Refugees Flee Syria for Brazil
More than a year before Pope Francis urged Europe’s Catholics to take in Syrian refugees, a priest in Brazil inspired the support of his parishioners to ease the suffering of those fleeing unimaginable horror. More than 30 Syrians – almost all Muslims – have found a new safe home in Brazil thanks to the efforts of Father Alex Coelho and his flock at São João parish in Rio de Janeiro.
The Syrian refugees have found a warm welcome, and thanks to donations from the church, places to live for at least three months. Padre Alex, as he is known here in Brazil, has even learned some Arabic in order to communicate with the Syrians. He believes the 30 Syrians his church has welcomed are only the beginning of what is likely to become a much larger influx, as a human tidal wave flees the civil war-torn country of Syria.
Current estimates hold that as many as 4 million Syrians have already fled their homeland. This from a country with only a little more than 20 million total population. The steady stream of those fleeing the brutal civil war that has already killed more than 240,000 people in four years seems unlikely to abate.
Last week Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff wrote a newspaper editorial saying that while European nations prevaricated and argued over how many refugees to take in, Brazil was proud to play its part in alleviating what has become a global crisis.
“More than 10 million of us (Brazilians) are descendants of Syrian and Lebanese immigrants, so we are obliged to act in this way,” Dilma wrote. She concluded: “Brazil has its arms open to take in these refugees … who want to come to live and work here. And we want to offer them this hope.”
Refugees sheltering at Padre Alex’s church are given access to Portuguese language lessons and assistance in finding work. And even though the help they receive comes from the Catholic church and church-affiliated charities, they are given the freedom to practice their Muslim faith.
“My options, had I stayed in Syria, would have been either to go into the army, or die. My father begged me to get out,” said Khaled Fares, age 27. Back home, he had training as a technician in making dentures, and he hopes to become a dentist in Rio some day.
Khaled came to Brazil, 11,000 km from home, because it was the only country that accepted his petition for asylum. He did not want to put his life in peril by trying to travel to Europe illegally. He is grateful to be here, but admits to sometimes being overcome with sadness.
“Here in Brazil, I know no one. I have no relatives, no home, no language,” he said. Refugees do however find here a large Arab community, and a tradition of emigration to Brazil from the Middle East dating back decades. Brazil has received more than 2,000 Syrian refugees since the start of the war in 2011, far more than any other country in Latin America. The Brazilian government has accepted all Syrian asylum petitions, as well as established measures to streamline and accelerate the application process.
Padre Alex opened the doors of his church to the refugees a year and a half ago, after seeing a television news broadcast detailing the suffering of the Syrian refugees. The generosity of his parish extends not only to refugees fleeing that conflict however, but to Nigerians, Afghans, Palestinians, and Iraqis as well, although 90 percent are Syrians. “I am a Christian, and the overwhelming majority of them are Muslims. But there is just one God who looks over all of us, and we are brothers. God has no religion.”
Another Syrian refugee, Ibrahim, arrived in Brazil and spent three days sleeping on the floor and wandering around aimlessly at São Paulo’s Guarulhos airport. “I couldn’t speak the language, and I didn’t know where I could find help.
I was alone,” says Ibrahim, who won’t give his family name because of fears for the safety of his relatives still in Syria. However, the 20-year-old has no regrets and now lives in Rio. He says he made the right decision, rather than facing a perilous journey by sea to Europe, as many Syrian refugees are forced to undertake. He chose the safer option of flying to Brazil.
“When I found out that the Brazilian Embassy in Beirut was offering ‘laissez-passer’ (right of passage) to refugees of the war in Syria, it was the best option for me. Why pay U$3,000 or U$4,000 to get smuggled across the sea and risk drowning, when for half of that price I can fly to Brazil?”
Ibrahim fled to Brazil to avoid being drafted into the Syrian army, a country where conscription is compulsory. His older brother, Mohammad, was less fortunate. Indeed, it’s a miracle that Mohammad is still alive and was able to escape to Brazil to be with Ibrahim.
Mohammad doesn’t care much for who is on which side in the war, just that it is tearing his country apart. Today he has at least 20 shrapnel scars as evidence of his serving in the Syrian army.
Ibrahim and his brother Mohammad now run a busy little stall in Rio, selling home-made hummus, kibe, and other Middle Eastern dishes. The money they earn helps them to look after their elderly parents and their two younger siblings. The boys agree that Brazilians have been overwhelmingly kind and receptive to Syrians, but they say there’s a great lack of official assistance from the government.
Another refugee, Jamal Hafir, has been in flight for his entire life, first as a Palestinian whose parents fled to Syria in 1948. Forced out of his Damascus home two years ago, as the neighborhood was destroyed by the civil war, Jamal has now brought his own family around the world to Brazil.
“There’s more help for refugees in Europe,” Jamal says. “But we knew it would be dangerous to go by sea. So when we heard Brazil’s embassy in Lebanon was offering visas, we thought it’s better to come to a country that accepts you.”
Syria’s war has robbed the Hafir family of their home and the children of their education. While Jamal’s two boys are out looking for work, the family’s four girls, who haven’t been to school for three years, sit in the corner of the room on mattresses that serve as both couches and beds and study Portuguese.
The Hafir family has escaped the war, but life in Brazil is still difficult. A local pro-Palestinian charity, not the Brazilian government, is housing the Hafir family at an abandoned office building in São Paulo. The charity pays for electricity and water, but this is still essentially illegal, and like most informal housing, the family doesn’t know how long they’ll be able to stay there.
Brazil is now home to 8400 refugees, according to data provided by the National Committee for Refugees, or CONARE, an agency affiliated with Brazil’s Ministry of Justice. Even though this number is only 1 percent of the number of refugees that Germany expects to receive this year, the number living in Brazil has almost doubled since 2010.
The number of asylum seekers coming to Brazil has dramatically increased since late 2013. In that year, 284 Syrians requested Brazilian visas. In 2014 the number of visa requests jumped to 1183 — all of which have been granted.
“Additionally, the integration between refugees and society would be much easier here than in countries such as Germany and France, which have a history of xenophobia. As a country of immigrants, Brazil is willing and destined to welcome these refugees, which makes the integration easier and simpler than in Europe,” says Rita do Val, a consultant on programs for refugees and a professor of international relations.
[These stories come from the BBC, the Huffington Post, and the AFP news agency.]