Manaus, Brazil – Halfway through the Olympic torch relay – a spectacle designed to unite Brazil behind Rio 2016 – torchbearer No 35 lifted the flame to cheers of “Haiti! Haiti!”
Abdias Dolce, 28, was one of thousands of Haitians who arrived in the Amazonian city of Manaus after the devastating 2010 earthquake in their country that killed more than 200,000.
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He had been studying in Port-au-Prince when the disaster struck and said the impact of the quake led to him travelling south to build a new life and restart his studies in Brazil.
Five years later, he received the Olympic flame close to where he was first welcomed and given shelter by the Sao Geraldo parish church in central Manaus, receiving a warm reception from the crowds on the street.
“I don’t just represent Haitians but all immigrants, not only those in Brazil but outside of Brazil as well,” he said afterwards.
“Brazil has made a big step to include my name on the list of those who carry the Olympic torch. Because the biggest problem with immigration today is the inclusion of immigrants in society.”
As the United Nations reported an unprecedented number of people displaced from their homes – one in 113 people in the world – migration and asylum has once again come under the spotlight.
And in Brazil, which has welcomed thousands of Syrians in the latest refugee crisis, there have been reports that the interim government has suspended negotiations with Europe to continue accepting asylum seekers. The Ministry of Justice denied this was the case.
Meanwhile, there remains a significant Haitian population in Manaus after a wave of immigration overwhelmed the city in the aftermath of the 2010 tragedy.
“We had people waiting at the port with Kombi vans,” Valdecir added. “They didn’t even need to ask where they were going.
“There were more than 100 Haitians in the main room. They took over everything. It was crazy.”
He said state and local government efforts to help fell short, with many Haitians relying on the church while they found work and homes, either in Manaus or elsewhere in Brazil.
By 2015, the government said that it had granted permanent residency to almost 44,000 Haitian immigrants.
“This act reaffirms Brazil as a welcoming nation, a nation open to all those who want peace and are willing to work and live with our people and share the construction of our country,” said Miguel Rossetto, then labour and welfare minister.
Abdias, who moved to Manaus in 2011 and eventually brought with him his now wife, said the biggest problem was not the Brazilian government, nor its immigration policies but its media, which reinforced prejudices against immigrants.
He mentioned a clip shown before Haiti’s recent football match against Brazil, in which Brazilian presenter Luciano Huck visited a poor neighbourhood in Haiti and said: “After what I saw, I think humanity hasn’t worked.”
The 28-year-old engineering student, who was put up by the church for 10 days before he found a job and a place of his own, said such portrayals gave rise to fears that immigrants would rob, steal and even kill.
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“When immigrants arrive in Brazil, the media always shows us as people who will rob Brazilians of jobs. That’s where the prejudice starts,” Dolce said. “Here in Brazil, it’s the media that educates people. The media here says what it wants. It doesn’t have limits.”
Abdias said marginalising immigrants was a loss both for the settler and for the country.
He cited Michaelle Jean, a Haitian immigrant who became governor-general of Canada, as an example of the value of integrating foreigners.
“When you arrive in a country, you’re separated, you don’t play a part in society. This prejudices the immigrant and the country as well,” he added.
But he paid tribute to Manaus for opening up to Haitians, and there was clear support for Abdis as he ran along the city’s main road with the Olympic torch.
He said there had been teachers who offered free Portuguese lessons to help immigrants to adapt.
“Manaus is a nicer city in comparison with the other cities in Brazil,” he said.
“People are more educated. It was really cool when we arrived, we felt at home. It’s difficult for a foreigner to manage to get a job here, but this city is the best for foreigners.”
The father-of-one has also received a government loan to finish his chemical engineering studies at university.
Father Valdecir said Abdias’s inclusion in the Olympic torch relay recognised the value of the immigrant population.
“It’s recognition that immigrants play a part in our story,” he said. “It gives them visibility. The Olympics are a meeting of people, they carry a sense that we can think of a universal citizenship.”
Abdias said he intended to stay in Manaus and hoped to go on to study a master’s degree, though did not rule out returning to Haiti, where his mother still lives.
He said that he hoped immigration would eventually be accepted and normalised around the world.
“If the rich countries don’t help the poor countries, the rich countries will sink together with the poor,” he added.
“Haiti buys everything from the US, for example. We’re not inferior or superior. We’re different. We haven’t yet learned to live with others’ differences.
“Immigration will never end. What the world has to do is try to improve the impact of immigration.”
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