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In Brazil, Syrian Refugees Retrace Migration Trails


Since Syria's civil war began, Brazil has quietly accepted more refugees from there than any other country in Latin America. Catherine Osborn reports some of these refugees have been building new lives in Rio by connecting with Syrian history there.

CATHERINE OSBORN, BYLINE: In Rio's Botafogo neighborhood, a family of Syrian refugees sets up a pastry stand every day in front of a big Catholic church. They drape a Syrian flag across the front, and they sell triangle-shaped esfihas. It's dough folded around meat, something Brazilians have been eating for decades.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

OSBORN: These esfihas are selling like crazy. Earlier this month, a Catholic charity in Rio posted a picture of the family's stand on Facebook. Social media-happy Brazilians shared the picture 19,000 times. One of the pastry sellers, 25-year-old Armin Nachawaty, used to be an event planner in Damascus. In 2013, rising violence made working impossible and he fled to Lebanon. For 10 months, he visited embassies in Beirut looking for asylum.

ARMIN NACHAWATY: I was rejected, rejected and finally I was, like, giving up. I heard a rumor from a friend that Brazil is open. How it was open and what the process and what the deal exactly, I didn't know anything of that.

OSBORN: In 2013, Brazil eased up on the requirements for Syrians applying for refugee status. There are now just over 2,000 registered here, and that's far more than any other country in Latin America. In total, the Brazilian government has issued over 7,000 visas for Syrians. But Brazil promises no help beyond a permit to live, work and take advantage of the Brazilian public health care program. After Armin and his family spent two years and thousands of dollars to finally get here, setting up a new life has been slow and difficult.

NACHAWATY: The most important thing is to have housing and some kind of support to start from the government.

OSBORN: Without this, it's falling to volunteers to piece together support. And many refugees are looking for help from Syrians who have been in Rio for generations. In the early part of the 20th century, over 100,000 people fled from poverty and violence in Syria, Lebanon and nearby countries to come to Brazil. Today, their children and grandchildren run businesses and even make up 10 percent of Brazil's Congress.

Now some in this long-standing community are helping the new arrivals. The Syrian Orthodox Church is housing two refugee families. The priest helped them find work in a marketplace in central Rio that was founded by Syrian and Lebanese immigrants. Their Arabic is still spoken in the back rooms of some shops, and soon a Middle Eastern fast food place will open, providing jobs for some refugees.

In other stores in the marketplace, such as the 103-year-old Syrian cigar shop, no one speaks Arabic anymore. But owner Jose Mauro Cunha says he thinks new Syrian refugees can succeed in Brazil if they work hard and save. He says today's Syrian immigrants have it much harder than at the beginning of the last century.

JOSE MAURO CUNHA: (Foreign language spoken).

OSBORN: "Then," Cunha says, "Brazil was just beginning to industrialize." Today, the country is more advanced and workers need to be more specialized. Mauricio Santoro, an international relations professor at the State University of Rio, says it's because Brazil is now industrialized that it has the resources to take in these refugees and many more, even in a recession, he says, as long as things are organized.

MAURICIO SANTORO: Brazil is much more like a middle-class society now. And although we have serious social problems, we also have the tools to address them.

OSBORN: Santoro says that by taking in refugees, Brazil is showing regional leadership and Syrians are not the only ones benefiting from Brazil's policies. The country now houses 6,000 refugees from other conflict zones. But Santoro says the Syrians get better treatment.

SANTORO: For Brazilian standards, Syrian refugees are white. So when you talk about refugees from Haiti, Angola or Congo, they suffer racial prejudice in Brazil, including very violent reactions, such as attacks on the streets.

OSBORN: Santoro hopes that solidarity with the Syrians can be a model for solidarity with all of Brazil's refugees. For NPR News, I'm Catherine Osborn in Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.