Since 2013 Brazil has resettled more Syrian refugees than any other country in the region

Since 2013 Brazil has resettled more Syrian refugees than any other country in the regionimage

12 Mar 2015

Brazil did not loom large in the life of Humam Debas before the war in Syria. As a business manager from the city of Hama with a comfortable income, he had thought about taking his wife to Rio de Janeiro for a holiday. But all he really knew about the distant country was that it had beautiful beaches and a great football team. He assumed everyone there spoke English because it was close to the US. Today, however, he is taking his first Portuguese class in São Paulo, where he and his family are trying to make a new start as refugees after being wrenched out of their homes by conflict and forced across the world by the reluctance of closer nations to take them in. The move from a suburban neighbourhood of fellow Muslims to a teeming Latin American megalopolis in the world’s biggest Catholic nation has inevitably been traumatic, but Debas is grateful to be taken in by anyone. “No other country would give Syrians a visa,” he recalls over a cup of Syrian coffee in the one-room apartment he shares with wife, two-year-old son and brother-in-law, in the Cambuci district of the city. “We could have tried to get to Europe illegally by boat, but that was too dangerous for my family. So Brazil was the only safe choice.” Since 2013 when Brazil opened its doors, 1,740 Syrian refugees have been registered in the country – far more than in the US. Most are clustered around São Paulo’s main mosques in the Brás and Cambuci districts. Debas (whose name has been changed because he is concerned about family members still in Syria) has been in the latter for four months. “Oh my God, it was a shock when we arrived,” he says, speaking almost flawless English. Language and money have been the biggest difficulties. He and his wife, Lara – graduates of prestigious universities in Damascus – came with about $4,500 (£3,000), most of which was eaten up by hotel bills in the first couple of months. Although the municipal government offered free shelters, Debas did not want his wife and child to share accommodation with street dwellers and crack addicts. Finding their own place was difficult because most landlords in Brazil require a guarantor with property. Brazil is home to 15 million people of Arabic descent, including 3 million of Syrian heritage, but Debas found few people willing to provide support to this latest wave of arrivals. “There are Lebanese who have been here for generations, but unfortunately most of them don’t offer help. There must be good people here, but we haven’t met them yet.” Debas makes a little money from teaching English for seven hours a week, but it is not enough to pay the R$750 (£160) rent, so they are desperate to find a more stable income. They are thinking of starting an import business or a restaurant, though the obvious source of start-up capital or loan collateral is gone: “We can’t sell our home in Syria because it has been bombed,” he says. Their lives were shattered on 1 August 2012 when their home in Hama was caught in crossfire between rebels and government troops. “The first attack started without warning at 2am. The windows were smashed and bullets came through the walls,” recalls Lara. “We tried to shelter by lying on the floor of the corridor. I was pregnant. It was the worst day of my life.” Many friends and neighbours were killed in the attack. The following afternoon, soldiers ordered everyone to evacuate. In the months and years that followed, they tried living elsewhere in Syria, but it was too dangerous, then moved to Jordan, which was unwelcoming, so last September, they decided to move to Brazil. At first, we thought we could go back to our home, that our refugee situation was temporary. ‘Just a couple of months,’ we said. But then it was four months, then a year. Now it looks impossible to go back to Syria. I’ve lost hope of that. The war will continue,” says Lara. “We are planning to make a new life here in Brazil,” her husband says. “I recommend it to my family and friends in Syria, Jordan and Egypt. Brazil is better than other countries. It is safe and you can build a new life here, even though it is expensive … No other country wants us, not even Jordan, where we used to go for day-trip picnics. War destroys everything. It destroys culture, buildings and people. If you haven’t experienced it, you cannot imagine.” Other refugees – almost all of whom are highly educated and skilled – tell of similar tough decisions. Until 2013, Hassan Salman, a 36-year-old computer programmer, had lived all his life in Yarmouk, the Palestinian district of Damascus. “It was wonderful,” he says, “until the Mig fighters attacked.” The government was punishing the community for offering refuge to rebels. Rockets destroyed a mosque and a school. “I was a kilometre away. The explosions made a terrible noise and killed many people, including children and old people,” says Salman. “Then the police came into Yarmouk and grabbed people off the streets. They killed many of my friends for helping the refugees. I had also helped them. That was enough for me to be killed. So I fled.” He took his family to Lebanon. They had to use a taxi because his car had been destroyed in a rocket attack. For more than a year, they lived in Baddawi refugee camp in Tripoli, but life was difficult. There was little work and when their visas expired they feared they would be sent back to Syria, so they started to look at other possible refuges. It was an soul-crushing and expensive experience. “I tried the German and French embassies. They took my money – $200 each for me, my wife, two sons and mother – and I had to pay $500 to get my documents translated, but they refused to take us. Lebanese agents promised they could get us into Europe. I paid them $3,000 but they just stole the money,” he recalls. Then Brazil announced it was opening its doors. Salman was hesitant at first. It was far away and he knew almost nothing about the country. But having already overstayed his visa by six months, it was the only way to avoid repatriation. “There was nothing else I could do. It was my last chance,” he recalls. “So I went to the Brazilian consulate. They were very kind. It was very different from the other embassies.” Leaving his family behind until he was settled, he arrived in São Paulo on 5 October 2014. “I thanked God I had left Lebanon,” he recalls. “But it felt very strange. I spent my first night sleeping on a mattress on a factory floor and asked myself ‘Why am I here?’” Consulate officials had explained that Brazil offered residency and travel documents, but no government support to find a home or work. Mosques and Caritas (a Catholic NGO) provide help with language lessons and documentation, but refugees are largely on their own. His funds are already running low. Although he can still do some work online, he also needs to sell clothes on the street to cover the $600 monthly rent that he and three friends share for a two-room apartment in Brás, an area with a high crime rate. Three friends were robbed after visiting him recently. For this reason, Salman is hoping he can move on to Germany, Sweden or another country. “Brazil is a wonderful country if you have a job. People treat us as Brazilians. Nobody asks about religion. But the problem is money. Life here is expensive,” he says. “Europe would be better.” Brazil has won kudos for assisting in the world’s worst refugee disaster. It has accepted far more Syrian refugees than any other country in Latin America, according to the UN high commissioner for refugees, and 6,300 more have been granted visas. But Oliver Stuenkel, professor of international relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo, says this humanitarian support needs to be put in context. In total, Brazil still has only about 8,000 refugees, compared with half a million in Germany and 200,000 in the US. “Despite its size, Brazil takes very few refugees,” he said. “This is not a country that receives many foreigners, mainly because the bureaucracy makes things difficult. Only 0.3% of the population were not born in Brazil and that proportion is declining. Compare that to Germany, England and France, where one in 10 people were born overseas.” Culturally open, but bureaucratically closed and very expensive, Brazil is not an easy county to assimilate into. One of those who appears to have managed is Dana al-Balkhi, who was among the first Syrian refugees to reach Brazil. Three years before she arrived in December 2013 the young English literature graduate had been looking forward to a bright career, but her home in Deraa –where many of the initial protests took place – quickly became a battleground. For two years, she heard rockets flying over the roof of the house. When family members started disappearing, her father sent Balkhi and her sister away for safety. They went to Lebanon, then Turkey and tried to go to Europe, but their efforts were futile. My sister thought it was too far away, so she went back to Syria. I thought it was an opportunity so I decided to come “I went to all the embassies, but no one would open the door for Syrians,” she recalls. While other refugees paid agents to smuggle them across the borders illegally, Balkhi knew enough about human trafficking to know the risks. “I wanted to go legally. For two girls on their own, it would not have been safe to go illegally.” That left Brazil as the only option, but it divided the siblings. “My sister thought it was too far away, so she went back to Syria. I thought it was an opportunity so I decided to come,” says Balkhi. “I was alone. I knew nobody in Brazil.” She researched the country online and made contacts through the Sunni mosque of Pari, who helped with accommodation and language lessons. Within a month, she had found a job at a clothes shop despite speaking no Portuguese. Today, she is fluent and works as an administrative assistant. Sipping on a cola at a restaurant on São Paulo’s swanky Avenida Paulista, Balkhi appears to have made a rapid and successful adjustment. In this extremely cosmopolitan city, nobody pays attention to her hijab, her religion or her refugee status. “I like the people here,” she says. “They are really nice, really welcoming. They love strangers.” But there are still difficulties posed by cultural differences, particularly the openness of Brazilians and their tendency to hug everyone. “They don’t know much about Islam. They just think it’s strange. They see I have a scarf so most people don’t try to hug me, but sometimes I have to explain why I don’t shake hands or people might be upset.” Today, her greatest lament is loneliness, but compared with what she and other have endured it is manageable. “War degraded our dreams. Before it, my hope was for a bright career. Then I wanted peace. Then just fewer problems. Now, just to survive.”