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Sexta-feira - 1 Março 2024

Sheila Abranches granddaughter of Aristides Sousa Mendes: Each human being is priceless



“Jornal Comunidades Lusófonas” spoke with Aristides Sousa Mendes’ granddaughter, Sheila Abranches, who currently lives in California, United States. She is a very sensitive and assertive person, she talks about her grandfather, Aristides Sousa Mendes, with impressive closeness. She tries to follow in his footsteps, but we know it’s impossible to do what he did for the lives he saved. A man very devoted to God and with a lot of faith. Thus he died, in poverty (of possessions), but with an immeasurable fortune of affection and charity, and international recognition.

Sheila Abranches Pierce, is the third child of Aristides’ and Angelina’s 13th child, John Paul. She was raised in California and spent 27 years in New York City, NY (living in Queens, working in the Financial district). She is currently back in California (the San Francisco Bay Area) working in Finance in a Project Managing role. In addition to Sheila, John Paul and his wife Joan had two sons (Paul and Peter) and a 2nd younger daughter (Eileen).

Aristides Sousa Mendes

In addition to her immediate family, she is married with one stepdaughter and one stepson. Interesting fact, she grew up and currently lives about 15 miles away from when the family lived when they were stationed here in California in the 1920’s.

She is very proud of both her grandparents and the older she gets, the more impressed she is of them, her uncles, aunts and cousins who helped out during those dark days in France and in Portugal. Although her grandparents spent days praying over the situation, having to make the choice and then follow through took a lot of courage and faith.

Growing up, she would hear stories from her father of how he would play “bullfight” with his father, taking turns with who was the bull and who was the matador. His love for music was also well known in the family and shared amongst his kids (some of her aunts and uncles were classically trained). His humour and light- hearted nature as well as his devotion to God were part of the stories she heard growing up.

Sheila’s family

Sheila greatly admires her grandfather but unfortunately he passed away before she was born so she only knows him through stories from her father, family members and/or others who have met him. One of these was Isaac Bitton. When he was a young man in Portugal, he would serve refugees in a local soup kitchen and he shared with Sheila her grandfather’s version of the events and how he conveyed that if one man can suffer for so many, then one man can suffer for many and that he was at peace with his decision and would welcome the opportunity to do it again, with Love”.

It is impossible for her to fully grasp the severity of those days (or even current war time) to even guess hypothetically what “I or anyone would do – I do however do my best to live with an open heart.”

She can only guess his reasoning for issuing visas was related to his travels abroad. Meeting new people, living in different cultures only to discover everyone wants the same thing. 

Everyone wants their family to be fed, clothed, to be safe and enjoy Life. “I know he was proud to be Portuguese and everyone knows of the Portuguese hospitality.” That doesn’t change when in a different country. We know also he loved his children so we imagine seeing families outside his residence hit home for him.

It wasn’t long before World War II that her grandparents lost their youngest daughter as well as

their second son so her grandparents knew first hand that kind of loss brings and “my guess is he could not stand by and not do anything”. That would go against everything they were and believed in. As he said, “I rather be with God against man, than with man against God, and I welcomed the opportunity with Love.”

Growing up she was always sensitive to the fact that her grandparents gave up everything, that her dad and his siblings (the younger set) had to immigrate to North America. “My dad used to tell stories of teachers asking if he was the son of Aristides or Cesar and then automatically fail him when they learned.” Because of this and other stories, “I have always felt I owed them my best (not that I am always successful), but I try”.

Sheila believed he was just like the rest of us. An imperfect human who happened to enjoy people and happened to have been placed in a position where he was used for the greater good. (As I have heard from my dad, the year after losing his son and daughter, he tried hard to get a transfer to Asia but was forced to France. “I believe that was all in the plans of God.”)

Since Aristides’ passing in 1954, his family has tirelessly worked towards his rehabilitation and in 1988 the Portuguese Parliament officially dismissed changes against him. In the early 2000’s, the family created the Portuguese Foundation of Aristides de Sousa Mendes (FASM) which is focused on raising awareness of his life and actions. In 2010 the American Sousa Mendes Foundation (SMF) was created by both Sousa Mendes grandchildren, Visa Recipients / children of Visa Recipients and longtime supporters of Sousa Mendes. The SMF has also worked at bringing her grandparents’ story through various programs including the Journey on the Road to Freedom trips that follow the path the refugees took starting in Bordeaux, ending in Portugal.

When asked, Sheila identifies as an American of Portuguese and Irish descent, who would like to think she carries her grandparent’s hospitality and knows she has inherited the family’s love of exploration (visiting new places and meeting new people), music, good food and long goodbyes!

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