RIO DE JANEIRO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Syrian refugee Ahmad Ryad Hamada arrived in Brazil just six months ago, but his food stand has already taken Rio by storm and he is now gearing up for the Olympics.
Customers flock to buy his falafels, quibbeh (croquettes) and sfiha (Middle Eastern pizza) from a small table outside a cinema in Rio, Brazil’s beachfront Carnival city; taxi drivers stop in the street to shout orders from their cabs.
Sales are so good that Hamada, 31, is now hoping to sell his Syrian snacks at competition venues during the Olympic Games which Brazil is hosting in August.
“Our short-term dream is the Olympics, but after that, I want to be known in Brazil. This is a very good country,” he said.
As hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees head to Europe, a small but growing number are shifting their sights to Brazil which, unlike many European countries, has thrown open its doors, making it relatively simple to get a visa and work papers.
Brazil decided in 2013 that any Syrian affected by the conflict would be eligible for refugee status, and Hamada is among some 2,100 Syrians who have arrived since then.
The food vendor escaped from Damascus in 2013, fleeing across the border to Turkey where his family still lives.
“Almost everyone I meet here wants to hear my story. Here, if you work hard, people will help you. Even the mayor of Rio helped me,” he said.
Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes took pity on Hamada and his business partner, Ethiopian refugee Mohamoud Said, after police raided their food stand because they had no license.
Photos of the raid circulated on social media and caught the eye of the mayor, who invited Hamada to his office and granted him the license.”It’s not fair to escape ISIS and be harassed by Rio’s municipal police,” O Globo newspaper quoted the mayor as saying.
MANY SYRIANS STRUGGLE
Brazil’s new refugee arrivals have joined a Syrian community that has lived in the country since the late 19th century, attracted by opportunities in Brazil’s growing economy.
Along with Lebanese immigrants who started arriving at around the same time, the Syrians thrived in trade and commerce.
By the 1920s, the Syrian-Lebanese community was one of the most prosperous in São Paulo, Brazil’s financial powerhouse, and built schools, hospitals and sports clubs including the highly regarded Hospital Sírio-Libanês.
It was largely responsible for creating Brazil’s biggest discount commercial center in downtown São Paulo. Every day, around 400,000 shoppers descend on the area to buy goods to resell across the country.
Not everyone is finding it as easy as Hamada to make a fresh start.
Many Syrians are living in shelters or precarious housing and struggling to find work even when highly qualified, said Aline Thuller, who coordinates aid programs for refugees at Catholic charity Caritas in Rio.
Language difficulties and the recession make it hard for many Syrians to find work, she added.
Business manager Alaa Aldin Mahmoud, 34, is living with about 120 squatters including many refugees in an abandoned building in Liberdade, São Paulo’s Little Japan neighborhood’s.
He has been looking for work since arriving last July but is still struggling with basic Portuguese. Mahmoud picks up odd carpentry jobs paying about $25 a day where he can.
It is a far cry from his comfortable life in Syria working for multinationals. But Mahmoud said that at least in Brazil he had freedom and was allowed to work – unlike in Turkey when he spent time there after fleeing Syria.
“That is very important to remember. I know things will get better for me here,” he said. Like most Syrians in Brazil, Mahmoud admitted the Latin American country was not his first choice - he had previously tried and failed to get to Germany, the United States and Canada.
He was disappointed to learn that Brazil - unlike Germany - did not provide refugees with financial aid and housing.
But he said life in São Paulo, even as an unemployed squatter, was better than in Istanbul, where he felt he was just another Syrian refugee with no prospects.
For some Syrians, Brazil is a long-term dream fueled by hard work and a bit of luck.
Eyad Abouharb, 26, arrived in São Paulo two years ago with just $100 in his pocket. He sought help from the Syrian-Lebanese community through contacts at mosques and community centers, and was hired as an assistant in the kitchen of a smart restaurant.
After moving to the mixed neighborhood’s of Brás, he found partners to invest in his business and last July opened his own restaurant. It is packed every day.
His success caught the attention of Henrique Fogaça, a top Brazilian chef and a juror in the local version of reality TV show MasterChef. Fogaça went to Abouharb’s restaurant to try his dishes and to cook with him.
“He loved it!” Abouharb said in excellent Portuguese, with a hint of the local São Paulo accent. His next project: a food truck to take his famous shawarma (meat wraps) around the city.
“There is a lot to do here in Brazil, but you have to work hard, and accept that it’s difficult in the beginning,” he said.