physical and psychological abuse, speaking of their disappointment with the government and asking for advice.
Through the month of August, I worked with professionals who chose to dedicate their time to helping Retiro’s children pave the way to a more prosperous and promising future. I met brave children, adolescents and adults who smile through a daily struggle against violence and adversity.
Brazil faces significant challenges, particularly concerning the education gap and government corruption. However I have seen that it’s also a country of hopeful and generous individuals, like those at Movimento, who inspire the future generation by taking social transformation into their own hands.
Samantha Barthelemy is a dual degree student at Sciences Po and SIPA’s Master of International Affairs program.