The death of a young child left alone at home while his single mother was out shocked a community. Now, single parents have banded together to offer support to each other. And they're succeeding in the face of overwhelming challenges.
SINTRA — The large and curious eyes of Gurnaaz Kaur reveal her desire to understand the world.
This four-year-old Indian girl doesn’t speak Portuguese yet. A few months have passed since she left her country on the family adventure across the European continent. She uses a few gestures to try to express herself and greets people with a “bom dia” (good morning), one of the few expressions he has learned.
Nahary Conniott, 8, is also looking for ways to interact. From Angola and on the autism spectrum disorder, she has already experienced difficult situations and was asked to leave the private school she attended. In the other schools in which the mother enrolled her, the refusal was always justified by the lack of vacancies.
Children with such different paths found the support they deserved in the Colo100Horas project. Started in 2021, it is a self-organized network of women who came together to help immigrants with their immense daily challenges in Sintra, in western Portugal.
The long list of problems meant they banded together to look for a solution: the strenuous routine of caring for children (still imposed in most homes as the responsibility of women), low salaries, the overcrowding of daycare centers, excessive work and the difficulty with shift schedules, which is common in jobs in the catering and cleaning industries.
A tragic case that occurred recently in the neighborhood that drew attention to the need for greater support for families: a six-year-old boy died after falling from the ninth floor of the building where he lived. He was at home with only his two little brothers, while his mother had left to go to the market, a few meters away.
Unfortunately, it was not an isolated event. Accidents involving children who, for one reason or another, were left alone at home without adult supervision are not uncommon.
Women united by a fresh start
This is the kind of incident that the Colo100Horas project wants to avoid at all costs. During the school break period, the space was open from 9 am to 5 pm for a holiday camp with trips to the zoo, museums, parks and beaches. With the start of the school year in September, the idea is to offer a babysitting service every day, including weekends, at affordable prices.
The amount charged is €75 per month and entitles the person to four hours a day, from Monday to Friday, but those who cannot afford it also attend. In exchange, they just contribute by taking care, for example, of other children on a day off, or doing an activity that the group is in need of.
This is how the network is formed — mutual help that supports women, particularly single-parent families in the neighborhood.
This is the case of Marília Conniott, who raises Nahary single-handedly, and has a team at Colo100Horas that strives to make the task of being a mother of a girl on the autism spectrum a little easier. For her, the greatest reward is seeing her daughter learn to socialize, feeling at ease in an environment that protects her from the evils of the outside world, something she has experienced many times.
Before, she used to take the girl everywhere and the excess of stimuli made her constantly nervous or in crisis. “I participate as a volunteer. It is gratifying to live as if we were at home, as a family. I feel welcomed. There are three or four children with special needs, and I was able to share the experience I had with mine,” she says.
For coordinator Liliana Soares, the advantage of the Colo100Horas is in offering a safe and reliable place for those who have no alternatives. “I have boys here who come in at 7 am, go to school at 9 am, come back again at 7 pm and leave here at 9 pm. The real problem is that mothers cannot be with their children. Either give them food or time.”
But there's more: mothers find the support to go search for autonomy, which is necessary to break the cycles of submission and uncertainty. Liliana tells the case of one who took advantage of the support system to move forward with a postponed dream and finally be able to get her driving license.
African immigrants at Rosio square in Lisbon, Portugal
Learning as a route to autonomy
Learning and training are also key to the program. So, the association turned to partners such as the Aga Khan Foundation and the Instituto do Emprego e Formação Profissional (IEFP), to train participants in the area of early childhood education and other areas, such as first aid, health and well-being.
Liliana proudly says that mutual support doesn't just exist between mothers, but also spills over to the children. In a community where 27 nationalities coexist, respect for differences is a priority: “Even though they don't speak the same language, they all play together because kids are like that. Everyone already knows that the friend doesn't eat this, or the other one can't do that because of culture or religion.”
Helena Reis's son, Afonso, 13, spent the holidays with his friends at Colo100Horas: he celebrated his birthday, rode a bicycle, played soccer, went to the pizzeria and ended with a walk to the swimming pool.
“At the farewell to the summer camp, there was no one who didn't cry. I cried myself. This is worth a thousand words,” says the mother. The teenager himself admits that staying at home tied to a cell phone or computer was not as fun as the feeling of playing freely on the streets of the neighborhood.
In the coordinator's opinion, it is necessary to promote a space for acceptance, cooperation and dialogue. “We are all special. We all have our characteristics, our individuality. We do everything to be all on the same network. Because that's what we're building: a network.”
Elisabete Borges is president of Jangada D'Emoções, which started Colo100Horas. Her involvement with Colo100Horas has a meaning that goes beyond what the eyes can see: it addresses particularly difficult topics in her own life. She lost her mother at a very young age, which made her have to deal with a life-long void. “I don't think I had a childhood. I couldn't be a child, I didn't have many games,” she says.
Later, a severe depression prevented Borges from enjoying motherhood. Already alone with her four daughters, she experienced successive hospitalizations in psychiatric institutions and regrets not having been able to accompany the development of her girls, who were in the care of an aunt during those periods.
Now, she says she tries to make up for it by supporting the grandchildren and children of other women who ask for help, which she herself so often needed.
The creation of Jangada D'Emoções took place over a decade ago. In the beginning, it was an informal group called “Women’s club” (Clube das Mulheres), where community events were organized with dance, theater, crafts, food collection, gatherings and debates. Little by little, the exchange of experiences made clear the need to mobilize efforts towards common goals.
For Borges, Colo100Horas offers the possibility to rewrite her own history and, finally, make peace with the past.
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