Dinara is 14 years old and lives in a park in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. According to some, there are no longer street children in Rio and certainly in the past two decades there has been a huge reduction in the numbers, but Dinara is part of one group of between 50 and 60 children who survive on the streets.
“We sleep in a park. Once the park closes, we go inside so that we are protected. We feel safe in the park. Sometimes we fight because we don’t have enough blankets or food but the group is a family to me and if an outsider attacks us we are united and will protect each other,” she said.
Dinara’s story is one of intergenerational homelessness and tragedy; her mother was abandoned and took to the streets as a child. After giving birth to Dinara, she was able to buy a house but the building collapsed when Dinara was nine and she her brothers had no option but to seek food and shelter on the streets. Dinara knew some children who lived outside a local railway station and it was there that she spent her first night on the streets. She has been on the streets ever since.
On the streets of Rio de Janeiro, the children face great dangers and get little sympathy from society:
Dinara said: “Society does not look well on us. They look down on us. We are discriminated against and these people are scared of us. If only they would help us as there are children with stories much worse than mine.”
Dinara has managed to keep intermittent school attendance while on the streets and she attributes this to her brothers who ensure she keeps going with her education. But as she describes her brothers’ influence on her, her smiling demeanour changes for the first time as she begins to tell the story of one brother, Dennis, who was murdered in front of her aged 12:
“Dennis had started to use crack and he was caught stealing by the traffickers, they punished him by stabbing him 28 times right in front of me. I was 10 years old,” she says. In describing how she moves on from this trauma, Dinara chooses the word “saudade” a word which has no English equivalent but is to do with feeling a soulful joy and sadness for a lost loved one.
There is no doubt that Dinara has suffered a lifetime of hardships in her childhood yet she retains a smile and an incredible energy in pursuing her dreams:
“I’m receiving social support and they are helping me be part of a basketball team. I even won a medal and to be basketball player is now my dream. I want to be like Michael Jordan,” she beams. “I believe that one day I will have a family and a house”
We are having this discussion at a drop-in centre run by the AMAR Foundation in Rio’s Sao Cristovao neighbourhood. AMAR have a skeleton staff of four or five who cater for the urgent needs of around 80 street children. According to Dinara:
“At AMAR I can eat, wash and play football and play with the other kids and then I use the computers for facebook! The authorities want to place us in abrigos (forced accommodation for homeless children) but they are repressive so we escape back to the streets each night.”
Immediately after we spoke to Dinara, she ran off to play football with the other children at the drop-in-centre. Later that day, she would return to sleep on the streets of Rio de Janeiro.
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