“Rio is so different from what we’ve seen on TV”

Really intense. Informative. Full of contrast. This is how five Belgian students describe their immersion trip to Brazil. In their capacity as Zuiddag ambassadors, they visited the slums of Rio de Janeiro this summer.

This year, Zuiddag selected KIYO’s Pamen project as a good cause. KIYO is a Belgian NGO that fights for children’s rights, focusing on the children in Jardim Gramacho, a slum in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro, which contains the largest open air landfill in South America.

Immersion trip

In preparation for Zuiddag, the organisation selects four or five teenagers every year to join the immersion trip. They will not only get to know the project, but they will also meet the young people who are engaged on a local level. Those young people will come visit Belgium in October.

This year, Rupert, Thomas, Femke, Marie and Kaat were the chosen ones. “We’ve created a divers and complementary group”, says Zuiddag youth participation specialist Lies Corneillie. “Our participants have a lot of positive qualities and complement each other well.” 


So in early February, the five Belgian teenagers got the good news. They were going to Rio! In preparation, they took several workshops in order to learn more about the country. “We had a few lessons in Portuguese and talked to the Brazilian youths on Skype. We also contacted each other on social media. This gave us a proper picture of what their world was like”, Rupert explains.

On July 16, they finally left for Rio de Janeiro, where the countdown to the Olympics had begun. “Our arrival was an experience full of contrasts. On one side there are the plazas which are spick and span, where they sweep up every little leaf”, says youth participation specialist Lies. “And five minutes later you find yourself in the slums.”


It’s a world of difference, and the adolescents were moved by it. On the first day they played the tourist, visiting all the city’s beautiful places. “We also got to meet the Brazilians with whom we’d be working together during our immersion trip. It was all very light-hearted. Until we found ourselves at their house in the Jardim Gramacho favela. It was a real eye-opener”, says Thomas.

For their visit to the Jardim Gramacho landfill, the five teenagers were given extra instructions. “We were told to dress plainly. We weren’t allowed to play the tourist, and were told to mind our facial expressions and body language. If there was something we thought was weird or didn’t taste right, we weren’t allowed to show that”, Rupert explains. “It can be really hurtful for the people there.”

Fighting discrimination together

The next day, the Zuiddag ambassadors were introduced to local projects. For instance, committed young people from the favela are fighting a hard as nails battle against discrimination. They are devoted to giving the local children a chance and making sure they get to go to school. They also train boys and girls to be leaders who actively help shape youth policies.

The young people also form a unit that fights child labour and sexual exploitation of minors during large events such as the Olympic Games. “Once you’ve seen all that, you can only conclude that we’ve got very little reason to complain in Belgium”, says Thomas.

Changing things together

Communication with the local youths was slightly difficult at first. But it quickly improved. “We picked up some Portuguese, and they spoke a little bit of English”, Thomas starts. Rupert nods: “I don’t have a great head for languages, but we used apps such as Google Translate to make ourselves understood. And we actually learned a fair bit of Portuguese in the process”, he jokes.

The trip has come to an end, but the Belgian and Brazilian young people have stayed in touch. Which is just as well, because in October a delegation from Rio will visit Belgium to explain all about the project. “We’ll be giving a presentation ourselves on September 12”, says Rupert. “Afterwards we’ll also visit several participating schools.”

With heart and soul

This follow-up is necessary, because the ambassadors’ story does not end with Rio. Lies Corneillie: “All high school students between 16 and 19 years old can become ambassadors, on the condition that they are fully committed to the adventure and engage with it 100%. They don’t need heaps of experience, but they do have to show that they represent this project with both heart and soul.”

Thomas is living proof of this. “We want to show our fellow students that Brazil is different from what they saw on TV this summer. That there are problems that we need to solve. And hopefully we can get them to be enthusiastic about coming together to change things as well!”

Zuiddag inleefreis

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