Faces of migration
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Maryknoll lay missioners in Brazil share Christ’s mercy with immigrants and refugees

I fled Syria two years ago during the midst of the war,” one Syrian refugee wrote. “I lived in Damascus and my house was bombed twice and burned to the ground. All of my family—my parents and siblings—fled to Turkey. I went to Egypt to work in order to help my family, and then I came to Brazil. … I work only for my family and after some time, I’ll go and reunite with them in Turkey.”

A 22-year-old immigrant from Senegal wrote, “I arrived only yesterday by plane. I chose to come to Brazil for work. My elder brother lives here. He told me things were going well and that I could stay with him. My dad, mom and my other brother and sisters are still in Senegal. I called them when I arrived and they are really happy that I am here. But I don’t want to stay here. When I get a job, when I get some money, I want to go back to Senegal. I will stay here for four, maybe five years, and then I’ll return to my country.”

These are two of the many comments posted on Rostos da Migração (Faces of Migration), an online photoblog that is not only attracting attention in Brazil, but internationally. Begun by Maryknoll Lay Missioner Greg Fischer, who has served in Brazil since 2013, the photoblog, which is available at gkfische.tumblr.com, posts pictures and testimonies of immigrants and refugees from the Middle East, Asia, Africa and other Latin American countries who seek a better life in the megacity of São Paulo, Brazil.

Maryknoll Lay Missioner Sirikit Noronha (c.) celebrates the feast of Eid al-Fitr with Indonesian friends in São Paulo, Brazil. (Courtesy of Voices of Compassion)

Inspired by a similar photo-blog, Humans of New York, Fischer created Faces of Migration to bring attention to the prejudices and obstacles that immigrants and refugees face. The touching stories on the Faces of Migration photoblog page, which went live in April last year, are translated into Portuguese, English, Spanish and French so that a broader audience can read and understand the plight of people who have been forced by wars, natural disasters, political persecution or economic distress to leave their countries and families behind.

“Sharing the stories enables people to connect on a human level with foreigners who share some of the same aspirations, childhood memories, struggles and accomplishments,” says Fischer, from Crystal Lake, Ill.

Fischer’s effort to put a human face on the issue of migration was poignant as the Syrian refugee crisis received worldwide media attention. According to the international aid organization WorldVision, 13.5 million Syrian people need humanitarian assistance.

Faces of Migration is just one part of the ministry of Fischer and his wife Kim, also a Maryknoll lay missioner, to migrants in São Paulo. One of Kim’s ministries has been teaching an aerobics class at Casa de Acolhida (House of Welcome) for refugee and foreign women. Greg works at a mediation program at Missão Paz, a migrant and immigrant pastoral program that addresses social issues and provides assistance to immigrants and businesses seeking to hire immigrants, to ensure the immigrants’ human rights are respected and protected under Brazilian law.

Greg Fischer (c.) interviews migrants to share their stories on the photoblog Rostos da Migração (Faces of Migration).(Courtesy of Voices of Compassion)

At Missão Paz’s mediation center, Greg assists migrants in the hiring process with language translation, advice, resume services and mediation support in labor disputes. He also aids them in securing housing and basic services. The mediation center receives more than 3,500 migrants, immigrants and refugees a year, and helps secure approximately 400 positions for those individuals over the same period.

Newly arrived immigrants in São Paulo also have an advocate in Maryknoll Lay Missioner Sirikit Noronha. As a lawyer, she provides legal aid and social services for refugees from more than 80 countries and for women prisoners from more than 50 countries.

Born and raised in Bombay, India, Noronha finds that her status as a U.S. immigrant allows her to understand her clients’ needs in a unique way. Besides learning to adjust to life in a new culture, the majority of the refugees she serves have fled oppression in their countries and need to rebuild their shattered lives. Many of them have lost their families, homes and belongings. “When they arrive in São Paulo, they lack shelter, food and the basic necessities for survival,” she says.

Noronha helps them obtain medical attention for pre-existing conditions, restores missing identification documentation that would prevent securing employment and reconnects family members in other countries with loved ones who are in Brazil prisons. “I am constantly guided by Mother Teresa’s example of doing small things with great love. My focus is on each person as a human being,” she says.

Noronha sees what she calls “the language of the heart,” as the common thread that connects all her interactions serving these “strangers” in Brazil. “My work has given me the gift of witnessing that relationships based on God’s love transcend all human limitations and are life-giving and sustaining,” she says.

All three Maryknoll lay missioners would agree that sharing God’s love with vulnerable people such as these is what mission is all about.

Featured Image: Greg and Kim Fischer welcome the stranger in São Paulo. (Courtesy of Voices of Compassion)

Adapted from an article in Maryknoll Lay Missioners’ Voices of Compassion magazine.


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About the author

David Aquije

David R. Aquije, a journalist born and educated in Lima, Peru, is the former editor of Maryknoll’s Spanish-language magazine Misioneros, previously called Revista Maryknoll. While working for the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers he reported on mission work in Asia, Africa and Latin America, as well as in the United States. He has won many awards from the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada, including first place as editor of the year for Spanish publications.