26 novembro 2015

Volunteering in "Conversa Amiga": Dea's testimony

“One homeless - One friend
Conversation is what makes us human!". 

This is the motto at Conversa Amiga, an association established about 17 years ago, offering tea and conversations to the people living in the streets. 

Gradually, they came with the idea of building lockers in public spaces, where the homeless could leave the few things they carry, secured with a key. Conversa Amiga started with only 12 lockers in Lisbon, but now the demand is high. With the lockers, you establish a trust relationship between organizations, and the homeless. The most touching words I heard during the training we had at Conversa Amiga, came from a man of the street: "with the lockers, my 100 kilos problem of not having a home, changed to a 40 kilos one". Whilst conversations are a means to counteract loneliness, building lockers is a concrete action that impacts the homeless directly, and it has started to be copied around the world. As a first time volunteer, catching midnight conversing with people in the streets, I was anxious, but with a need to fill in the immense pit in my stomach when thinking my own bed is a luxury for many.

The first stop was at Manu (fictional name). 
I saw him lying on a mattress next to a closed market, and he immediately caught my attention. A black man maybe in his 50's, wearing a stylish black suit and a flax shirt, a black cap and no shoes, just matching socks. The team approached him with a smile, and a big pot of tea. He is a troubled man, they say, and he dislikes women.

"Manu, do you want some tea?".
"Yea, why not?" he replies. 

I sit down next to his mattress, and I'm looking for eye contact. Manu has a remarkable humanity in his eyes, coming from the depth of something I cannot name, perhaps communion, a thing greedy people have lost. All of us in the team are women, and I'm somehow thinking that if I'm new, maybe he won't be that open. He starts comparing women with squids hiding in the sand, opening tentacles to catch the fish-men, than he jumps in talking about his "bebe", a daughter he has, and how she used to call him pai (dad). I learned he had once a wife, and that he was a teacher for first-graders. Maybe that's why I identify a childish sparkle in his eyes every now and than. Manu is terribly gifted with words and gestures like an inborn performer. He could be involved at least in community theater, hands down. Besides women, he also hates cats, so much so, that he makes no difference whatsoever in between the two species. He looks at me, notices my iPad is facing him, and adds "but this cat is pretty". 

One of the girls in the team asks him why he is always dressed so nice. 
He replies: "because it's important for self-esteem!". 

At some point, another black man appears. His name is Andres (fictional name) and sings Bob Marley's piece "no woman, no cry", straight out of his lungs as loud as he can, in the dead of the night. He is in the streets for 2 weeks more or less, and he doesn't want to sleep in a shelter.

Manu became nervous when Andres appeared, and threw a green blanket in the direction of a half empty bottle of wine. He didn't want to receive Andres in his corner. Squinting my eyes, I noticed that at the other end of the mattress, there is already someone else asleep, a young man, maybe in his early 20's. Andres became a little aggressive, so we decided it was time to go. 

On the way to our next conversation, I learned that Manu has a prejudice against black people, and an inferiority complex. He often says black people are always against each other. I couldn't wrap my mind on whether he misses Cape Verde, his birthplace, or not, and whether he didn't receive Andres because he is from Jamaica. 

Soon, we find Senhor Carlos (Mr. Carlos, fictional name). The girls pour some tea. 
"I had a room right here...right here", he pinpoints at a nearby building. But he was thrown out. 
The team at Conversa Amiga tries to identify why his social agent let him down. Senhor Carlos pulls from his cigar with an avid thirst, and an even greater sadness. At every attempt of convincing him to go back to a shelter, he says "I prefer to stay here! In the shelter, you go in, and they'll throw you out through the back door". Than he recalls how his social agent got scared of a rroma man punching a table, and he says "I am a Portuguese man, not a gipsy!".  

 "Senhor Carlos, let's put you in a shelter, there can be better shelters".
 "No! I wanna stay here! I go to the market every morning from here, it's close". Than, as the moon came back from the dark clouds, I noticed a tear is coming out in the corner of his eyes. A tear drop, in the corner of the eyes of a man living in the corner of the street, I think to myself, as I struggle to keep my overly empathic self in check. Crying myself is not an option. His stubborness is more like the pride of a man who doesn't trust society's seafety nets, and therefore denies everything connected or coming from it. The girls promise him an investigation on why he left the room in the shelter, and that they will have a talk with the social agent. They tell me afterwards that the situation is tricky, that sometimes you can't find out the truth from the men of the street or that the truth is only partially served. 

Over the course of my life, I learned that there's 3 things you can never hide: 
the sun, 
the moon, 

Senhor Carlos is on the streets for 2 months already, and most probably the shelters he tried so far were the ones with a not so good reputation. 

By far, the one who struck me the most was Antonio (fictional name). We found him after we walked a couple of streets more. I had to put the camera down. A woman with a clear aversion towards the cameras was sleeping in the same spot, behind some paper boxes, and the girls advised me to wrap its chord behind me. Antonio, apparently, is almost completely new to the streets of Lisbon. I am impressed by his perfect English, and his polite ways. He is about 1.90 m in height, and he's wearing mountain like gear, a blue backpack, and a plastic bag with all sorts of things in it. He likes snow just in the mountains though, not outside his home. If he wasn't around the streets at that late hour, I would have never guessed he is one of  the homeless. He comes from Poland, and he is born in 1986. Young, like me, I think to myself.  How could he have ended up in the streets of Lisbon? He lights a cigarette, than says "sorry, I didn't ask you if it bothers you, do you mind if I smoke?". We say it's alright and he looks in the distance, while just behind his shoulders, is a one meter cross with Jesus on it. There are some screams going around, a football game most probably, so we take the opportunity to strike a small conversation. 

"Do you like football, Antonio?".
 "No, I prefer basketball, I stopped playing football when I missed placing the ball from 2 meters." He has a shy smile when he recalls the event. 
"Do you want a shelter?" 
" No, I found a roof on Martim Moniz (a square in Lisbon). I'm not alone, other people sleep there. I don't want a social shelter. There are people doing drugs in there..."

"Are you scared of them, Antonio?"
 "Yes, of course I am!". 

Antonio ended up in Lisbon, after someone told him there are ships from China that come first to Portugal, so there are jobs in the harbor. He never found what he was looking for, so he was left without a penny, and he ended up in the streets. He also has a psychological illness that keeps him from natural sleeping patterns. That's why he lost his job back in Poland. 

He says: "I get misguided information from all sides, and I don't know where to go. I need at least a locker to place my things while I'm looking for a job. I found a shower to wash myself. I can sleep in the streets, but I need a shower, otherwise it is rather uncomfortable if I find a job. Portugal is warmer than Poland ...I like it here".

I look at one of the girls from the team at Conversa Amiga, and I can see how hard it is for her to find the right way of presenting a temporary answer. Eventually she says: "You know Antonio, we are sorry, but we can not help you with a locker now, there is a long waiting list. Perhaps in a few weeks something will be free. Meanwhile, we can help you with other things, papers and Embassy related, and we can establish a new meeting soon at an hour that is convenient to you." 

Antonio does not have money for public transport at all, so he comes up with a solution. 
"If the place of meeting is not far away, I can walk for 2 hours until I get there, but definitely not at noon...I'm having lunch at a church I found". 

"Should I?...Should I what? ".
He loses his train of thought for a short while.

"Thanks for the tea, will it be a long meeting? If you help me find a job, I'd rather have one with low human interaction. I have access to the internet in the evenings. You can contact me by email." Than he goes on speaking about Cracow, a southern Poland city, a beautiful one,  he says, just before he departs to his roof in Martim Moniz. 
We ended the night reflecting on our encounters with the team from Conversa Amiga. They do this after every night spent in the streets. I find out that there is a young man named Mauricio (fictional name). He's a dancer from an African country, talented, knowledgable, and cultured, who was once homeless. The team from Conversa Amiga helped him find a place to stay after the entertainment company that took him on board dissolved itself, and he collapsed mentally. He now gives performances, and he's up for long talks with anyone that stops by to sleep in the parks of Lisbon late at night. He’s sending back the boomerang of good deeds. I hope I’ll get to meet him next time we are out for conversations and offering support to those whom are lonely and forgotten by everyone else. 

Besides that I am proud of Conversa Amiga Association for doing such a great job, and grateful that I was allowed to experience what most don't wish to see, I loved that in Lisbon there are heaps of volunteers offering food to the homeless. As soon as we were stepping out of our work, other volunteers were stepping in bringing warm food, and warm greetings. My heart goes out to them every time I think about it. 

C: Deea Wolf 

17 novembro 2015

First days of Agata's EVS

They say that once you come to Lisbon you fall in love with the city and you will definitely come back. In my case it turned out to be true.

My name is Agata and I am Polish. I have started my EVS at Spin on the 1st of November, leaving colorful Polish Autumn and coming to Portugal right in the middle of something that looks like the end of the Summer - all sunny and warm. I have been to Lisbon last year, visiting my friend who was on her Erasmus scholarship here. I found this city unbelievably charming, beautiful and full of good vibes. I knew that I would like to come back here one day for a little bit longer and to get to know Portugal better. So here I am!

On the first days of my EVS I got some time to adapt to the new place. I like my apartment, which I share with other young people from Italy, Spain and Belgium. It is a really nice place with character and everyone is very welcoming. I was walking a lot, coming back to my favourite spots in Lisbon and discovering the new ones as well. It is still hard to believe that I am going to live here for the next nine months and that I will have time to become more familiar with at least some of the hypnotizing pictures and tastes of the city.

I came to Lisbon on the same day as Maurizio, with whom I will be working at Spin. A couple days later a group of fifteen volunteers from Romania came here for their short-term EVS. On my first day at Spin we had our welcome dinner together, which was absolutely delicious (applause for the chef!). And I think I should tell you - they made us cry at the very beginning of our EVS. But happily just while cutting onions for the dinner. :)

Slowly I am getting to know people, my workplace and my duties. For sure there will be many challenges and I can already see that I will have an opportunity to learn a lot of different things, both in proffesional and interpersonal fields.

For now the main obstacle for me is the language. I do not know portuguese well enough yet so it is not easy to go out with other people when I can not understand the conversations' topics. This motivates me to study even harder now and I hope that soon I will be able to have a grammatically correct chat in portuguese. :)

Começando meu nova vida em Lisboa!

Ciao to everybody!                                                               

My name is Maurizio, I come from Florence, and I am the new EVS volunteer in Spin. I came to Lisboa two weeks ago, and while I am writing this it feels like I am already here since long time.

This Lisbon thing wasn’t really just “a bed of roses” before of my arrival; I have been feeling more and more anxious about this new adventure: the idea of moving abroad for a long period of time, and plus in a almost completely unknown country, was unexpectedly scaring. Was I doing the right thing? Where will this adventure lead myself? Will it be a success or a failure? This is a complete jump into the unknown, beautiful and scary at the same time. But, as I read somewhere, “sometimes you have to get lost first before to find yourself”. 

A not so sunny Lisbon in my first day here

The first days here were really intense, since I never been to Lisbon before and I didn’t know anyone here: so I had to go out of my comfort zone, and start exploring a new city, a new language, a new culture. In the first days I just met my new flatmates (Italians, Spanish, Polish and Belgian, feels like an Erasmus again): talking to them helped me to understand a little bit more what this experience is going to be. During my first two free days I  explored around Anjos (my neighborhood), getting lost a dozens of times, but I have also discovered the many beauties of Lisboa: I lost myself in the charming tiny streets of Alfama, I chilled in the sun close to the Belem tower, I wondered in the magical Sintra woods.

Trying (unsuccessfully) to speak Portuguese with a local.
On the first wednesday me and Agata (the other EVS volunteer starting in November with me) finally had our first day at work, as well as a welcome dinner with other volunteers, where I have tasted for the first time an original Portuguese bacalau. 

That's me attacking bacalau
We have met Inès, Aneta, and the other volunteers here, we talked for a while about what we will do here, what are our expectations about this experience, and Spin rules and schedules. I had also my first Portuguese lessons, figuring out that it's not that different from Italian, but also that speaking it will be not so easy: so far I can't go too much beyond atè ja and obrigado, but I am working on it. And, last but not least, on my first friday I had a giginha night with other volunteers: I already realizing that it will become a close friend in the following weeks.

And now so here I am, a new lisboeito (is that correct?).

Atè ja, and write to you soon!