Damascus restaurant sits on a quiet, leafy street in Pinheiros, an upper-class neighborhood in São Paulo, Brazil. On a recent sunny afternoon, 73-year-old Saeed Mourad greeted customers in halting Portuguese as they ate platefuls of kibe and falafel. He prepared cup after cup of cardamom-infused coffee as his sons, Mohamad and Khaldoun, took inventory and prepared to-go orders of baklava and other Middle Eastern sweets.
Mourad, who named his restaurant after his hometown in Syria, says he’s one of the lucky ones. A former orthopedic surgeon, he decided it was time to leave his homeland in 2013, two years after civil war broke out. His sons had already fled to Lebanon and Jordan to avoid compulsory military service, but, like the rest of the estimated two million Syrians in those two countries, they were not allowed to work. Mourad and his family applied for asylum in Europe and the United States. “At first I thought we’d go to England, where I [studied medicine], but they didn’t accept me,” Mourad said. With the exception of one son, Bahaa, a pharmacist, who was accepted into the United States, the Mourads’ petitions were declined.
In 2014, Khaldoun learned that Brazil was issuing humanitarian visas. He flew to São Paulo that April, and over the next year the rest of the family — Mourad, his wife Sawsan, Mohammad, daughters Dana and Noor, and their families — joined him.
People may apply for tourist visas overseas, and once in Brazil, claim asylum; nearly 2,500 Syrians have been granted refugee status, according to Conare, Brazil’s national refugee agency.
The vast majority of the 5 million people who have fled Syria have gone to neighboring countries like Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. Brazil’s humanitarian visa program is a drop in the bucket by comparison, but it has been a lifeline to families like Mourad’s.
In 2016, it appeared for a moment that Brazil might play a greater role in alleviating the global refugee crisis: former President Dilma Rousseff’s administration, in its waning days, began talks with the European Union and other international organizations about taking in as many as 100,000 people over the next five years, contingent outside financial assistance.
Those talks dissolved as Rousseff was impeached and replaced by her more conservative vice president, Michel Temer. The number of people granted refugee status in Brazil fell nearly 30 percent in 2016, according to Conare — although officials have said the fall was due to an increase in applicants who did not meet established criteria and not a change in policy. Fewer than 400 Syrians petitioned for refuge in 2016, down from more than 1,500 in 2014. Brazil’s weak economy has deterred some, and high unemployment and a limited social safety net have made the transition difficult for many new arrivals. Some — including Mourad’s daughters — have returned to Syria or have left for third countries.
Unlike the United States and many European countries, Brazil doesn’t offer resettlement packages, which means the Syrian refugee population here skews toward those who can afford the relocation costs.
Migrants who arrive with limited funds often rely on local religious and nongovernmental organizations for help finding housing, work, schools, and other social services.
“We brought our own money with us,” Mourad said. “I will never [have to] live in a camp or a tent. Not all refugees can do what I did, because they don’t have the money.” But even with his family’s relative economic comfort, Mourad’s daughters and their families opted to return to Damascus after struggling to find work and navigate São Paulo’s public school system. They live in the center of Damascus, which Mourad says is relatively calm nowadays, but he still worries about them.
Around 9,000 people have refugee status in Brazil. Syrians make up the largest group, followed by Angolan, Colombian, and Congolese refugees. Though the figure is modest (the United States admitted around 85,000 refugees in fiscal year 2016), it’s more than doubled since 2010. Meanwhile, the number of people petitioning for refugee status in Brazil has increased thirtyfold since then.
But recent economic and political shifts could slow that trend. When Brazil began issuing humanitarian visas in 2013, the country’s economy was growing by over 2 percent and unemployment was around 5 percent. In 2016, the economy contracted for the second year in a row and the joblessness rate grew to 12 percent.
The new government has focused its efforts on economic recovery. But many experts say Brazil’s economic woes are all the more reason the country should remain open to refugees.
“The Temer government hasn’t adopted any measures to stop refugees from going to Brazil, but they also haven’t been proactive in seeking a greater role on a global scale,” said Oliver Stuenkel, Associate Professor of International Relations at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo. In a 2016 op-ed, Stuenkel argued that Temer’s administration could improve Brazil’s reputation on the international stage and recover its ailing economy if it played a bigger role in resettling some of the world’s estimated 65 million displaced people. “Brazil is very inward looking and conservative with respect to business,” he said. “More people coming in could promote an entrepreneurial, risk-taking side that’s very limited in the Brazilian economy.”
New York University economist Rodrigo Zeidan agrees. “Brazil needs engineers, programmers, we have skill shortages in all sorts of areas,” he said, adding that many refugees from Syria have those skill sets. Though refugees and immigration are not big political issues in Brazil, as they are in much of Europe and the United States, economic anxieties are high. “Any kind of policy will need money from abroad to make it palatable — it can be sold as something that will create job for Brazilians and refugees alike,” he said.
For now, Brazil can offer relief to those fleeing conflict, but there’s less promise of economic opportunity.
Along with the general population, refugees are feeling the effects of Brazil’s economic downturn: only 371 refugees were hired in the formal sector in São Paulo in 2016, down from 2,700 in 2014, according to figures from Missão Paz (Peace Mission), a church-affiliated agency that provides social services and work placement to migrants in São Paulo.
Though some recent arrivals, like Mourad, have become entrepreneurs, lack of formal job opportunities means many refugees find work in the informal sector — often in construction and domestic work. This leaves many vulnerable to exploitation, according to Father Paulo Parise, who runs Missão Paz. As work opportunities dried up, he said, “Brazil became a jumping off point and not a final destination. That’s because of a lack of jobs and a lack of integration policies.” He cited several cases of refugees who left Brazil for more prosperous countries like Germany, Canada, and Chile.
Brazil was once a popular destination for immigrants from Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. In 1900, 7.3 percent of Brazil’s population was foreign born; today, as many as ten million Brazilians, including President Temer, trace their roots to the Middle East. Today a mere 0.3 percent of Brazil’s population is foreign born.
Both Stuenkel and Zeidan shrug off concerns that Brazil might see an anti-refugee backlash to the order of what Europe and the United States have experienced. “The number of refugees is so minor,” Stuenkel said. “If you brought in another 100,000 that would be a drop in the ocean considering [Brazil’s] population is 200 million.”
“We have a history of xenophilia, of welcoming foreigners,” said Zeidan.
Rights groups and academics have said U.S. President Donald Trump’s stance toward refugees could also represent an opportunity for Brazil to show moral leadership. “Trump’s policies reinforce the need for Brazil to regain relevance and international and regional involvement on this issue,” said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil’s Human Rights Watch director. Last year the organization called on Brazil’s new government to restart refugee resettlement talks with Europe.
Mourad, for his part, says he and his family have felt welcomed in Brazil. They joined a local mosque established by earlier waves of Muslim immigrants, and he says he hasn’t experienced discrimination. He’s alarmed by some of Trump’s rhetoric on refugees and Muslims, and worries changes in U.S. immigration policy may hamper efforts to see his son, Bahaa, who lives in Kentucky. Mourad had been applying for a tourist visa to the United States until November. “I think there’s no way I’ll get the visa now,” he said.
Mourad’s other sons, Mohamad and Khaldoun, are studying Portuguese, and Mohamad, a dentist, is working on getting a license to practice in Brazil. Though Mourad had never set out to become a restaurateur (he had been considering retiring from orthopedic surgery before leaving Syria), Damascus is doing well. He’s even built an extension on the restaurant’s second floor for additional seating.
But Syria is never far from his mind. He talks to his daughters back home everyday and follows news of the conflict intently. “If the war stopped today I would be on the first flight back to Damascus,” he said.
Main photo: Rio de Janeiro Holds Candlelight Vigil For Syrian Refugees. Photograph by Mario Tama/Getty Images
Danielle Renwick is a Brazil/US-based freelance jornalist