São Paulo is a new ‘El Dorado’ for Syrian Refugees. The harbor of Santos in the province of São Paulo, is a pole that attracted during a century migrants from the West to work in the coffee plantations. What a lot of people don’t know is that there always have been a lot of Syrian Refugees ,whom we call Syrio-Lebanese, because Syria and Lebanon was for a long time one country.
In the beginning the Syrio-Lebanese Refugees came to flee the turmoil and decay of the Ottoman Empire. Now they flee the Syrian conflict, because it is cheaper and less dangerous to go to Brazil then to Europe.
A bit of history
The first Syrio-Lebanese came to do business as country dwellers, it was temporarily, but the profit was good, that they were able to build shops and later industrial complexes. They organized them in cultural clubs to maintain the language and community life. The Jafet family was the patron of the community, but in the second quarter of the 20th century the community fell apart.
Since the Syrio-Lebanese were so successful that their children immediately could rise in society and become doctors and lawyers. This opened the way to positions in politics, where they were dispersed into different ideologies. At the moment the parliament consists of 10% of Syrio-Lebanese politicians.
In Brazil there have always been Muslims, the ‘Moriscos’ who came with the discovery of the new world from Portugal, after that African Muslims during the slave trade and a lot of Sufi's from the Ottoman Empire in decay. Now 95% of the 13 million Arab decedents in Brazil are Christian Orthodox. This is why at the moment a big proportion of the old Syrian diaspora support Bashar Al-Assad.
Syrian Refugees in Brazil
Since ‘82 during the uprising in Hama in Syria and the Lebanese Civil War (‘75-’90) there are arriving again Syrian and Lebanese refugees to Brazil. At the moment there are 5000 registered Syrian Refugees in Brazil according to Daniel Bertolucci from Caritas São Paulo.
The Syrian refugees come from the neighboring countries of Syria with a tourist visa or a humanitarian visa. The humanitarian visa takes a long time, so lately most of the refugees go with the tourist visa.
Once the refugees arrive they get a protocol in São Paulo Airport to get aid. There is a new migration law that would give refugees the same rights as Brazilians, the new law passed the Parliament and the Senate, now it can only be set back by a presidential veto.
Once arrived there are various ways to learn the language and for housing, but the refugees need to be well prepared. The problem is that a lot of African refugees for example end up in the street and the Syrian refugees most of the time have some money in their bank account so they are better off. Taking refuge in Brazil is very difficult, but it’s becoming easier.
The federal office for the refugees (CONARE) works chaotically and doesn’t have enough employees to determine in an honest way if the refugees can claim Brazilian refugee status.
At the moment several countries in Latin America are resettling Syrian refugees. Argentina accepted 3000 and even the civil society in Colombia, a country which follows the US-policies, demanded the acceptance of Syrian Refugees.
A current issue amongst the old Syrio-Lebanese diaspora is fear of sectarian clashes in Brazil as a result of accepting new refugees. On several occasions violence erupted between refugee activists and the anti-immigration Assad supporting Syrio-Lebanese community.
It looks like Brazil has all the conditions to accept a fair amount of Syrian Refugees, although their situation will be very difficult, more and more Syrian Refugees are trying to start a new life in Brazil.