ENGLISH VERSION: Chaplaincy Provides Haven for Latin Students
Last November, two students from Guinea-Bissau, Halder, 24, and Mario, 27, arrived in Moscow to pursue degrees at the People's Friendship University. Two days later, they were dead, caught in a blaze that ripped through dormitories at the university.
Halder suffered fatal injuries after jumping from a window. Mario suffocated. They were two of the more than 40 victims of the Nov. 24 fire, mainly students from Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Twelve victims came from Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries, such as Peru, Ecuador, Angola and Equatorial Guinea, said Father Ismael Barros Pena, of Moscow's Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
He said that even though most of the victims were new to Moscow and had not had a chance to attend services at the church, other parishioners knew them, and that "it was very difficult on all of them."
The fire was not the only misfortune to affect these international students.
A more consistent peril exists on city streets, where these students often become targets of racial hatred and outbursts of aggression.
A student from Colombia, a survivor of the university fire, was brutally attacked in Moscow several weeks ago, Barros Pena said. He received four knife wounds before his attackers ground a lit cigarette into his forehead.
"They nearly killed him," Barros Pena said.
In February, a 24-year-old Guinea-Bissau student was stabbed to death in a park in Voronezh.
These incidents have placed great importance on the support network for these international students, many of whom are Catholic.
The Catholic Spanish and Portuguese Chaplaincy has taken the lead in providing aid and relief, but it is a shoestring operation.
The main problem facing the chaplaincy is the fact that it is located on Malaya Gruzinskaya Ulitsa, across town from the university, which necessitates an often nerve-wracking trip for the students.
When members of Moscow's Latin American women's group learned of the difficulties, they decided to lend a hand. Earlier this month, the women threw a charity fiesta for about 150 Russians and expats who wished to support the chaplaincy.
"Church is important for us in Russia," explained Armindo Fernando Bassangue, a native of Guinea-Bissau and a third-year engineering student at the university. "At home, there is a church practically on every street corner. But here it takes us an hour to get to it."
The chaplaincy will also double as a cultural and adaptation center to help newly arrived students fit into local society.
Barros Pena, a coordinator for the project, estimated that about 700 Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking students currently study at the People's Friendship University.
"Our job is to help them adapt," he said. "It's about prevention, mostly. We warn the kids who are away from their parents for the first time that drugs and alcohol are bad. They have their own money for the first time. We teach them how to budget and even how to cook."
Students lend a hand, too, by helping their peers on campus and working on a number of charity projects in Moscow, including helping homeless and AIDS-infected individuals.
Financial and material aid is not limited to fellow Catholics, Barros Pena emphasized, but is distributed to those in need, regardless of faith and ethnicity.
Bassangue agreed, saying that he does not distinguish between faiths when he spends his time on campus listening to students' concerns, or dispensing advice and providing financial assistance. "I always talk to them so they don't feel lonely or that no one needs them," Bassangue said. "I give advice, listen or pray with them."
Often, their concerns return to the same issue: the threat of violence away from the haven of the university.
"The most difficult thing is not the attacks themselves, but the recuperation process afterward," Barros Pena said. "Students require psychological help and some stay in therapy for a year. These attacks happen two or three times a year, but it is often enough for the fear to be constantly with the students."
If you would like to help these students or get more information, please contact the chaplaincy at 252-5304 or 252-6688. (Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, English and German are spoken.)
By Sveta Graudt
Special to The Moscow Times