South America Welcomes Refugees

BUENOS AIRES – Haitham Assam, a 44-year-old Syrian, is running back and forth in the small kitchen of the packed Al Rayan restaurant to serve typical Arab dishes to impatient customers.

A former customs official in Syria, the plump man is now a waiter in the middle-class Villa Urquiza neighborhood of Buenos Aires, about 7,700 miles away from his old home in Damascus, Syria. Assam set foot on Argentine soil in January of 2013, bringing his wife, Riyyan, and their 15-year-old daughter, Maya, and 13-year-old son, George.

“I like very much living here,” he says, acknowledging his poor Spanish as a client waves his hand to request a cup of Turkish coffee. “My life is very quiet. People are really nice and helpful. Here, everyone knows I don’t speak well Spanish.”

Assam, however, has struggled to find work in Argentina, and his gratitude to the South American country for accepting his family only partially masks his frustration of trying to assimilate into a foreign culture.

 As the international community wrestles with the unmet demand of resettling Syrians leaving their country – the highest number of refugees since Afghans fled their country in the 1990s – countries such as Argentina are receiving praise for their open-door policies. Yet observers acknowledge that the next challenge for people accepted into a new country is helping them fit into their new homeland.

“Refugees’ integration in the country of asylum is always a major challenge,” says Michelle Alfaro, a Buenos Aires-based official for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the United Nations refugee agency. Finding adequate housing, health services and above all, a way for new arrivals to support themselves present the greatest challenges, she says.

Syria’s civil war and the waves of refugees it has created took center stage this week at the United Nations, as U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin exchanged criticisms of the handling of the Syrian conflict. On Wednesday, Russia began airstrikes in Syria.

Refugees trickle into South America

Assam and his family are among more than 4 million Syrians who have sought refuge abroad since the bloodshed in their country started more than four years ago, according to the latest figures by the United Nations and the Turkish government.

The majority of displaced Syrians are in neighboring countries – Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq – and typically in temporary camps. But the flow into Europe of Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and other civilians fleeing violence has dramatically increased this year.

Compared to Europe, South America receives just a fraction of the people fleeing conflict from the Middle East, Africa and Asia. The high cost to travel is seen as the biggest deterrent. But the continent is increasingly becoming a destination for refugees. Venezuela announced in September that it would accept 20,000 Syrians, while Chile said it would accept 50 Syrian families. Argentina and Uruguay also have installed programs to accept Syrians.

Brazil is home to more than 2,000 Syrians who fled their home, and since 2013 the country has granted refugee status to more than 7,000 asylum-seekers from Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Brazil’s National Committee for Refugees said on Sept. 21 that it would offer a two-year visa extension to Syrians. Earlier this week, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff criticized moves by European countries to bar refugees.

In neighboring Argentina, the number of Syrians attempting to arrive is in the hundreds rather than thousands, but the numbershave been increasing. This past June, the most recent date that government figures are available, the country’s National Commission for Refugees reported the country had accepted 268 Syrian refugees and was considering 52 asylum-seekers.

Last October, the country installed a program that offers a two-year asylum to Syrians fleeing the war. The program is not a path to citizenship, but does offer a two-year refugee visa. Syrians can apply for citizenship if they have a stable job and residency.

“The migration politics of Argentina is rather developed compared to other countries in the region […] because it is a nation that has historically welcomed immigrants and refugees,” says Jorge Fernández, coordinator of the Refugee Program at the Foundation of the Argentine Catholic Commission on Migration in Buenos Aires. He says Argentina has received refugees fleeing civil wars from Latin America – namely Colombia – as well as from Africa.

The government screens refugees’ backgrounds before admitting them into the country, says Abdul Kader Baradei, director of Buenos Aires’ Islamic Center, an association that plays the role of interlocutor between the government and the country’s religious authorities.

Mixed experiences

Understanding the social system and culture of a new home can be a daunting task. The U.N.’s Alfaro says the Argentine law governing refugees is seen regionally as a strong one protecting refugees, but the language barrier is a crucial drawback. To help, the UNHCR has set up a program that connects companies with refugees looking for a job

Assam, the former customs official in Syria, says he sold his belongings in order to move his family to Argentina. He chose the South American nation because relatives already lived there. Argentina’s Syria program requires that asylum-seekers prove a relative or other citizen will commit to helping them find a job and a place to live.

Assam could not find work the first six months he was in Argentina because he did not speak Spanish. He has taken two jobs in the restaurant to make ends meet. With a skyrocketing 40 percent inflation rate and a devaluated local currency, life in Argentina is much more expensive than in Syria.

“I am grateful to Argentina but the government is not helping us, whether it is to find an apartment or a job,” he says.

Assam’s experience mirrors other Syrians who have arrived in Argentina and are forced to take service-sector jobs to make ends meet. “We’re talking about professionals who owned a business and are forced today to work as employees. This is hard for them,” Baradei says. “We need to understand that refugees who get here lost everything. They are nostalgic as some family members stayed in Syria.”

Noor Shaban, 20, moved last March with his family from a Damascus suburb to Buenos Aires, where his oldest sister lives, so he could avoid Syria’s compulsory military service. The former economics student at the University of Damascus works as a cook at the Islamic Center in Buenos Aires.

“I don’t like my job here. I’m doing it just because we don’t have enough money to live.” Shaban says his family may return to Syria if they cannot find work. “There’s no job, nothing in Syria. We will die. But here too we will die, except that it will be on a foreign soil, like strangers.”

A taste of freedom

Other Syrians, however, are faring better. Akhil Asaad, 21, arrived in the South American nation with his 25-year-old brother in 2011 with a diplomatic passport. Their parents live in Switzerland, where their father works in the Syrian embassy.

Akhil quickly picked up Spanish because he studied French and Latin at the French Mission Laïque, a secular high school in Syria’s capital. He now studies computer science at the University of Buenos Aires. He also works as a Web ​programmer in a small company in the posh Palermo neighborhood.

“I feel Syrian-Argentine,” says the enthusiastic young man, who wears an expensive watch. He is delighted to have an Argentine girlfriend.

Even Assam says Argentina is an appealing place to live. He says he learned Spanish on his own through the Internet and that his children quickly picked up the language. With pride, the father says that his son was the best student of his class last year in the Saint Jean Institute, a few blocks away from the restaurant. Slowed initially by a lack of a job, Assam says he now hopes his family can obtain Argentine citizenship within two years.

“I’m done. I don’t want to ever go back to Syria because there’s a conflict every 10 years there.”

This feature was published in US News & World Report on September 30, 2015. Link here

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