Adapting to the remarkably different culture and customs — from an almost landlocked ancient Arab-dominated kingdom to the world’s largest Catholic nation, with more than 3,000 miles of beaches and a hedonistic streak — has been a challenge. But there have been surprises too.
“Many people have been very kind to us here,” Zinat said. “They love children. Babies are so much more welcome than in Syria. Here they love the baby. They will always stop and talk to her on the bus or train.”
Used to Arabic cuisine, the family said they have developed a taste for Brazilian barbecued meat. But the habit of São Paulo natives of kissing as a greeting still comes as a surprise.
“We have high hopes for Brazil,” Basrel said. “But we miss everything about how Syria was before the war. How it would be completely safe late at night on the streets. Syrians earn little, but Syria was so cheap. Here it is expensive, and we don’t know how much we will earn.”
With more relatives planning to join them in Brazil, the family is searching for a two-bedroom apartment to house seven people — a far cry from their three-story home that housed their entire extended family in Syria.
Like hundreds of Syrian refugees before them, they were helped greatly on their arrival by Amer Mohamad Masarani, a Syrian expat for 18 years and businessman who is at the center of the Syrian community in São Paulo.
“I came to sightsee [18 years ago],” said Masarani, 42. “But I drank the water of Brazil and ended up never returning to Syria. Brazil is a good land. Many people who come here end up staying.
He said that shortly after the revolution began, friends began calling about the possibility of seeking refuge in Brazil. Initially it was mainly Syrians who had already lived in the country. So in August 2011 he created a Facebook page. “Now anyone in Syria who wants to come to Brazil contacts me,” he said.
Since the start of the war in March 2011, the Syrian population in São Paulo alone has grown from 300 to 1,400.
Masarani, who has 70 mobile phone SIM cards, said he gives one to each new arrival and tells them to call him if they find themselves in trouble. “I don’t want to lose any of them,” he said. “They do not speak Portuguese, and I do not want them disappearing and ending up living on the street.”
But he too has felt the backdraft of the brutality in Syria, despite the distance from his homeland. “I’ve received threatening messages because I am helping Syrians who want to leave the country,” he said. “My name is at the airport in Damascus, I am sure. If I return, I am sure they will arrest me. Luckily, my whole family is already here.”
Masarani, who runs two clothing shops in a bohemian neighborhood of the city, estimated that the number of Syrian refugees in Brazil will eventually reach 3,000 once the cases of those who arrived on tourist visas and applied for asylum are processed.
“Few come with money,” he said. “When the bombing started, many left their homes in a hurry with just their documents and clothes. Most of the doctors, lawyers and engineers cannot validate their qualifications in Brazil. I am afraid people will end up on the streets.
“Many want to study but do not have a birth certificate that they need to register. I have already asked the Brazilian authorities to find a way to replace these documents, because people cannot go to the embassy. They could be arrested. They fled. They cannot go there.”
While ingredients for Brazilian meals are very different from those for Syrian food, Masarani said the refugees quickly begin to make Arabic meals. “Interestingly, when we will distribute food, they take anything except for beans. They do not know beans. We have no beans in Syria.”
A much tougher part of assimilation, he said, is learning the language. And some new arrivals still bear the psychological scars of the war.
“One family came with a 2-year-old daughter,” he said. “They arrived on the day that Corinthians [a São Paulo soccer team] won the Copa Libertadores in 2011. When Corinthians won, their fans set off many fireworks, and the girl hid under the kitchen table and began to cry.”
Ahmed al-Mazloum, a 28-year-old biomedical engineer, left his family in Damascus, traveled alone to Brazil and became fluent in Portuguese in a matter of months. As with many Syrians, Brazil wasn’t his first choice, but he doesn’t regret his decision.
“I would have gone anywhere to start a new life,” he said. “I tried many countries. Then I met a friend who has an uncle in Brazil. We talked and decided to come to São Paulo.”
“People in Brazil always welcome strangers,” he said. “The society is more open. Brazil offers more rights and freedom for women. But I miss the freedom and security of my old life in Syria. There you could leave your possessions on the street, and no one would steal them. You could leave your house unlocked, and no one would enter. I miss that.”