AU Ambassadors

Student Life at American University

Two Weeks in Rio

March 14, 2016|Posted in: Abroad Adventures

Maria Islam is a senior from Brigantine, New Jersey who is studying International Studies and Law & Society. She visited Rio de Janeiro this past winter break through an AU Alternative Break. Although she was only there for two weeks, the material she learned seemed like a semester’s worth.

In high school, I watched one of the Fast and Furious movies that took place in Rio de Janeiro. Instantly, I fell in love with the country and dreamed of visiting Brazil someday. Never did I think that I would be in Rio during my college experience. Studying abroad programs posed financial challenges so I looked into alternative breaks as it involved meaningful social justice projects and the cost was much lower than studying abroad. My program focused on Community Organizing in the Favelas: Empowerment through Education. This alt break interested me as I have always been interested in youth empowerment projects.

Words simply won’t do justice to how excited I was about this trip. I was reminiscing about Fast and Furious as I looked out the window when we were getting ready to land. As I looked down, it felt so magical, like wow, I am actually going to be in Rio!!!! We took a van from the airport, went through the main city and arrived at the Favela that we were supposed to stay at: Vidigal. This tour allowed me to see the housing disparity in Rio. Once our van arrived in Vidigal, we were warmly welcomed by SER Alzira de Aleluia’s staff. SER was the NGO that hosted our program. The founder of SER, Professor Antonio, told us about the history of SER and his motivations behind the organization. He started the NGO as a way to help the youths in Vidigal.

Maria Islam traveled to Rio de Janeiro for two weeks on an Alternative Break.

Maria Islam traveled to Rio de Janeiro for two weeks on an Alternative Break.

Later, his daughter Kenya, who studied in the U.S., took our group around for a neighborhood tour. Some of the streets in Vidigal were so narrow that only mototaxi’s could fit. The streets were in terrible condition. It made me realize how lucky we are in the U.S. where we have wide streets that are accessible for everyone. I couldn’t imagine how difficult it would be to carry groceries up the mountain and I assumed that anyone with a disability just stayed home because those roads were a challenge for everyone. All this was just my experience in the first couple of hours.

I spent two weeks on this alt break. I have so many beautiful memories of Rio.  I was amazed at how kind the Brazilians were. We lived in a pacified favela and visited a couple of others that were not pacified. The people in a lot of these favelas had so little, but they had such big hearts. Some people would invite us to have lunch at their home or pick mango and other fruits off their trees to feed us. They were very humble and welcoming to us.

Maria learned about youth empowerment programs and had the chance to explore Rio.

Maria learned about youth empowerment programs and had the chance to explore Rio.

Visiting the Christ Statue on top of a mountain, along with Copacabana, Ipanema, Praia de Adao o Eva, and Estadio Mario Filho were just a few of my favorite memories. Aside from doing some of the typical touristy things, I immensely valued learning about what the different Favela communities were doing to better the lives of individuals. For example, we learned about the works of Street Child United.  This is an NGO that provides a global platform for street children so they can be heard and empowered. Their goal is for the children to receive protection, support and opportunities that all children around the world deserve. Additionally, they use the power of soccer in Rio to challenge the negative perceptions and treatment of street children. When we visited this NGO, we played soccer with the kids and of course, we were crushed.

This experience has impacted my life greatly as I now understand how lucky I am to live in the U.S. and how easy life here is compared with Rio. The U.S. is not perfect, but it does have many great services that support the populations in need of assistance. Conversely, the people living in the Favelas receive no assistance from their government and work extremely hard to make everything for themselves.

To learn more about Maria and the rest of the Ambassadors, click here.


Posted by Amelia Crabtree

Cacti, cows, and science lover