Latin America cracks open its doors as Syrian refugee crisis mounts

Syrian Issa Hassan is one of the first to land in Mexico today as citizen pressure to do more mounts. Many countries in the region have had their own experiences with authoritarian rule and brutality.

Andres Stapff/Reuters
Syrian refugees play soccer in the fields of the 'Casa San Jose' (San Jose house) of the Maristas religious congregation in the outskirts of Montevideo, Uruguay, in 2014.

Growing up in western Syria, Issa Hassan’s knowledge of Latin America didn’t reach much further than a favorite telenovela – dubbed into Syrian-accented Arabic.

But Latin America has come to mean much more to him than plots involving gypsy caravans and babies switched at birth.

Mr. Hassan is landing in Mexico today, where he’ll live with a local family, learn Spanish, and pick up his graduate studies – all while setting an example as one of the first Syrian refugees to settle here.

​“It’s really hard to be out [of Syria] and know very well what is going on there,” Hassan says by telephone from Ecuador, where he was awaiting his student visa earlier this week, facilitated by the Mexican NGO Habesha Project.

“I want to come out of this situation with tools,” so that not everything is “lost to the war,” says Hassan, who would like to study social work or psychology in Mexico and return to Syria once the war is over.

The 26-year-old fled Syria in 2012 to avoid military service in the midst of a mounting civil war, and is among the more than 4 million refugees displaced so far. But unlike most of them, he is headed to Latin America, where several countries are stepping forward in the increasingly global crisis – building on the example of nations like Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay that have welcomed small numbers of Syrians in recent years.

The outreach in many ways has its foundation in the region’s past, with its bitter experiences with civil wars or authoritarian governments that tortured and killed opponents, pushing many to flee in the second half of the 20th century. But it also reflects more modern aspirations to play a larger role on the global stage – and possibly some interest by center-leftist leaders in thumbing their noses at the US and its role in Middle Eastern conflicts.

​“Latin America, even with its modest commitment, stands out” for its calls to help, says Riordan Roett, director of the Latin American studies program at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. “It’s a symbolic, humanitarian gesture … that shows an opening of the minds of Latin American political leaders that feel they have to step up and do what they can.”

Kick-starting the process

Brazil has one of the most welcoming policies for Syrians, giving refugee status to roughly 2,100 Syrians since the war began. Nearby Uruguay and Argentina have also opened the door – slightly – welcoming five and 300 families, respectively. Chile this month announced it would welcome 100 families.

And while Mexico is still deliberating – the Senate last week called for the federal government to open its borders to Syrian refugees, though no action has been taken – some see Mr. Hassan’s arrival Wednesday as an important step in kick-starting this process on a larger scale, says Adrian Meléndez, coordinator of the Habesha Project, the NGO that helped Hassan and aims to bring some 30 Syrian students to Mexico this year.

“The moment he arrives in Mexico, he will be opening a door for all the others,” Mr. Meléndez says.

A number of constituencies have been contributing to a greater sense of momentum on the issue.

Current and former ambassadors to Europe and the Middle East have been pressuring the government to lend a hand for a couple of years, according to Meléndez. Last month, for example, former Amb. Luis Ortiz Monasterio gave a speech at the Museum of Memory and Tolerance in Mexico City, urging the nation to confront “the largest crisis of the century.” He pointed to Mexico’s history as a nation that welcomed immigrants – from Central Americans in the early 19th  century to refugees from the Spanish Civil War and even some gringos during the 1954 McCarthy hearings.

Voices from outside the government have played a role as well. “What’s interesting in the case of Mexico is how civil society has been more involved in leading the efforts when it comes to preparing the conditions for Syrian refugees in Mexico," says Mexico's ambassador to England, Diego Gómez-Pickering, who spent five years in Syria before the war.

For Hassan, it’s this sense of solidarity he’s felt – including from the more than 160,000 citizens who recently signed a petition asking the government to take in thousands of Syrian refugees – that’s on his mind in the lead-up to his arrival in Mexico.

“What’s happening in Mexico is the same as Germany or Austria, where it’s society that’s trying to do something for refugees, driving politicians,” he says.

Meléndez met most of the students his organization is working to bring to Mexico in refugee camps. “You realize these people, and all their knowledge and potential, are being wasted in the camps,” he says. “Mexico can do something. We can be a part of the solution.”

But not everyone agrees.

“I know what’s going on in Syria is terrible, but we have people who need help a lot closer to home,” says Isa Nuño, an engineer from Guadalajara, sipping coffee in Mexico City. “We have Central Americans right next door and people in our own country that want to escape violence. Shouldn’t we help here before the other side of the world?”

Challenging road ahead

Many acknowledge that the transition may not be easy, especially given the language barrier. But most Syrian refugees have high levels of education that could allow them to eventually fill some of the gaps in skilled labor employment here. Latin America's long history of immigration could also make it easier for Syrians to adjust to life in its cities, says Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. And the region has a large representation of Middle Eastern nationalities, with at least 7 million people of Lebanese descent in Brazil and more than half a million citizens of Palestinian descent living in Chile and Central America.

Indeed, recent statements by refugees in Uruguay underscore the challenges that lie ahead.

“I lived through war, and [now] looking ahead, I have nothing,” Ibrahim Al Mohammed, a father of three from Aleppo, told Uruguayan newspaper El Observador. He had a home and clothing store in Syria, and now struggles to make ends meet working 7 hours a day in a hospital, he says. Many of the Syrians in Uruguay say they’d prefer to leave the country.

But Meléndez isn’t fazed. "If we can help even one person, we will be setting an example that the government could see and say, ‘let’s do more. We can definitely do more.’ ”

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