Macao: In the shadow of the Casinos

Little sister Claudia-Elisabetta works in an outreach centre for people affected by drug abuse and AIDS. She wrote:

If you try to find Macau on a map, at first glance it will be difficult. It is actually a small territory—a piece of the mainland and two small islands off the China coast. It is the most densely populated place in the world, with 18,428 persons per square kilometer. A former Portuguese colony, Macau is one of the two Special Administrative Zones of the People's Republic of China, the other being Hong Kong.

Grand-Lisboa-Hotel and CasinoGrand-Lisboa-Hotel and Casino

Macau today:

Over the last 10 years Macau has undergone rapid economic development, thanks to the gaming and leisure industry that is its greatest source of wealth. With 30 casinos and more on the way, it is called the Las Vegas of the Far East.

Macau is cosmopolitan. The majority of the people are Chinese, and there is a small community of "Macaenses," people of Portuguese-Chinese descent born in Macau. A lot of immigrants from other Asian countries (Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nepal, etc.) are employed in the casinos and as domestic helpers.

Macau is a member of UNESCO.  Its historic center contains the oldest western architecture on Chinese soil, included in the World Cultural Heritage. Every day crowds of tourists from mainland China and other countries fill the streets and historic places, the shops and the casinos.

Catholics are a small minority. The Church, traditionally active in society with its educational and charitable institutions, is asking itself how it might announce and bear witness to the Gospel in such a complex society.

Our community is situated in an ordinary neighborhood populated by Chinese immigrants from Guangdong and Fujien Provinces. The border is just a ten-minute walk from our place, and thousands of people cross it every day for work and other business. Like our neighbors, we also go into China to buy vegetables, since they are cheaper there than in Macau itself.

The challenges:

Rapid economic development has brought material comfort to many, but it also leaves people feeling disoriented on the moral level. After the initial euphoria when the new casinos were being opened and people were hoping for an "easy and happy life," now we are suffering the consequences and paying the price of such an illusion: increase in crime, prostitution, the drug trade and drug use even among teenagers, gambling addiction, family problems, depression and suicides.

Several institutions and religious associations are trying to respond to this new situation, and the government of Macau supports every effort to face the problems and create opportunities for those who have been more directly affected.

We Little Sisters started our community in Macau in 1956, and since then we have lived in solidarity with the most marginalized, trying to be attentive to the changes and new challenges in society, to share people's difficulties and hopes in day-to-day friendship.


When I first met the Association for Rehabilitation of Drug Abusers of Macau 11 years ago, it was a small group of young people, Portuguese and Chinese, who had gone through 'the hell of drugs' and were strongly motivated to accompany others in the long and difficult journey toward a new life. Friendship was born between us. In the beginning I often visited their Centre, and afterwards I kept in contact, giving a few hours of volunteer work.

Today the ARTM is a non-governmental organization (NGO) with two therapeutic communities, two outreach centres, one centre for teenagers, and a service which distributes information about drugs and organizes drug abuse prevention acitivities in schools and other institutions.

Working in the "Outreach":

The long friendship with the young people has become a commitment through work. Last September a new outreach centre opened in our area, five minutes from our house. The centre's aim was to encourage methadone therapy. I asked for a job and was offered one. Now I am in charge of cleaning the centre and preparing food and drink for the clients 6 days a week, from 10 in the morning to 18:30 (6:30 pm).

Claudia with other staff membersClaudia with other staff members

The outreach centre is the first project of its kind in Macao. It focuses on harm reduction, and aims to make links with drug users not currently accessing any services. It tries to reduce the incidence of HIV/AIDS by decreasing unsafe disposal of used syringes in public places, lowering drug consumption and increasing education. It also provides daily meals, nursing services, shower facilities and clean clothes, neighborhood cleanups, and family/home visits.

We have a staff of seven: the director, two psychotherapists, two monitors, one bursar, one worker. Little by little I'm getting to know this reality, and I'm grateful to my co-workers who have helped me understand drugs and their effects on people, their potential to destroy the human being, and the psychological dynamics of drug dependence.

Dialogue and mutual correction are part of our work. This helps when I am overwhelmed by the dramatic situations that I meet every day. Once we heard that one of our young clients had committed suicide. Our director, who knows these situations well through his own past experience as a drug abuser, said to us, "Let us remember that these people bring us despair, but we have to give them back hope. And first we have to cultivate this hope in our own hearts. Every day we face the risk that they could takes us with them in their despair. So we need to find the right distance, and encourage each other in the struggle to keep them alive, because as long as there's life there is the possibility of getting out of drugs."

Our working day starts with our listening together to the reports of the NGO's other departments, discussing them as necessary. Then I start cleaning the centre, while three of my co-workers go out into the public gardens and the streets to meet the drug abusers or to collect the used syringes in the public toilets, the rubbish bins.and elsewhere, and to visit the families.

With co-workers and friendsWith co-workers and friends

The others stay at the centre to be available for people who come, and they organize meetings and give counseling therapy. The clients come to the centre for meals or for a shower, or just to read the newspaper and chat. Every day a lot of people pass through, often arriving under the effect of drugs even though they know it's not allowed; in that case we ask them to leave and return when they're thinking clearly. The majority (men and women, single and couples) are heroine users- Consumption of "ice," ketamine, and "happy water" is increasing. As they are all unemployed they have a monthly subsidy from the governement, and they spend it on drugs. They are rejected by their families and live on the streets or rent a bed. Often they go back and forth between the therapeutic community and prison. They are very well known in the hospitals and health care centres. Some die by overdose or suicide. A few, just a few, are rehabilitated and return to a normal life.

In the first months of working in the outreach I have started to know our people better, their names, their stories, and I'm learning how to listen in order to communicate with them. It is a process which takes time, patience, and..-humility I say to myself that I am living 8 hours a day on "unknown soil." I have to walk carefully...

All of them know I am a religious and they call me "sister." One man, who tried without success to join a therapeutic community run by the Protestants, who use the Bible for rehabilitation, often repeats the 23rd Psalm to me, particularly the verse, "If I go through the dark valley, I am not afraid, because you are with me..."

Let us walk with our wounded humanity, learning every day to cultivate HOPE in our hearts...