Part of our history, Prior Velho No 1

Prior Velho viewPrior Velho view

This is a story about the struggle of immigrants in the neighbourhood of Prior Velho to find housing and security.

The Little sisters write: 'We moved to Prior Velho on the outskirts of Lisbon in 1983.We settled first into a little flat we had found, and as time went on we discovered that on the edge of this vast suburb there was a squatter camp of unregistered immigrants. Most had come clandestinely from Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau. We made friends there. You can imagine how our hearts felt pulled to move there, but first we took time to pray over the idea that was growing in us. Then we went to Quintas da Serra, as the place was called, to find the people we knew and tell them we would like to live there if it was possible. All this was over a period of 7 years, and then one day a plot on the site became vacant. With the help of neighbours we built our house and on 11 February 1991 we could move in.We had no electricity or running water, but neither did anybody else

The next year bulldozers showed up with no advance notice and started demolishing all the shanty dwellings. 54 were torn down before we and the other residents could organize and have our appeal heard. We had a lot of support from a solidarity group of concerned citizens. As illegal immigrants our neighbours had no rights, but thanks to pressure from the solidarity group the local council accepted to do a census and register them.

It was a start. It became legal for the houses to have electricity and water. People could get financial help to buy a house of their own.Later, when the city had its beautification campaign in preparation for the International Expo of 1998, some of the immigrants who had been registered were offered places to live in other neighbourhoods.

Of course, these improvements were only available to those who had been registered in 1993. That meant less than half the expanding population of Quintas da Serra. And, housing troubles aside, the employment situation is very precarious for people like our neighbours and getting worse all the time as Portugal's national economic crisis deepens. But the Association for Solidarity that was founded to meet our neighbourhood's crisis of 1993 is still going, small and fragile, with ups and downs, but always with hope and a will to resist.

Our local parish does what it can too. One of the heart-warming projects is to hold adult literacy classes. It means so much just to be able to write your name. Now we have support from a large organization called the ACIME, which stands for "Association for the Support of Immigrants and Ethnic Minorities".

Prior Velho outside our housePrior Velho outside our house

This past November the High Commissioner of ACIME came in person with his team to be with our neighbours. They spent three days 'planted' among us, listening to people and experiencing the realities in which they live. We felt a deep kinship to this approach to offering services, we who take 'being with' people as our vocation.

It was 8:00 in the morning when the High Commissioner and his team arrived the first day. Floresbela, the President of our little neighbourhood Association, who is from Cape Verde, was there to greet them in the name of us all. It wasn't a show for the press, they had come to "be there" and got down to the business of meeting people and contacting the school, the health service, the police, the municipality and the various churches to find out what help they could offer. "We want you to know you are no longer alone," said the High Commissioner. "We are with you."

The project that grew out of this consultation was a student support centre. It will provide after-school facilities for children and teenagers. The ACIME supplied the furniture and computers and television and the Association will run it. What a moment of hope. The centre is named "La Bolina", which means sailing against crosswinds. Three young people just signed on as extra volunteers for the staff.

But three weeks after it was all set up and running, a storm burst on La Bolina. The 6 brand-new computers were stolen. The burglars came in by a window, sawing through the security bars. It must have been one of our neighbourhood gangs; there are so many school dropouts and the temptations are so great. Jose the coordinator and all his helpers were deeply discouraged, but refused to give in to bitterness.

'Violence is no solution to violence,' they say. The Association distributed pamphlets to invite the young people to bring the computers back, promising not to prosecute them.Parents are distressed at their own helplessness in front of a lost generation. But La Bolina will go on as a student support centre. Even without equipment there are ways it can help the youngest children. All this comes at a time of even more serious worries. The owner of the terrain where we all live says he's going to claim his land back in another year and a half. If it weren't for the resilience we experience all around us, I don't know if we'd have the strength to bounce back.

But we're surrounded by people of deep, living faith. How often, for example, with the little group that meets once a week at our house to reflect together on a passage from the Gospel, do we realize that the depth of their faith is evangelizing us.'

Yes, it is a privilege to be here. And together, we will go on.