As a child fleeing the Angolan civil war, Maria Rosa Dias spent nearly 10 years in a Namibian refugee camp. Now, as a provincial coordinator of a program that provides professional and technical training to female ex-detainees, Maria Rosa uses her experience as a former refugee to help connect with women who are trying to reintegrate into society.
“I compare being a refugee [to being] a prisoner,” Maria Rosa says. She remembers feeling trapped in the refugee camp, away from her family and her home. When she finally returned to Angola, she knew she needed to continue her education and find a job in order to achieve her goals. She eventually started working in a prison, where she built relationships with female detainees.
After the women are released, “some of them are not accepted back in their community due to the crime that they committed,” Maria Rosa says. “So if you don’t have someone who supports you outside the prison, you can go through a lot of challenges.”
Maria Rosa and her colleagues at the Women’s Penitentiary project help by finding training and jobs for the women. They tell the women that their time in prison does not define them and that they still have time and opportunities to change their lives.
“When I see these women succeeding,” Maria Rosa says, “I feel like we did it.” When the women find jobs or start businesses and become contributing members of society, Maria Rosa says, “That’s success for me.”
Learn more about Maria’s work with the Women’s Penitentiary project, plus why she took the Africa4Her human rights pledge, by listening to to her YALI Voices interview or reading the transcript below.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
YALI Voices Podcast: Maria Rosa Dias
Maria Rosa Dias: My name is Maria from Angola. Welcome to the YALI Voice Podcast.
♪ Yes we can ♪ ♪ Sure we can ♪ ♪ Change the world ♪
VOICEOVER: Welcome to the YALI Voices Podcast, your home for sharing the best stories from the Young African Leaders Initiative Network. Be sure to subscribe to the YALI Voices Podcast and visit yali.lab.dev.getusinfo.com to stay up-to-date on all things YALI.
Sharing her YALI voice today is Maria Rosa Dias from Angola. Maria’s particular interests are in human rights and women’s empowerment.
She is currently the provincial coordinator of the Women’s Penitentiary program, where she focuses on initiating and implementing professional and technical courses for young female ex-detainees and adolescents. She is also part of the #YALILearns Angola team in Huambo, who hold meetings, skills-building workshops and lectures on issues of importance to young leaders.
Maria’s journey to where she is today began many years ago, as a child fleeing the civil war in Angola and living for 10 years in a refugee camp in Namibia.
MARIA: So, it was, as kids, moving all over the country. Sometimes we would miss school, because in the middle of the year we have to go to a different place. We had that till I was 10 years old. Because we were going through war at that time, because we had civil war since 1992. My parents decided to take us to a different country and live there as refugees. So that’s part of my childhood. I lived in Namibia for 10 years as a refugee.
It was weird and very difficult because being a child living without your parents in a different country … tried to learn about different cultures. Tried to learn a different language. Tried to fit in. For a child — I was 11 by that time — it was really very, very hard. Due to the fact that we also had to travel with someone who we didn’t know, but that person has to take us to that country because that was the only way to move to Namibia since we had no possibilities to go to Namibia due to the fact of war. It was more like running from our country to another country to go and look for safety.
My dad had to still live in Angola to work. So if he had to come with us, it would have been different because it wouldn’t work since he’s a pastor. So they had to struggle back in Angola, and I had to flee to Namibia and try to make it on our own.
By the time my older sister was maybe 18 or 20, my other sister was 17, 16, but we didn’t go with them. It was only I and my little brother who comes after me, who by that time was 10, 8 years old. So, luckily, when we go to the refugee camp, we came to find out that my father’s brother was already there as a refugee. So we had to go and look for him, present ourselves, tell our story, everything what happened since the beginning, and then he took us in.
In the beginning, it’s complicated because you have to go through a lot of changes. You have to go through a lot of difficulties. But then you will come to a point that you realize that that is home, apart from that you don’t have elsewhere to go. So you have to settle. You have to accept the conditions. You have to deal with them, and you have to live. Then there comes the decision: Either you take that situation to help you. Either you take that situation to get depressed. To give up. Or maybe just say, “OK, I’m here. I’m done. It’s the end of my life.” But I, thank God, preferred to take it as a opportunity. Because being there I had opportunity to go to school because we had that chance. Namibian government gave us that chance. Although we were refugees, but still we have right to education.
So I went to school. I learned how to speak English. I used to tell when I’m talking to someone, when I’m counseling someone, I say, “Hey, you never know what the future has for you. You have to grab all the opportunities. I was once a refugee and I’m not ashamed about it because it’s being a refugee that today I’m where I am.” I don’t know. I don’t know. I cannot say … maybe if I didn’t went to that camp, I wouldn’t maybe be today where I am.
When I left the refugee camp, I was 18 years old.
I went back to Angola to restart, because now it was all new to me again. I had to go back, try to fit in, try to understand the language, because now I was coming from an English-speaking country. Try to understand the culture again, people, how it works. Go back to school because in Namibia, just I did up to high school, then I had to go for university, and that was in Angola. It was all over again except for the fact that was not a refugee camp. That was my home, my real home.
When I came back to Angola, I wanted to do and have a lot of things. I wanted to have my own car. I wanted to have my own job. I wanted to have my own house. I wanted to have a lot of things. But then I was, “OK, so what am I supposed to do with this?” You can look for a job when you just have a high school degree, but then it’s a job maybe just like a waiter or … which is not bad, but I wanted something bigger. I wanted more.
Then I said OK to myself, “Maria, you have to do something.” Since I believe that whatever you do, you have to go through education, I said, “OK, first thing you have to do is go back to school.” But the funny thing is that I tried to go back to university maybe five times, but I didn’t make it. And then there was this time that I said, “OK, guys, we need the private university in this town because I don’t think I’m gonna make it to public school.” That was one challenge.
And then, the other challenge was to look for a job because if I want to go to a private school, someone has to pay for it, and that was not my parents paying for it because we are five siblings. So there was my elder sisters and my two young brothers plus me — five. So I had to do something. I applied for a government job. Luckily, I got it.
So then I say, “OK, Maria, it’s time to work for your school fees.” In 2014, I went to school. Then I told myself, “Maria, your course is four years. You are going to school for four years because you cannot do more than that.” I went to school for four years. So my life is just like this: Go after I want, go after I believe. And that is the other thing. I got my car.
Let me just tell you something: My role model is my mom. She is a very brave woman. Why am I saying this? Because I remember we were very young by that time, and we were going through difficult. We were going through war, but my mom, she would travel from my country to another country to go and look for better stuffs for us. She could travel to Namibia, buy things from Namibia and come to sell them in Angola just to make sure that we go to school. And when we came back from Namibia, I said, “OK, Maria. There is your mom. She did everything to help you. Now you have to do something to help her.” And I told my mom, I said, “Hey, Mom. Listen. I’m gonna look for a job and my first salary, I’ll buy stuff for you.” And then, looking to her, she gave me the courage to follow my dreams, to follow my … everything that I believed in. That was because of my mom.
MARIA: I wanted to help womens because since have I start working for the prison, I came to a straight contact with them. Also, being in contact with them, It gave me the picture of how much we needed to do for our communities because each and every day I would listen to a different story from a different person, from a different woman, and I’m a woman. Do you understand?
So then I said, “Wow, I have to do something.” But then what? I cannot take all these womans in my house, but I can take myself to them through a lot of different ways, maybe. So I started with one. One woman. I started with one woman. That really played a very, very, very big role in my life. Being a refugee gave me a lot of clue of what the world is.
But I compare being a refugee as a prisoner, as prisoner. You know why? Because in a refugee camp, you have to follow rules. I’m not saying that in life, we don’t follow rules. You have so many limitations. If you want, for instance, go outside from the refugee camp, you have to go through a very long process. So if you think about that process, you prefer to give up and stay in the camp. Do you understand? And then, I can bring that to a prisoner extent. They have a lot of limits. If it’s not for them to be released, they do not much really. So I wouldn’t say that being a refugee gave me … because by that time, when I left the refugee camp, I couldn’t think the way I think today. Today I see the world in a very different way.
Some of the challenges that women in prison face, it’s more when they are released. When they are released is the hard moment. Why? Because some of them are not accepted back in their community due to the crime that they committed or maybe the crime that they are being accused of. And the other one is go back or look for a job. The other challenge is go back to the education system because many of them, due to the time they spent in jail, they come out very like, “OK, it’s done. It’s end of my life. From here, I have nothing to do outside. Maybe I will just go because they released me because if it depends on me, I would have remained.”
So my work with them is really reinsert them to a society. Make a kind of brainwash, but in a good way. Tell them that that was not the end of their road. They still have a lot to do. So, by having that, let’s start together. I’m here. I will help you in whatever you want. I sometimes help with money, like my own money. I do that because I know that once I help them, they gonna help someone, too.
VOICEOVER: We asked Maria how she was able to make a connection to the women she works with and what she thought was the most important thing she teaches the women about reconnecting with society after months and years in prison. And later, she proudly shares her Africa4Her pledge and why it means so much to her.
MARIA: I got through them because I work in prison. That my made my work more easier. Working in prison, I had to meet with these womens every day. I had to work with some of them every day directly through my office. So by connecting with them, meeting with them every day, we have these opportunity to let them open themselves to us. Then, by opening themselves to us, you can see that, OK, in her story, there’s something I can do to help. Maybe I cannot help in full, but my help, I believe, will make a difference. So there is where I started doing my job.
When I see these woman succeeding after what we went through together, that is my satisfaction because I feel like we did it. If you see one of them is having a job, starting her own business, doesn’t matter if it’s a big or small business, but at least this person is back in the society. This person is somehow helping the community. That’s success for me.
There is a school, a professional school, which is connected with me, with my work. When these womens are out of the jail, we take some of them … those who are interested because there are those who are like, “OK, I don’t want to do this. Maybe if you ask me to do something else.” So those who are interested, they go to that school. They do a specific course. Doesn’t matter if it’s cooking, how to sew, how to iron. Doesn’t matter. The fact is that this person has to learn a professional course so that after six weeks, she is given a certificate and from that we, not her, we look for a job.
We go knock in different companies, private, public companies, and try to help this person to look for a job. Because on their own, it’s different. Because after you come out from the prison, doesn’t matter if your sentence is over, people will still look at you as a criminal. So if you don’t have someone who supports you outside the prison, you can go through a lot of challenge and difficult. Out of that, this is what we do. We help them try to come back to the society.
We help them try to come back and be part of us because even though they were in prison, they still part of us. So we don’t have to, like, let them go, like, “OK, that’s it, we don’t care about you guys. It’s over.” No. That’s why I said I work with my sisters, because they are my sisters. Some of them are my moms. We don’t know. If I don’t do that, I don’t know who’s gonna do that. It has to start from me.
And let me tell you something. I started alone, and now I have a group of seven people with me. Apart from those people who come, sometime they call, “Hey, do you guys have an activity to do? We want to help. If you need transport, please call me. I’m gonna give my car to support you.” This is basically the work I do with those womens.
MARIA: I took the Africa4Her pledge in human rights because I don’t know in America, but in Africa, especially in Angola, particularly in Angola, womens are kind of marginalized. We don’t have many rights. My country, they believe that womens were not made to be in office. If you are a woman, your place is not in the office. Your place is in the kitchen. But we know that’s not true. We have brains. We think. We have ideas. Why don’t we implement them? But then there comes the thing: We are not given opportunity.
So by pledging, my idea was to help, what to talk, what to advocate for those womens. Because I’m in this position, yes. But how about a person who is not in this position? A woman who doesn’t have a voice? Who’s going to talk for her? So pledging was the way for me to come out and sit with the other womens participating. We will get a voice to come and talk to the other womans who don’t have voice. We were not made to be in the kitchen. No.
MARIA: First of all, I’m looking for what I’m sharing with people in my community is love. Why I’m saying that? Because this is one thing which I’ve learned in America. I was even asking the other Fellows from different schools if they were treated the way I was treated in Bridgewater. When we went for our pre-orientation, we were told something very different of what we saw here. The other thing I want to teach them is teach them to know their rights, because they don’t know. Some of us are oppressed just because we don’t know our rights. This is one thing that I’ve learned here. They taught me that you cannot fight for something you don’t know. You first have to know it, understand it, and then fight for it. One thing which we don’t do back home, but I’ve learned in America.
My vision for young African leaders or for young African womens is to have stable womens in Angola. I cannot say in Africa because in Africa, we have a lot. An example is the number of womens participating in this program. But now, for my country, due to the fact that we are a Portuguese-speaking country, we lose a lot of opportunities, like outside opportunity. So, if I had these opportunities to come and participate, so I have to take it. I have to take it and help African, young Angolians, and tell them that, hey, there’s a lot we can do. We are strong. There is this other thing: We are strong together. Do you understand? Together we are strong. I came, yes. That’s fine. But then what? I have to go and join them and tell them, “Hey, I’m here. Let’s work.” I want to really … my vision is to have a strong Angolian young women leaders. That’s my hope and my vision. And I’m sure we’re gonna make it. Yeah.
VOICEOVER: That was YALI Network member and 2017 Mandela Washington Fellow Maria Rosa Dias from Angola. We think you’ll agree that Maria is an amazing young leader and someone who is already doing amazing things for the women of her country.
Be sure to come back for more inspiring stories from young African leaders on the YALI Voices Podcast.
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The YALI Voices Podcast is brought to you by the U.S. Department of State and is part of the Young African Leaders Initiative, which is funded by the U.S. government.