From Aleppo to Sao Paulo

The difficult life of Syrians seeking refuge in Brazil

Photo by: Heges Regis
Photo by: Heges Regis

"Mesquita Brazil" was built in 1929 and is Brazil’s largest mosque.

Updated Feb 7, 2016

When Razan Suleiman travelled to Sao Paulo she was already pregnant with Adam.

Razan and her husband, Mohammed, left Aleppo in Syria when the war got too close. But Brazil was not exactly part of the plan.

"No other country would give us a visa. So we came here," she says.

TRT World Anelise Borges meets Syrian refugees at the "Mesquita Brazil," the country’s largest mosque. [TRTWorld]

The initial culture shock was slowly replaced by gratitude. Ratan says Brazilians have helped a lot and that she is happy to rebuild her life here, but only until the war in Syria is over: "the minute the conflict ends I’ll go back to Syria."

Brazil has received more Syrian refugees than any other country in Latin America. 

The country has developed a special visa program for people affected by the Syrian conflict and, according to the government, 8,000 people have benefited from it in the past three years. 

But critics say much more needs to be done to help refugees rebuild a life in Brazil.

At the "Mesquita Brazil," the country’s largest mosque where we met Razan and Mohammed, the congregation is trying to fill a gap left by the government.

Nasser Fares, from the "Society for the Benefit of Muslims," says refugees arrive in a state of despair:

"They are an emotional wreck when they get here. And get absolutely no help from Brazilian authorities. We can’t do that to people - We can’t just tell them to come, that our doors are open, and then do nothing for them."

Fares, whose parents fled Lebanon a few decades ago, says Brazil is "a country built by migrants, yet it hasn't learned anything when it comes to hosting them." 

Refugees who can’t find a good place to live have been squatting in abandoned buildings in Sao Paulo [TRTWorld]

In Sao Paulo’s "Liberdade" district (named after the Portuguese word for "freedom") a 10-story office tower has been transformed into makeshift refugee facility.

Syrian and Palestinian refugees live in the occupied building with low-income Brazilian families and a few revolutionary idealists.

Bathrooms and improvised kitchens are shared.

Refugees are occupying former office spaces [TRTWorld]

Ciumara is a Brazilian freelance beautician. She says she can’t afford to pay rent and believes people deserve dignified housing.

She’s been helping coordinate the "Leila Khaled" occupation movement for the past few months.

Here they organise Portuguese lessons and put refugees in touch with potential employers.

Stefano Maccarini filming at the entrance of the building [TRTWorld]

In the few hours we were at the building many Syrian families wandered in and out of offices-turned-bedrooms.

Most didn't agree to speak to us on camera - citing fears for their safety.

But they also said they felt too exposed already.

The increased interest by Brazilian media in their story - combined with the poor treatment by certain outlets - has painted an unpleasant picture of these refugees.

Many told us they felt misunderstood and even discriminated against.

The government has just extended its open door policy for two more years and so Brazilians might get an opportunity to get to know Syrians better. And perhaps do a better job helping them.

Author: Anelise Borges