SÃO PAULO, Brazil – Latin America is experiencing two major immigration crises, and one religious order has been stepping up its efforts to offer humanitarian aid.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been fleeing the political unrest in Venezuela, while a similar number has been fleeing the rampant crime and social disorder is several countries in Central America. One thing these migrants need are jobs – and they often need training in order to get them.
“We are also opening professional education schools in Tijuana, Mexico, and in Cucuta, Colombia, in the next few months,” said Brazilian Father Leonir Chiarello, the Superior General of the Congregation of the Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo, better known as the Scalabrinian Missionaries.
The 132-year-old congregation – whose charisma is the pastoral service to migrants – has spearheaded the Church’s work in the region with full support from Pope Francis, but needs extra help to deal with the huge challenges of the moment.
Chiarello said the congregation has expanded its operations in Chile, Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil in the past five years. New welcome centers for migrants, moreover, were inaugurated in Lima, Peru, in Mexico City and on both sides of the border between Chile and Peru.
The new school in Cucuta will add to the concentrated efforts of the congregation on the border with Venezuela.
The city has been the gateway for a significant part of the 1.5 million Venezuelans who left the country by crossing the Colombian border since the crisis began to mount in 2017. There, the Scalabrinians keep a migrants’ house with 180 beds and provide daily hot meals to 3,000 people. The congregation also runs eight schools in the city, providing formal education to 4,700 students, 600 of them Venezuelans.
Cucuta’s professional school follows a 25-year-old system developed by the Scalabrinians. The idea is to offer officially certified professional qualification to migrants and then put them in contact with local and regional businesses.
“Our focus is not only helping people to find a job, but to give them access to decent and regular work,” said Chiarello. They also stimulate micro-entrepreneurship, depending on the fields of activity and on the personal interests of the students. The integration of the alumni into society is also followed up for a period after the program is over. This system is also applied in Africa, Asia, and Europe.
Throughout the continent, the Scalabrini missionaries operate in collaboration with a network of dioceses, non-governmental organizations, companies, and governments – not including their hundreds of lay volunteers.
The most attention is given to the current border emergencies in the Americas, with a special emphasis on Venezuela, Guatemala and Mexico.
“Another axis of work is hosting and integration, and that’s what we do in the 42 migration centers we keep in Latin America. In these centers, migrants have medical and psychological assistance, legal counseling, language classes, food and housing,” explained Chiarello.
The congregation also seeks long-term responses, building institutional supports and trying to have a positive influence in the media. In São Paulo, Buenos Aires and New York, the Scalabrinians have international migration studies centers and media outlets.
“We want to promote critical thinking on migration policies and, along with opinion makers and decision makers, attain adequate public policies,” Chiarello said.
In Brazil, for instance, Father Paolo Parise advised the screenwriters and actors of a soap opera – a hugely popular form of entertainment in the country – that deals with migration and is currently being broadcast by the most important Brazilian TV network.
“We talked to them, gave them workshops and opened the doors for them to meet migrants and know our work at the center. We wanted to collaborate so the producers could have a correct approach to the theme,” explained Parise.
This multifaceted work in favor of migrants has been a strong character of the Missionaries of Saint Charles Borromeo since their foundation by the Italian Bishop Giovanni Battisti Scalabrini in 1887.
At first, concerned with the gigantic waves of Italians heading to Brazil and the United States, Scalabrini sent many missionaries to both countries. As migration patterns have changed, so has the congregation Scalabrini founded.
“Now we have a transmigrational reality, with people moving between two or more countries before settling,” said Chiarello.
The priests knows the complexities of migration in our times very well. Chiarello had worked for nine years at the migration center in Santiago and later spent 15 years representing the Scalabrinians at the United Nations in Geneva and New York, before being chosen as the new Superior General – only the second one from Latin America in the history of the congregation.
The changing landscape the Scalabrinians now face, with growing anti-migration sentiment in many countries, is also a concern for Pope Francis.
“Considering this global context of more restrictive policies on immigration, Pope Francis has been playing the role of a great leader. He attended the most recent forum on migration we organized, in 2017, and established the four verbs of the work of the Church to deal with migrants: Welcome, protect, promote and integrate. Our focus is aligned with these words,” said Chiarello.