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A helping hand for incoming students

Your Brazilian mom in Groningen

Incoming students can find themselves overwhelmed and alone in their new city. But those from Brazil will discover that Silvana Harsevoort is there to guide them. In Groningen, she’s everyone’s Brazilian mom.
By Sara Penaguião / Photo by LuÍs Felipe F. Silva

For international communications student Silvia Roloff, she’s like a godmother. For PhD student Jennifer Albuquerque, she is a helping hand in times of need. For law student Cynthia Tach, she is the surrogate aunt who steps in now that her real family is far away.

Many Brazilian students at the RUG have struck up an unlikely friendship with forty-six year old Groningen resident Silvana Harsevoort. A native Brazilian who moved here in the nineties, she is not a student herself. But her presence in the lives of students makes a big difference.

Silvana has a direct window into their lives through the popular Facebook group Brazilians in Groningen. As a moderator, she is the first point of contact for incoming Brazilians who need a little guidance. ‘The Netherlands is very different from Brazil’, Silvana says. ‘It is easy to feel lost.’

Virtual neighbourhood

Take Cynthia for example, who desperately wanted some friends after she arrived in the city and tried to to organise a get-together with other Brazilian students. ‘I felt very lonely. Then Silvana saw my attempt to connect on the Facebook page and decided to organise a picnic for all the new students, so we could meet each other’, Cynthia says. ‘It was so much fun.’

Albert Heijn? No. Go to the market

Or take Jennifer, who asked for help from the group and was immediately contacted by Silvana. ‘I owe her and the community a lot. They’ve helped me find a place and feel safe.’

For local Brazilians the group has become a kind of virtual, cross-generational neighborhood where people look out for each other. And behind all of it is Silvana.

She dispenses advice about everything students need: housing, what to wear in the rain, how to find a doctor, where to shop for groceries. ‘Students came to me and complained how expensive it was to get groceries. I suddenly realized they were going to the most expensive places’, she says, shaking her head. ‘Albert Heijn? No. Go to the market.’ One of her two teenaged boys lumbers by, headed to their well-stocked kitchen for a snack. It’s clear that no one goes hungry on Silvana’s watch.

Isolation

Silvana moved to the Netherlands from Paraná in the south of Brazil in 1994. She was just twenty-two. ‘The challenges as an expat were much bigger then. I was lost. I didn’t know who to talk to’, she remembers.

In those days, there was no internet for video chats; no mobile phone to call home. There was only isolation, drawn out between letters. ‘Every time I wanted to talk with someone we would use letters, and the news was always late.’

Soon after she arrived, she started to work with refugees. ‘It was during the war in Yugoslavia. That was the way I got to know Dutch culture – working with people. I understood what Dutch directness meant and how to work with Dutch people, but it was not always easy.’

Easier

Now she wants to make the transition for Brazilians a little bit easier. She does that by sharing on Facebook different Dutch traditional delicacies and dishes, pointing to the best places to buy and fix bikes, or explaining the rules of cycling in the Netherlands. She even advises how and where to learn and practice Dutch. ‘I do it myself: I joined this book club that reads simplified books for people that are learning the language. It is a good way to learn and meet people.’

We know how to drive in the city so we are able to help

When the housing crisis struck Groningen and the incoming students, she stepped in. ‘I speak Dutch’, she says. ‘So I get access to information that most of the students don’t. I do the work of finding the information and translating it. I don’t have much to do; I’m a stay-at-home-mom.’

And when translating isn’t enough, she shows up in person. Sometimes students needed help to transport their mattress, or their contrabass. ‘My husband has a big car and we know how to drive in the city so we are able to help.’ She once took in a student who got scammed and ended up homeless. ‘Someone asked them for a thousand pounds and then disappeared with the money. He had nowhere to go, so I said he could stay here in my home’, Silvana says.

Welcoming

Silvana’s home, like her personality, is warm and open. She sits at the head of her dining table, which is long enough to feed an army of hungry Brazilian students, preparing tea. The walls are covered in quirky, fun things: family pictures, paintings, a massive, squawking cuckoo clock. Everything is comfortable; everyone is welcome.

Jennifer knows that table well. She has eaten dinner there herself, along with Silvana’s family. The comfort of a family meal in a family home when you’re so far away from you own family is so special, she says.

Silvia agrees: ‘Silvana is a godmother for the Brazilian community, the perfect cultural bridge. As a master’s student, it is hard to meet people. And personally, it is not easy for me to ask for help. But Silvana is always so willing to help.’

Cynthia considers Silvana family, too. ‘She became a very present person in my life with a big sentimental value. In the absence of close family I see her has a dear aunt, that will always be willing to help. When I needed her, she was there.’

Dutch

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