SÃO PAULO – The brutal beating to death of a Congolese refugee at a beach kiosk in Rio de Janeiro has spurred outrage in Brazil.
Moïse Mugenyi Kabagambe, 24, worked at a kiosk in Barra da Tijuca beach. On the night of Jan. 24, he questioned the manager about two delayed payments – according to his family, they corresponded to $38 dollars for two days of work – when three men began to beat him using a baseball bat and a piece of wood.
Security camera footage released on February 2 and published by the Brazilian newspaper O Globo showed two men attacking Kabagambe. One of them dropped him to the floor and immobilized him, while the other hit him with a piece of wood. His feet and hands were tied.
The graphic video then showed a third men hit an apparently unconscious Kabagambe several times. After that, a woman and a man appear performing CPR on him.
The autopsy report said the man died from thoracic trauma and pulmonary contusion. There were signs of bronchial aspiration of blood and several hemorrhagic bruises on his lungs.
His family only found out about his death the next day. He was buried five days later.
Kabagambe arrived in Brazil in 2011 with his brothers. According to Placide Ikuba, who directs the Congolese commercial office in Rio de Janeiro, the family had to flee Congo due to political persecution.
“His father was elected a congressman in 2006 and was part of the transitional government that followed the Second Congo War [1998-2003]. When that government was over in 2011, the opposition began to be attacked,” Ikuba told Crux.
He said Kabagambe’s father felt that his family was in danger and decided to send his kids and then his wife to Rio de Janeiro.
“They arrived in Brazil as political refugees with diplomatic passports. The Congolese community helped them,” he added.
Ikuba hosted Kabagambe, who was then 14, and his brothers for some time. “Our community always assists the newly arrived. We take them to Caritas, which assists immigrants and refugees with documents, and even find a job for them,” he said.
Ikuba also developed a special bond with the teenagers after he discovered they were originally members of the same ethnic group, the Swahili people.
“I knew that boy very well. He was hardworking and everybody liked him. People envied him at work. He was only asking what he deserved,” he said. “Maybe if he was still living with me that would not happen.”
Kabagambe was supported when he arrived by the Archdiocesan Caritas’ refugee and asylum seeker assistance program, known as PARES. The organization issued a statement along with the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and International Organization for Migration (IOM) claiming for justice.
“Moïse arrived in Brazil when he was still a child, along with his brothers. (…) He was very esteemed by all the Caritas PARES team, whose members followed his growth and integration,” the statement read.
“Caritas PARES, UNHCR, and IOM are following the case and hope this crime will be elucidated. At this moment, our organizations present our sincerest condolences and solidarity to Moïse’s family and to the Congolese community in Brazil,” it concluded.
Charly Kongo, a French teacher and a volunteer with Caritas PARES who has also known Kabagambe since 2011, said he was helping him and his mother to obtain naturalization.
“His mother’s request was denied, and his process was taking too long. He was full of dreams and desired to become a Brazilian and resume his studies,” he told Crux.
Kongo said that Caritas is very helpful and does all the efforts possible in order to assist immigrants and refugees to integrate in Brazil, but the obstacles are at times too great to handle.
“Racism and xenophobia are historical problems in Brazil. Moïse was only beaten up and killed like that because he was Black. It would probably never happen to an immigrant from Ukraine, for instance,” he said.
Kongo said that Black immigrants are rapidly welcomed by Brazilians because they look like the 56 percent of the nation’s population which has African descent.
“But, of course, we suffer the same prejudice and violence that they face,” he said.
Reports of acts of discrimination and even of violence are not unusual among immigrants of color, Kong added. “Many Brazilians see us as people without a culture and without education. And many people think they can pay anything to an African worker, given that ‘he would get nothing in his country,’” Kongo said.
Ikuba estimates that there are 4,000 Congolese immigrants and refugees in Rio de Janeiro. Most of them manage to successfully integrate, despite the “total abandon” they suffer by the Brazilian government.
“We receive a refugee status and that is it. Nobody is worried if we are going to live in a slum afterwards,” he said.
Cases of physical violence against Congolese immigrants are becoming more and more common, Ikuba said.
“At times, it is something indirect. An African immigrant starts to have success, sets up a business, makes some money, and his Brazilian neighbors receive it with envy. There is a hierarchy, and Africans should be at the bottom,” he said.
Father David Santos, a longtime Black activist in Brazil, agrees.
“Foreigners are welcomed in different ways by the dominant white class in Brazil. There is an abusive degree of selectivity,” he told Crux.
He recalled that people from some nationalities have been historically forbidden to migrate to Brazil, like the Chinese, while European immigrants were largely incentivized.
The organization Santos founded, Educafro, is helping to organize public demonstrations against racism and xenophobia in cities like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.
On the night of Feb. 1, the police announced the three men who killed Kabagambe were identified and arrested. The kiosk’s owner was interviewed by the police and said that he was not there when the murder happened. He also said that he did not knew the suspects. His lawyer called him as a “very religious man”, according to the news website UOL.