Eyad Abuharb, a 26-year-old former head chef from Damascus, arrived in Brazil nearly two years ago and now runs his own kebab restaurant in Sao Paulo.
“If I had stayed [in Syria], I would have been forced to join the war or die. I just want a peaceful life,” he told IRIN.
He chose Brazil because of its open-door policy for Syrian refugees. Since 2013, around 8,000 Syrians have been issued with humanitarian visas by Brazilian consulates in neighbouring countries and over 2,000 asylum claims have been granted. Most have gone to Brazil’s largest city, Sao Paulo, which has a long history of migrants from Lebanon and, to a lesser extent, Syria settling there, and many Arabic restaurants and shops.
Abuharb flew to Sao Paulo on a humanitarian visa and 10 days later had the necessary documents to be able to starting working and accessing public services. He quickly found work in the kitchen of an Arabic restaurant in the Bras neighbourhood – ground zero for Syrian refugees arriving in the city – after making enquiries at the local mosque.
After saving some money, he bought his own shawarma kebab machine and rented space to sell his kebabs in a local bar. When the bar went under, Abuharb took over the lease and opened his own restaurant: “Ogarett”. Seven months later, and now with full refugee status, he is weeks away from opening a second restaurant.
“In Brazil, all you need to do is work. If you work, you can make it,” he said.
But Abuharb’s success story belies the tough reality for many other Syrians as they try to forge new lives for themselves in Brazil, a middle-income developing country without a coherent policy for integrating refugees.
“We have a very open policy. But then, once you are here, you are basically on your own,” said Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist and a professor of external relations at Rio de Janeiro State University. “We don’t have the structure to help in the same way that the US or Germany does. Most refugee assistance comes through private charities or religious organisations.”
Brazil may be on the verge of accepting a new wave of Syrian refugees. In March, it was reported in the Brazilian press that talks were under way with Germany and the European Union to negotiate a deal whereby Brazil would receive an unknown number of refugees in or on their way to Europe. European governments would then fund the cost of their integration in Brazil.
For Abuharb, the next priority is to bring over his parents and siblings who are still in Syria. “God willing,” he said.
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