A migration from another time

More than forty years ago more than one million people “migrated” from Africa to Portugal, South Africa and Brazil. One million only came to Portugal, a country that, at the time, had 9 million citizens, meaning that, in barely two years (74-75) the population increased by ten per cent.

These “migrants” (in which I am included, with my family) were not called as such then. As we were Portuguese, returning from Portugal’s former colonies in Africa, we were unpleasantly called ‘retornados’ (those returning), even if many of us were not returning at all as we had been born out there.

I know many poignant stories of that migration but the one I find particularly touching is that of Mimi.

Mimi was born in Benguela, South of Angola, in the forties, the daughter of a Portuguese settler and an African woman. From a very young age she was very close to her Portuguese Godparents (a very strong relationship back then) and visited Portugal mainland (as it was called then because the colonies were Portuguese overseas territories) a few times with them, experiencing the harsh reality of the cold winter in the mountains.

Then she went back to her city, and went on with her life. When the 1974 revolution came she was in her early thirties and pregnant, and two months after she gave birth to a lively baby boy who filled her with happiness.

But, where before the city where she lived was a peaceful and pleasant place to live, now it was fast becoming an explosive place. Very soon the Portuguese government had opened negotiations so that Angola might gain its independence but in Angola the three liberation movements all had different ideologies and were backed up by different countries: some were supported by the Americans and some by the Soviet Union, and of course none of these wanted to lose influence in a country as rich in natural resources as Angola – so almost immediately a bloody civil war began.

Mimi told me about the terrifying sleepless nights when she and her baby (and everyone else) had to cower under the bed as outside the rival factions were shooting each other; of how they lived in constant fear of abuse; of seeing friends being shot in front of them; of being helpless to help injured friends as there was no way to take them to hospital through the warring groups. I can well – or perhaps not entirely – imagine her anxiety at having to face all this with a new baby. She must have wondered many times which world had she brought her child into!

She also told me about her neighbours, who had already lost their son in the “colonial war”, where Portugal fought the liberation movements (before the revolution of 74). They also had a daughter who had become doubly precious to them and that they protected as much as they could. Alas, one day there was a knock at the door, during daytime, and as the girl opened it a sniper shot her straight through the heart and she dropped dead in front of her parents. Just like that. Mimi still flinched as she remembered the indescribable grief of those poor devastated people.

Finally it was too unbearable and she had to leave. The Portuguese Government together with the Red Cross were organizing air transport to allow Portuguese citizens to leave the war ridden country, where conflicts grew each day and many people were losing their lives as victims of horrible atrocities. There were chartered planes that brought these people to Lisbon, but these planes flew from the capital city Luanda, and she had to get there.

So she came on this huge boat where thousands of refugees literally piled up during the night of the sea trip. There were thousands aboard the ship as everyone wanted to get away from hell; it was a matter of life and death. I can hardly imagine how things must have been with a young baby, no conditions of hygiene whatsoever, little food available and almost no space to move. She just sat in a corner, trying to soothe her frightened baby and avoiding as much as possible the few available toilets that were soon filthy and impossible to go to; there were no beds, no facilities of any kind, but she faced it all stoically, because at least she was escaping from terror.

In Luanda they were received by the Red Cross volunteers and given proper shelter in a military air base, and a few days after she and her baby were put on a plane to Lisbon. Apart from a bag she carried on her shoulder with a few clothes and survival items for her baby she had nothing else with her – everything she had had been left behind. She had lost all.

When the plane landed in Lisbon it was cold. She and her son – and all the other refugees – had only summer clothes. Fortunately, yet again the kindly Red Cross people were waiting for them, giving them some warm clothes to face the first few days and providing temporary shelter.

Meanwhile in Portugal an Institute to support “those returning” had been created that, together with the Red Cross, tended to the refugees and helped this integration in Portuguese society, as much as possible.

It was through them that some time later Mimi found a job. She began a new life working for a lady who let her live with her son in a small room at the back of the house. In fact, she began her life anew.

Mimi continued working hard while raising her son. She was mostly a single parent, even if the father of her son was close to him and supportive – but he did not live with them, so she had to face mostly by herself the many challenges of motherhood such as taking her boy to hospital when he was ill, which she did many times. She faced many hardships but she never lost her inner serenity and strength and, most incredibly – she never complained: she just accepted philosophically what came her way.

She was always ready to smile and kindly helped anyone who needed her. Never did she flinch when it came to support elderly neighbours, sometimes at the cost of her scarce free time. She is one of those persons who are put in this world to help others, without selfishness. She is so kind, so self effacing, but at the same time she is immensely strong, with a sharp sense of humour and she is always up to date, being one of the best informed persons I know.

She has an incredible network and has many people who adore her. How could it be otherwise, when she is so caring and compassionate? But stubborn, too – I suppose she would have to be, to emerge as a victor in a tough life such as the one she has had.

She has worked hard all her life – and, in her early seventies, she still does. She looks some fifteen years younger, is more agile than many fifty year- olds I know, and does not want to stop. Only last year she twisted her knee and had to undergo physiotherapy because she had decided to run to catch the bus…she feels much younger than she is and will act according to that!

Mimi is an indomitable lady by all accounts, but at the same time she is tender and sweet. She has come a long way: she has raised her boy who is now a man and naturally devoted to her; she has made many friends along the way; she has helped me raise my two boys who absolutely adore her and to whom of course she is devoted; and she is loved and respected by everyone who knows her.

As for me, apart from my family she is certainly the person who has done more for me; she is an angel for whose presence in my life I am continuously grateful. I love and admire her. She is a beautiful person, a unique being of light whose only aspiration is to make people happy.

And what a story she has. Certainly one worth being shared.