The Wizard of Hope

In an era of pandemics and displacement, one of Brazil’s richest men is helping refugees find a home

Carlos Wizard Martins wasn’t born a wizard. His curious middle name came later in life. And the story of precisely how is as improbable as his rags-to-riches odyssey.

Sporting a slim leather jacket and a toothy grin, Carlos is quick to greet me with a COVID-19 friendly fist-bump. We’re meeting in the lobby of his brother’s double-decker auto body shop located along the main drag of Orem, Utah — “Family City USA.”

Carlos and his wife, Vânia, now split time between Brazil, Utah and Florida, a migratory pattern designed around the locations of their six children and 19 grandchildren.

As we walk, I ask about the vanity plate on Carlos’ SUV parked outside. It reads: “IMA WZRD.” Carlos, who has an otherwise understated personality, smiles and tells me about his other car — a Ferrari — with the vanity plate: “MR WIZZ.”

The car, he explains, is an indulgence he enjoys only in the United States. Back in Brazil, the family compound has 24-hour armed security, and when he ventures beyond its walls, he does so in nondescript bulletproof vehicles.

As one of Brazil’s 30-some-odd billionaires, certain precautions are necessary.

Mark Owens

This is especially true recently. Carlos was asked to play a monthlong advisory role in assisting Brazil’s early pandemic response. The work quickly drew a level of political scrutiny (Carlos was covered by the likes of The New York Times) and a level of political ire (he was called to testify before Brazil’s parliamentary commission of inquiry), for which he was not accustomed or prepared.

Even still he was asked to be the secretariat under the minister responsible for the nation’s COVID-19 response but declined. He was happy to offer advice and help, he explains to me, but his maiden voyage into any kind of a political role, even an “informal” one, will almost certainly be his last.

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But Carlos hasn’t come here today to discuss politics, or his compound or cars. He agreed to sit down with me in order to shine a light on the experiences of tens of thousands of Venezuelan refugees living in Boa Vista, Brazil. For nearly two years before the pandemic, he and Vânia sought to assist these refugees in finding a better life in Brazil.

He wants to share this story. On one level, it’s a story about the power of face-to-face service. But, on another level, the story is about how we choose to act and build lives when confronted with challenging and, in the case of the refugees, even dire life circumstances.

Carlos ushers me into a conference room on the north end of the building. He begins to recount why exactly he and Vânia left their comforts in Campinas (a city located an hour or so outside of São Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city) to live in one of the most sparsely populated regions of Brazil. But before he goes further, he says, there’s some backstory he should share, including how exactly he got his middle name. 

The English language made Carlos a billionaire. Born the eldest of seven children, Carlos grew up in Curitiba, Brazil. His father, who is now 88 and lives in Orem, Utah, made his living driving trucks. The kids didn’t learn too much English growing up, but at age 12 Carlos’ family joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and that’s when Carlos started picking up bits and pieces of the language from church missionaries, many of whom came from the United States.

This continued as Carlos served his own mission for the church at age 19 in Portugal. Later, while studying at Brigham Young University, Carlos attained a mastery of the language that would prove life altering.

But that part almost didn’t happen.

Carlos struggled in school. It wasn’t until after he married, at age 22, that he finished the equivalent of a high school diploma. And at 26, after his first semester studying computer science at Brigham Young University, things weren’t going well. “My grades were bad, bad, bad,” he tells me. “I had this feeling that I was not qualified or prepared. It was an impossible dream, an illusion, I thought.”

So he decided to quit and go back home. Or, as the saying goes in Brazil — tirar o cavalinho da chuva — take the horse in from out of the rain. But Vânia wouldn’t have it. Inside their tiny basement apartment on 500 North in Provo, Utah, she made it clear that, regardless of his grades, the couple would not return to Brazil until Carlos finished what he’d started.

I ask Vânia what she remembers about that moment, and she recalls asking Carlos, “If you quit school early, what are the children going to say about their father?”

“I had no way out,” Carlos told me. “Except to graduate,”

And so, he did.

“If you quit school early, what are the children going to say about their father?”

After a stint working in Cincinnati, Ohio, the couple returned home. It was there, while Carlos was employed by an international paper company in Brazil, that a colleague asked for an English lesson. Soon word got around, and more students came inquiring. Carlos was eventually making more from his side hustle than from his corporate gig. And so, at age 30, he took the leap and opened his own English school. 

One location became two. Two became three, and so on.

By the time he sold his business in 2013 to the large British publishing group Pearson, the company included more than 2,600 franchise locations across 10 countries. Since then, the family’s investments have expanded into real estate, financial services, sports, education and, most recently, fast food — they are one of the largest fast-food franchisers in Brazil for American brands like Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC.

But it all started teaching English. During the first two years of his business, an early franchisee approached Carlos with a demand: name yourself after the company, “Wizard.” Carlos named his school in honor of “The Wizard of Oz,” because he loved the movie’s message that everyone possesses a unique talent waiting to be found.

But Carlos dismissed the idea of changing his name to wizard. “What if it all goes bankrupt,” he chortles as he recounts the story. “People would joke, ‘What kind of wizard are you?’

It was completely mad.”

“What if it all goes bankrupt? People would joke, ‘What kind of wizard are you?’ It was completely mad.”

But the franchisee wouldn’t budge. She questioned whether he truly believed in the brand. Of course, he insisted, but that doesn’t require a name change. She then pointed out that his two main competitors — Fisk and Yazigi — both named their schools after themselves. To compete, he needed to do it.

She concluded that if he wouldn’t name himself wizard, she would adopt the name herself. Carlos eventually relented, and the decision to legally add “Wizard” to his name proved a brilliant marketing stunt. Sometime later the company formally honored this franchisee for coming up with the idea. 

If Carlos stumbled into the business of teaching English, he also stumbled into the humanitarian work of aiding refugees. The story of how it happened, he says, began nearly two-and-a-half decades ago with a phone call that no parent ever wants to receive: his twin sons had been in a life-threatening car accident.

By the time Carlos arrived on the scene, he was told that one of his sons didn’t make it. He was speechless. Shocked with grief. He simply couldn’t fathom how he would break this news to Vânia.

The situation, however, changed completely at the hospital, when the couple, now together, was informed that in fact both boys were alive, but, tragically, a third passenger, their sons’ friend, had died.

Carlos and Vânia were confused with a flood of conflicting emotions. Carlos even wondered if the doctors were simply trying to shield them from the truth. 

But once it all sunk in that both their sons were still alive, they turned their attention to doing all they could to ascertain specifics on their health conditions. One son, Lincoln, had only minor injuries, but the other son, Charles, remained in critical condition.

They prayed and wept together. That night, unbeknownst to Carlos, Vânia made a promise to God: If he permitted their son to live, she would adopt a child in need of a loving home. When Vânia told Carlos the next morning about her promise, he said they will adopt two children: “You raise one, and I’ll raise the other.”

Their son survived.

“Vânia made a promise to God: If he permitted their son to live, she would adopt a child in need of a loving home. When Vânia told Carlos the next morning, he said they will adopt two children: ‘You raise one, and I’ll raise the other.’”

And true to their promise, they filed paperwork with an adoption agency. Within a few years, they were able to successfully adopt two brothers, 2-year-old Nicholas and 3-month-old Felipe. Within days of the adoption, however, it became clear that the oldest son had developmental challenges. When their girls, Thais Michelle and Priscila, tried to play ball with Nicholas, he didn’t respond. They came to learn that he was on the autism spectrum and suffered from a lack of stimulation and attention during his infancy. 

As these two boys grew older and finished their schooling, the younger son prepared to serve a church mission, following in the footsteps of his older brothers and parents. But given the older son’s condition, Carlos and Vânia worried he would not be able to serve for two years away from home.

As that reality sunk in, they struggled with how to help their son live out his dream of serving. That’s when Vânia had the inspiration once again. The two of them would leave on a service mission, and their son would simply come along with them. That idea triggered a series of events that eventually placed them in the northern reaches of Brazil, near the Venezuelan border, almost 3,000 miles from their home.

Carlos admits that if it wasn’t for Vânia’s heart, they would have remained in their palatial compound, never coming to understand, let alone champion, the plight of Venezuelan refugees. After a last hurrah trip to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the three Martins arrived in Boa Vista, Brazil, where they encountered a camp of more than 100,000 Venezuelans, with thousands more living in the streets. 

In Boa Vista, large refugee camps provided food and shelter. But Carlos quickly noted that the region’s economy was not equipped to absorb such a sizable influx of people without means to support themselves. The overwhelming majority of jobs in the region, he explains, are in government services.

“What possibility,” he wonders aloud, “does a foreigner have of working under these circumstances? Zero.”

With more refugees coming across each day, Carlos felt like Boa Vista was becoming a pressure cooker: “We needed to set up a plan to send people out to the south where there are companies and jobs.”

Carlos and Vânia began meeting with various government and nongovernmental organization actors to discuss solutions. If they could get permission to relocate the refugees, Carlos believed they would have a better shot at establishing themselves.

Refugees and volunteers carry personal belongings and supplies across the border between Venezuela and Colombia in November 2019 as civil unrest continues in Venezuela. | Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

But there was the first problem of transportation. It’s a 60- to 70-hour car ride from Boa Vista to cities like São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro. They would need to find them flights.

Carlos had an idea: call David Neeleman. A fellow Latter-day Saint born in São Paulo, Neeleman became a noted business figure after founding JetBlue. What’s less known in the United States is that he also founded Azul, an airline with nearly a quarter of the market share of Brazil’s domestic flights.

Carlos describes his call with Neeleman by picking up his iPhone and pantomiming the conversation.

Carlos first outlined the situation to Neeleman, and then Neeleman asked if Carlos needed discounted airline tickets? “No,” Carlos responded delicately, “we’re hoping to secure free flights for the refugees.”

Then he made his case: “Every day there are flights out of Boa Vista with one or two or more empty seats. We’d like to simply fill those already empty seats for free.”

Neeleman agreed.

“Every day there are flights out of Boa Vista with one or two or more empty seats. We’d like to simply fill those already empty seats for free.”

But then he issued a challenge: get the other two major airlines to participate as well. “OK David. You’re right,” Carlos responded. “But let’s start with your company and that will help get the others to follow.”

They had a deal. And, sure enough, the other airlines saw what Azul was doing and wanted in.

20080904 Utahn and Brazilian David Neeleman started Azul Airlines in Brazil in 2008. | Azul Airlines

Properly resettling refugees takes more than just a flight, though. They needed to pair each refugee with a support system, whether it was family, a religious congregation or another NGO that could help provide for the refugee as they worked to rebuild their life in a strange, new land.

Arranging the logistics for each person or family sounds like solving an ever-evolving cipher. Each part must fit, but each part is also continually changing. Carlos and Vânia personally rented out three separate properties in Boa Vista that they used to provide transitory housing for refugees preparing for departure. They worked the phones to call in favors and build relationships with charitable organizations and local church congregations.

But some situations required a level of logistics beyond their own abilities, they explained. And so, they turned heavenward for help.

This was the case with Eduarto Villanueva, a blind man who arrived at the refugee camp with only his 1-year-old daughter and the clothes on his back. Eduarto said that his wife had died in a car accident and the state had deemed him incapable of caring for his 2-year-old son. 

He arrived in Brazil with all he had left — his baby girl.

Carlos and Vânia, who had also learned that Eduarto was a member of their faith, feared for the safety of the baby. They had heard about gangs in the city that were known for kidnapping children from single parents and selling them. Vânia went to work making calls to see if there might be a suitable and safe place for this family of two. After calling around, Vânia connected with a friend who happened to know of an organization in the inland city of Jatai that was founded and run by a doctor and his wife specializing in helping people with disabilities.

A few more phone calls and it was arranged. The doctor would not only take them in, but the day they landed, he would make arrangements for him to see an ophthalmologist. They also learned that Eduarto’s local church congregation was located only a block away from the host organization, adding another layer of critical support.

For Vânia and Carlos, it was already a miracle, but then they received this news: After a successful eye surgery, Eduarto was able to recover 50% of sight in one eye.

By the Martins’ count, in less than two years and with the support of the airlines, government actors and countless other NGOs and faith-based partners, they were able to relocate some 20,000 refugees. And although their work was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, to this day refugees continue to take off on flights from Boa Vista to more hospitable locations throughout Brazil.

“By the Martins’ count, in less than two years and with the support of the airlines, government actors and countless other NGOs and faith-based partners, they were able to relocate some 20,000 refugees.”

Their formal mission work has ended, but Carlos and Vânia feel like their heart is still there. He holds up his phone again and says he occasionally gets calls and texts because people have his number. While he’s no longer in Boa Vista, they still employ a man there to informally assist and coordinate some of the efforts they began.

Carlos tells me that he admires “The Wizard of Oz” for what the film teaches about recognizing people’s gifts and potential. But through this process he and Vânia have also discovered new abilities within themselves, including the capacity to help people with nothing feel hope that someday they, too, can say the words “there’s no place like home” and really mean them, even in a foreign land. 

This story appears in the March issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.