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For Syrians seeking sanctuary, a door opens in Brazil

Brazil is accepting an increasing number of refugees from Syria's civil war and other trouble spots around the world. Syrians who make the trip to Brazil can apply on arrival for refugee status and virtually all succeed.    

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    Jehad Alhafi fled the Syrian civil war six months ago and came to São Paulo, Brazil, to start a new life. His family joined him two months later. Here, with his wife and four children, he enjoys a Sunday afternoon in São Paulo's downtown Ibirapuera park.
    Taylor Barnes
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On a hot December morning, crowds of Brazilians elbow their way through the downtown Brás street market, scouring for deals. They include shoppers from out of state, some who sling trash bags over their shoulders to carry their Christmas goods. 

In a small booth just off the buzzing main market, Jehad Alhafi serves up tropical fruit juices and esfiha, an Arab meat pastry, to streams of eager shoppers. If he weren’t in Brazil, Mr. Alhafi, a Syrian, says he would still be living in a refugee camp. “No chance to work. I don’t want to go to another country [where I can only] eat and sleep in a camp,” Alhafi says.

Instead, six months after moving to Brazil he has already started a small business, enrolled three of his children in school, and has plans to send his oldest to law school next year. Their two-room apartment is not as grand as their prewar lives in Syria, where Alhafi owned his own water treatment company and had two houses, but it's a fresh start.

Alhafi and his family are part of a rapidly growing Syrian community in Brazil, part of a surge of refugees from a civil war now in its fourth year. International aid organizations are urging more countries to take in Syrians. The vast majority of the estimated 3.6 million who have fled are living in five countries near Syria; Lebanon and Turkey each host more than a million refugees.

But further afield, Brazil stands out for welcoming more than 1,500 Syrian refugees since 2011, with the majority arriving this year. That compares to roughly 300 in the United States (though the US has pledged to take larger numbers over the next two years) and 2,000 in Britain, France, Italy, Spain, and Poland combined.

Perhaps what’s most remarkable about Brazil’s policy is its acceptance rate for Syrian refugees: 100 percent. It comes at a time when Brazil is increasingly taking on a role in international humanitarian affairs, reflecting both its stabilizing democracy and the size of its economy. Brazil has seen a 14-fold increase in the number of annual refugee applications in just four years, from 566 to over 8,300 so far in 2014. The government is increasingly mindful of its obligation to provide sanctuary for refugees - ranging from Pakistan to the Democratic Republic of Congo to Syria – says Virginius Lianza, the general coordinator for Brazil’s national commission on refugees. 

“Many Brazilians were aided and taken in by diverse countries all over the world [during the 1965-85 military dictatorship here], so now, as the country becomes a democracy again, the government sees that it is time for Brazil to return this gesture of solidarity,” Mr. Lianza says.

'No other place to go'

Here in São Paulo, Syrians gather in the Pari mosque to talk about the hazards they faced in leaving their homeland, from attempting an illegal passage by boat to Europe to staying in refugee camps in the Middle East.

Getting into Brazil is relatively easy – though migrants have to pay for an airfare that can run to $1,000. A September 2013 decree streamlined the process for Syrians so that migrants arriving on tourists visas could immediately request refugee status. Each request has been approved, says Lianza, adding that the only reason a Syrian would be denied is if authorities found evidence of a criminal background.

Brazil has a broader definition than many countries when deciding who is a refugee. Unlike the US, where refugee status is granted to someone who can prove they’re at threat of prosecution based on religion, political opinion, race, nationality, or membership of a social group, Brazil considers someone a refugee if they come from any country in a situation of  “generalized and grave” abuses of human rights.

Even though many refugees say they welcome Brazil's open-door policy, not all succeed like Alhafi, the juice-stand owner. Many Syrian newcomers have difficulty finding work and housing without Portuguese language skills, or with university degrees that Brazil doesn’t recognize.

“I only came here because there is no other place to go. No other countries open the door to Syrians, only Brazil,” says Nour Alshekh Koeder. Mr. Koeder graduated with a degree in fashion design in 2012 from French university ESMOD, which has a campus in Damascus.

Koeder never worked in his field, leaving for a refugee camp in Lebanon soon after graduation. Koeder says he fled Syria in order to avoid mandatory military service for the Bashar al-Assad government. His Portuguese has become quite good in his first year in Brazil, but he lacks a professional network.

At a gathering in the São Paulo mosque, which serves as an ad-hoc reception center for newcomers, there’s a Syrian biomedical engineer, a judge, and an oil-industry technical instructor. Despite their long list of professional successes and degrees, many here would be grateful for a job stocking shelves during the Christmas holidays.

But refugees do qualify for state support. In fact, they are granted the same rights as Brazilian citizens, including access to public health services and subsidized housing. The São Paulo city government recently opened a shelter with space for about 120 people, and held a special event on how to enroll in public services like the Bolsa Família monthly welfare stipend.

Making a name in humanitarian affairs

Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist and human rights advisor to Amnesty International, says Brazil’s increasing receptiveness to foreign refugees is not based on any foreign policy strategy but on its growing engagement with human rights issues.

Brazil leads led the United Nations peacekeeping force in Haiti. After the 2010 earthquake, in which many Haitian migrants found their way to Brazil, the country gave permanent residency to more than 20,000 people. Brazil recently became the first Latin American country admitted as a full member to the United Nations Relief Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East and has donated several million in food aid and financial support for the agency in recent years. 

Mr. Santoro says that when Brazilians sought refuge abroad during the 1964-85 military dictatorship here, they would often be surprised when they were classified as refugees, seeing themselves instead as political exiles. “I think what is happening now is that the Brazilian tradition is being updated to the international standard about refugees,” he says.

And Santoro says is only be the beginning of Brazil becoming a destination country for refugees.  

“These numbers are very small for a country like Brazil, with over 200 million inhabitants. We could do a lot more,” he says.

Building a life

On a rare day off from his juice stand, Alhafi takes his family of six to the Ibirapuera Park in São Paulo and rents bicycles for the kids. They barely left the house during their last two years in Syria, he says.

His wife, an observant Muslim who wears a hijab headscarf, says she’s doesn’t feel prejudice in Brazil, despite being a religious minority in this largely Catholic and evangelical Christian country.

Brazil will now be the family’s home, Mr. Alhafi says. He is already middle aged and the idea of starting a new business in Syria once the civil war ends doesn’t seem realistic, he says.

“My babies will start here,” he says, adding that Brazil is “more democratic” than Syria. “I am sure [my kids] will not go back.”

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