Migrant crisis: Middle East refugees who chose Brazil over Europe

09/16/2015 - 05:26 AM

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When Ibrahim landed in Brazil he spent three days sleeping on the floor and wandering around aimlessly at Sao Paulo's Guarulhos airport. "I could not speak the language and I did not know where I could find help. I was alone," says Ibrahim, who asks me not to use his family name because of fears for the safety of his relatives still in Syria. But the 20 year old has no regrets and is glad that rather than facing a perilous journey by sea, as many Syrian refugees are forced to undertake, he chose the safer option of flying to Brazil. It was also probably a lot cheaper. "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 $ 3,000 or $ 4,000 (£ 1,955- £ 2,607 ) to get smuggled across the sea and risk drowning, when for half of that price I can fly to Brazil? " 'Obliged to act' 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 he is still alive and was able to escape to Brazil to be with his brother. Showing me at least 20 shrapnel scars and bullet wounds on his arms and legs, Mohammad does not care much for who is on which "side" in the war - just that it is tearing the country apart. That's not to say that life for Ibrahim, Mohammad - and more than 7,000 other Syrian refugees now in Brazil - is easy when they get here - far from it. Brazil has a long tradition of accepting refugees and economic migrants from the Middle East, Africa and other countries. Those seeking asylum can request it on arrival in the country and, as Brazil's economy grew over the last decade, work permits were readily available for those wanting a job.

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 Syrians and Lebanese immigrants, so we are obliged to act in this way," wrote the president. 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". brahim and Mohammed now run a popular and busy little stall in Rio de Janeiro, selling home-made humus, kibbe and other Middle Eastern pastries. The money they earn helps to look after their elderly parents and their two younger siblings. The boys agree with Ms Rousseff's assertion that Brazilians have been overwhelmingly kind and receptive to the new incomers but, they say, there's almost a vacuum of official assistance once they enter Brazil. The Hafir family, too, have few home comforts but they try to make visitors feel welcome. Amina, 23, makes coffee on a small stove as I take my shoes off and enter the small, single room they now live in together.

Jamal Hafir has been a refugee for his entire life, as a Palestinian whose parents fled to Syria in 1948. Forced out of his Damascus home two years ago, as the neighbourhood was destroyed by the civil war, Jamal has now brought his own family half way around the world to Brazil. "There's more help for refugees in Europe," Jamal tells me. "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 family of their home and the children of their education. While the two boys are out looking for work, the family's four girls, who have not been to school for three years, sit in the corner of the room on mattresses that double up as sofas and study some basic Portuguese. They've escaped the war but life in Brazil is still tough. A local pro-Palestinian charity, not the Brazilian government, is housing the Hafir family at an abandoned office block in Sao Paulo. The charity pays for electricity and water, but this is still essentially a squat, and like most informal housing, the family do not know how long they'll be able to remain. But it's not just the Brazilian federal government and individual states who are being urged to do more. Established communities should also, arguably, play their part. In the last century thousands of Syrians were among the many immigrants who helped to build modern Brazil and other South American countries like Argentina. Their descendants have been criticised in some sections of the media for not organising and coming forward with practical help for those now fleeing the Middle East. Back in the Sao Paulo squat, Abdul Salam Sayed plays a lament for his distant, broken homeland on his oud. Another refugee, forced to leave his Damascus home, Abdul Salam is grateful for the shelter Brazil has afforded him.But surviving and perhaps even settling here will be a huge challenge for people who have already gone through so much.



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