It’s not uncommon to see a group of brown and black men standing, sitting, or laying outside of a non-descript building, on a dead end street in the Mooca Bresser neighborhood of São Paulo. Once you pass through a single metal door, you find yourself outside a waiting room where the guard requires your reason for being there. Given you have a valid one, you wait till someone comes to fetch you. Then you pass through and arrive in an open courtyard with well-spaced buildings and somewhat surprisingly, inside a peaceful, well-tended homeless resettlement colony.
This was where Abdoulaye Guibila first arrived in São Paulo over two years ago, having left his native Burkina Faso in search of new opportunities. He had been trying to find his way to the United States, where he hoped to connect with family. However, the immigration service he employed came back to him with a visa for Brazil instead, telling him that it was easy enough to get to the U.S. by bus and train from there, an apparently common lie told to prospective migrants who are desperate to improve their quality of life. Abdoulaye had never thought about going to Brazil, but given his then limited options and adventurous spirit, he decided to take a chance. Upon arrival, the local contact who was arranged by the immigration service to pick him up at the airport demanded $120 USD. Having bare financial resources and no personal contacts, he had to figure out what to do on his own.
Abdoulaye ended up meeting two Senegalese men who directed him to a “pension house” for people without homes that offered free Portuguese classes. Founded 20 years ago by a group of Italian monks from Turin, the Arsenal of Hope has grown from a facility providing four beds on weekends, to a 24/7 homelessness, drug rehabilitation, and work training center for 1200 hundred residents. The majority of the residents are Brazilian and Afro-Brazilian, save for the approximately 150 African immigrants that live there. Despite the concentration of disenfranchised men, many recently released from prison, the center retains the calm of a university campus. Marco Vital Simone, the monk who runs the operation says that it is “the goodness here that disarms.”
In addition to language, the center provides training in culinary skills, fashion design, tile design, and electrical engineering. The center runs on its own system of currency, where services like laundry are earned by depositing cans, so as to avoid dependency on charity. Maintaining the space is everyone’s responsibility and carried out as a collaborative effort. The facility includes a cafeteria, laundry, medical center, thrift store, commissary, game room, library, and screening room operated by a staff of 120, including 30 former residents and 20 social workers. There are frequently scheduled group, cultural, and entertainment activities to “cure the feelings.”
Since the time he arrived in São Paulo, Abdoulaye says he has been unemployed for only two weeks. The year and three months he stayed at the Arsenal of Hope was the time he needed to “organize himself.” Initially, he found construction and other informal work through the resettlement colony. Then, through his Portuguese teacher there, Abdoulaye was connected to Gastromotiva, an organization that provides a hybrid education in culinary skills and restaurant and food industry training, along with a socially engaged practicum. Through this training and support he was able to move into the food industry and find immediate, gainful employment. And, seeing his high level of energy and interest, Gastromotiva recently connected Abdoulaye with Lanchonete.org. He is currently an intern supporting the development of a food-based social research project on the modernist residential buildings of the Rua Paim neighborhood of central São Paulo, a line of inquiry into “economic dignity” in varying global contexts.
A little over two years after arriving in an unfamiliar landscape with no connections, Abdoulaye has a one-year renewable residency status in Brazil, is employed full-time at a pizzeria, and has been accepted to a chef training internship at the Breuninger Foundation’s Wasan Island facility in Canada, next summer. Visiting the Arsenal of Hope one night, Abdoulaye walks over and greets several residents he recognizes with his enormous smile and a warm hug. He retains close connections with these fellow travelers, translating and accessing services for them, supporting them the best he can through their uncertain transitions to life in São Paulo.
Sidd Joag is a NYC based visual artist, journalist, and community organizer who has worked in the arts and culture, social justice and human rights for fifteen years. He is presently a commissioning editor and producer at ArtsEverywhere.ca and a coordinator of ArtistSafety.net.