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Old loves, new language: The 66 Syrian refugees being resettled in Chile

Muhammad y Halima (with their daughter). Santiago, Chile, January 2018. Source: Francesca Rizzoli

While millions of displaced Syrians have been resettled across Europe, a handful of families are being granted a unique opportunity in South America – so long as they can get to grips with speaking Spanish. SBS News meets some of them.

On 13 October last year, Chile became the latest country to offer a helping hand to some of the 5.4 million people who have fled Syria since 2011. Turkey currently houses over half of all those displaced, while more than one million have sought safety elsewhere in Europe. An extra 12,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq were granted places in Australia in 2017.

"Chile has decided to modestly contribute a grain of sand" coordinator of the country’s initiative Alfredo del Rio told SBS News. That grain of sand – a resettlement program run by the Chilean government, UNHCR and local church organisation Vicaría de Pastoral Social Caritas – has since given 66 people a fresh start.

"While the number of refugees may seem minor," a statement from Chile’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Immigration read, "the action seeks to ensure a quality program, privileging it over quantity".

We want all men and women to learn Spanish. It is mandatory.

The program follows a commitment to help Syrian refugees made by Chilean president Michelle Bachelet (a progressive politician and the country’s first female leader) at the UN General Assembly. One specific requirement of Chile’s intake though is for refugees to learn the local language on a three-month intensive course when they first arrive.

"We want all men and women to learn Spanish. It is mandatory," Mr del Rio said. "From previous experiences of resettlement in Chile, we learned that one of the keys is an initial injection of language. Something that countries like Australia, Canada, and the USA do not normally do."

A UNCHR evaluation found a Palestinian resettlement program carried out in Chile in 2008 was a success. 

How well each student does will affect the training courses they are placed on and their future job prospects. But some are finding it easier than others.

Francesca Rizzoli met with some of those on the program in January. Here, they tell their stories, translated from Arabic:

Muhammad and Halima

'Muhammad y Halima'
'Muhammad y Halima' (with their daughter). Santiago, Chile, January 2018.
Francesca Rizzoli

“The first time I saw Halima, I fell in love. She was about 17 years old and I told her family that I liked her and that I wanted to marry her,” Muhammad, 23, says.

The couple are both from the Syrian city of Aleppo, but fled to Lebanon in 2012, where almost a million Syrian refugees now live. They spent five years in the settlement of Zahle, before moving to Chile's capital with their two young daughters, Doha and Hen.

"I tried to imagine Santiago but I did not think it was that big!" Muhammad says. Most of the refugees did not know much about Chile before their interviews with representatives from the local government and UNCHR.

Here, people love and help us.

Mohammad says he is having a more positive experience than some of his Syrian friends and family.

"An uncle moved to Canada, a friend to Germany and another to Holland but they do not have as much freedom as we do here," he says. "In Europe, they do not feel comfortable because people there do not want outsiders. But in Chile we don’t have that problem: here, people love and help us."

Muhammad hopes to stay in the country: "When they gave me the identity card a few days after my arrival, it was as if the country had told me ‘you are welcome here’."

But when it comes to learning Spanish, Mohammed thinks he’d be better learning outside of the classroom: "What they are teaching us now in school is grammar. But I feel that it will be outside where I will learn more: talking with people, with neighbours ... we need to learn the Spanish that people speak in the street."

Ammar and Barhar

'Ammar y Barhar'
‘Ammar y Barhar’ - Villa Alemana, Chile, January 2018.
Francesca Rizzoli

Ammar is a furniture maker. "Our life before the war in Syria was beautiful. We had a big business and a workshop ... I even had a motorbike," he says.

He and Barhar come from a village not far from Idlib in northwestern Syria. After experiencing problems in Lebanon they came to Chile with their two young children.

"We left Syria for the safety of our children and we arrived in Lebanon in 2012. It was the only open border that we had at that time," Ammar says. "Our life in Lebanon changed. We didn’t have a bad relationship with Lebanese people, but the integration into the country was a chaos. It was impossible to obtain documents for us."

Barhar had reservations about moving: "I had heard that there were earthquakes and tsunamis in Chile," she says. "It was not easy. At first, I did not want to come. I was afraid, but I did it for my children … Now I am happy".

I had heard that there were earthquakes and tsunamis in Chile.

Their Spanish lessons started only a few days after they arrived - too soon according to Bahar: "I think they should have waited a little longer for us to adapt," she says.

But Ammar is trying his best: "The language does not enter my head but I want to learn it!" he says laughing. "Poor teacher, he does everything to help me to understand but I do not understand!"

Ayman and Midia

‘Ayman y Midia’
‘Ayman y Midia’ - Villa Alemana, Chile, January 2018.
Francesca Rizzoli
Kurdish couple Ayman and Midia didn’t wish to be photographed, but the picture above was taken at their house and shows exercise material provided on the Spanish course.  

The couple are from Afrin, a city near Aleppo, and came to Chile with their two children. Ayman previously worked as a carpenter. 

"Before the war, we were happy in Syria. Our life was very nice, there was security, we were all happy," Ayman says. 

They also had issues while living in Lebanon: "We went to Lebanon in October 2014 and our life was good, I worked there too, but the problem was the people".

They claimed they clashed with locals, including the owners of the business they worked for.

For two years, the Syrian families in Chile will have economic support and access to public health, education, cultural insertion and micro-entrepreneurship. The resettlement program includes also a housing allowance.

Farhad and Seinab

‘Farhad y Seinab’
‘Farhad y Seinab’ - Santiago, Chile, January 2018.
Francesca Rizzoli
Farhad and Seinab are expecting their third child. Originally from Al-Qamishli, a city in north-eastern Syria on the border with Turkey, they came to Chile with their two young children Walid and Hannan, and fellow refugee Mohammed, Farhad’s brother.

Like the others, Farhad and Seinablived in Lebanon for several years, where they met and married - but claim life there was difficult: "We could not go out on the street. Lebanese people didn’t want us".

I speak three languages ... but I do not write them.

Farhad says Seinab is picking up Spanish quicker than him: "For my wife is easier to learn than to me. I can’t read or write. I speak three languages: Kurdish, Arabic and Turkish, but I do not write them."

Program coordinator Mr del Rio says it is only a matter of time and learning Spanish will be worth it. Speaking like a local "improves the job placement and above all the quality of people’s life," he said.  

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