South America

'We're all brothers': Refugees starting a new life in Brazil

Brazil has welcomed scores of refugees Source: SBS

Brazil has seen refugee claims rise from less than 1000 per year to almost 30,000 in just five years. What is life like for those who are trying to restart their lives in Latin America’s largest nation? Rafael Garcia reports from Rio.

Jamal Salem and Roweida Bakker admit knowing little about Brazil before arriving in Latin America’s largest nation.

“All we knew was that things weren’t great in the country and we heard there were criminal gangs,” says Roweida, who resettled in Brazil 10 months ago.

“But when we came to Brazil we found something completely different, in fact the opposite. We found caring people and a peaceful country and nothing like we heard before. Thank God we are living in peace.”

The decision to start a new life in Brazil was easy compared to the other options available and the couple didn’t want to put their lives in the hands of people-smugglers.

“No-one opened their doors but Brazil… No country, whether Arabic or European, would open their doors so we would be able to enter. You either had to travel by ocean and drown or (travel) by land,” says Roweida.

The Palestinian couple lost their 22-year-old son Shahid and his two-month-old daughter in a rocket strike in Syria. Their Damascus home was destroyed and Jamal was left unable to work due to health complications.

“I fled via the Red Sea, sick, and my weight dropped by 30 kilos, so I could have died,” he say. He had five surgeries in Lebanon before making the journey to Brazil and is still recovering.


Jamal and Roweida are among thousands of refugees who were granted a special humanitarian visa available to displaced Syrians and Haitians. A signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, Brazil has seen a drastic increase in refugee claims in the recent years, from 966 claims received in 2010 to 28,670 in 2015.

Syrian nationals take the top spot in the number of refugees currently in the Olympic nation, with at least 2,300 of the more than 8,800 refugees in Brazil coming from the war-torn country. Other countries of origin ranking high on the list are Angola (1,420), Colombia (1,100), Congo (968) and Palestine (376).

While the world turns its eyes to Brazil for the Olympic Games, refugees starting a new life in the South American giant face challenges of their own. In a country spiralling deeper into recession and with a double-digit unemployment rate, currently at 11 per cent, finding a job without speaking fluent Portuguese is a big blocker to their integration.

With no dedicated government assistance and an overburdened welfare system, refugees rely on assistance from charity organisations and religious groups.

A mosque in São Paulo assists many families struggling to make ends meet in Brazil’s largest city. They provide access to accommodation, meals, language classes and other services.

Zaher Bakri and his family regularly attend prayers at the mosque, bonding with those who have been in the country longer. The 24-year-old arrived in Brazil four months ago and is working hard at learning the language. “Todo mundo é irmão,” he tells SBS in Portuguese (“we’re all brothers”).

“If it wasn’t for the mosque, we wouldn’t have a place to live,” says Yusra, Zaher’s sister.

The family of 11 share a single room apartment a few blocks from the mosque.

“Zaher isn’t working. When he gets a job we will move to separate houses,” she says, speaking fluent Portuguese after being in Brazil for a year-and-a-half.

“Life in Brazil is good, we can do everything, we can work and move freely to whatever city we choose. I know people who went to Jordan who are asked several questions if they try to go to a different city,” she says.


“Speaking Portuguese is key for me to get a job and for our integration into Brazilian society,” says Zaher, who has been in Brazil for four months.

A number of not-for-profit organisations in São Paulo have started offering Portuguese lessons for migrants, free of charge. Refugee welcome centre ADUS runs a range of programs to help migrants resettle in their adopted home.

They’ve recently completed the first term of Portuguese For Migrants classes, with students from Nigeria, Colombia, Congo, Kenya, Syria and other countries.

“They bring very different experiences to the classroom in terms of language skill but also the trauma they’ve experienced… it’s rewarding to see their progress,” says Luciano, a volunteer teacher at the centre.

One student from the Democratic Republic of Congo says that not speaking Portuguese is the main factor that stops him from getting a job. He lives in a shelter where he also receives food, but “without the language no door will open for you,” says Ally Bhutto. And it’s his knowledge of the French language that will secure his first job in Brazil, as the 40-year-old is due to begin teaching French at ADUS in the coming weeks.

He says Brazilian people are very welcoming but low wages and the country’s economic turmoil make life difficult. “People are warm, people respect one another and each other’s point of view… But from the economic perspective, wages are not very high, they’re comparable with wages in Africa.”

Yoder Vargas, also a student at ADUS, tells SBS he had to leave Colombia with his wife as their lives were in danger. But life in neighbouring Brazil has been not been easy. “We slept 14 nights on the streets and we had no money, so my wife and I only had one meal per day, the cheapest we could find.”

“We paid to stay in a room but it was difficult because we had to share one bathroom between 30 and 40 people,” says Yoder, who considered returning to Colombia after arriving in São Paulo in May. “Now we work with Colombian food and things are improving, so we’re looking at Brazil from a different point of view,” he says.


Sandra Antunes, a volunteer at ADUS since last year, says that the job market is very competitive for everyone in Brazil at the moment, “and refugees have the added difficulty of not speaking the language or knowing the culture.”

She says that the current economic landscape can lead to discrimination as some people feel that migrants will compete for the same jobs. “They don’t realise the contribution that refugees make and don’t remember that our country was made by migrants... which can only enrich a city and a country.”

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