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Fleeing Syria: Refugees find dizzying freedoms and unexpected dangers in Brazil

After being turned down by Canada and Sweden, Dana Balkhi traveled to Brazil alone, a rarity for an unmarried Muslim woman.
(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

Soon after she arrived, she began to feel conspicuous. On the street, on the bus, in the subway, people looked. They didn’t seem hostile, just puzzled. Even in Latin America’s biggest city, a woman in a head scarf stood out.

“Everyone was staring, and I was feeling alone,” says Dana Balkhi, 27. “I felt like I was choking.”

She had come to Brazil by herself, an anomaly among unmarried Muslim women. In Syria, she had studied English literature at Damascus University and loved the novels of Jane Austen.

After a missile hit her house, she fled to Turkey with her sister, but couldn’t find work there.

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Canada said no, then Sweden said no, and in the winter of 2013, she faced a choice. She could return home, as her sister did, even as civil war obliterated the country. Or she could try Brazil, which was handing out fast, low-hassle “humanitarian visas” to Syrians escaping the carnage.

She went on Google and typed “Sao Paulo Arabic community helping refugees” and found some Brazilian-based Muslims who offered to help.

Who would she be coming with? they wanted to know.

Just me, she said.

They picked her up at the airport in December 2013 and gave her a bed. She learned to brace herself for the questions, when local Muslims discovered she was on her own.

“Not everyone respects my choice,” she says. “They’ll say my family doesn’t care about me, or I’m not a good girl. Of course, there are other girls that did that, but not many.”

Even her grandfather wouldn’t take her calls for six months. She worries how she will be treated if she ever returns to Syria. “They’ll say, ‘Who knows what she did there?’”

Syrian refugees in Brazil represent just a trickle in the war’s great exodus, a mere 2,000 out of 4 million, and many came to South America’s largest country as a last resort.

For many newly arrived Syrians in Sao Paulo, it is hard to find work, hard to communicate, hard to live in constant fear of street crime. They think of it as temporary refuge en route to more permanent homes, in more familiar lands.

But in this freewheeling megacity of horizon-to-horizon skyscrapers and vertiginous freedoms, some also find space to remake themselves, in ways large and small.

Brazil has drawn Middle Eastern immigrants for more than a century, with more than 10 million citizens of Syrian and Lebanese descent. It long ago claimed them as its own, just as it is already beginning to tug at new refugees.

Conscious of the stares, Balkhi started going out in public without her head scarf, and for a while it was a relief to walk the streets and feel invisible. But she also felt exposed and empty. She put it back on.

She found a secretarial job at Sao Paulo’s big mosque, Mesquita Brasil, earning just enough to live on. She has moved seven times since she arrived.

She is outgoing and cheerful and makes friends easily, but she misses her family. She wakes at 3 a.m. and looks at the ceiling, worrying. What if she can’t find a better-paying job? What if she has to stay in Brazil? What if she never gets to see her mother, who refuses to leave Syria?

She has had 10 marriage proposals — from Egyptians, Syrians, Lebanese. Some of the men are much older, in their late 60s; some have money. It would be easy to say yes, if security were all she cared about. She tries to brush the suitors off respectfully. She doubts any of them could abide her independent streak.

“I can’t be kept,” she says.

Not long ago, when she wanted to get her nostril pierced, Balkhi went online to see if Islamic scholars approved.

“Some said no, some said yes,” she says. “I went with the ones that said yes.”

::

“Where are the Arabs?”

This was the first Portuguese phrase Muna Darweesh learned by heart.

When she and her husband arrived in November 2013, people pointed them to the Santa Ifigenia neighborhood with its profusion of Middle Eastern shops.

For months she went door-to-door, selling sweet-cheese rolls. Sometimes she stood outside the mosque begging.

“I didn’t choose Brazil,” says Darweesh, 35. “It was the only country that would take us.”

They had lived well in Latakia, on Syria’s coast. Her husband, Wessam Jammal, had been making $5,000 a month as chief engineer on big commercial boats. Then, he says, government agents arrested him on unexplained charges, beat him with a cord and broke his ribs.

They escaped to Egypt, where the Brazilian Consulate gave them quick visas.

As they struggled for a foothold in Sao Paulo, a Syrian man approached the couple with a business opportunity. He had been in Brazil for years, and seemed well-connected. He said they could rent a stall in one of the Santa Ifigenia malls and sell mobile phone equipment.

Another man, who was Lebanese, gave them a contract and told them to sign. The couple had scraped together about $3,000, and they handed it over. The men disappeared; the stall had not been theirs to rent.

“The reason we trusted them is they are Arab people,” says Jammal, 43. “We worked hard, hard, hard, hard, and we were back to zero.”

They live in a run-down apartment complex with their four children, on a street where they know not to go outside after dark. Darweesh was once mugged at knifepoint walking home from the mosque.

Everybody seems to have such a story, or knows someone who does. Lawlessness is the biggest shock, for Syrians accustomed to the order of a police state.

Another newly arrived Syrian of their acquaintance says robbers forced their way into his apartment and pistol-whipped his wife. Because no one was killed, police suggested, it was a small matter, best forgotten.

Nor can the government be depended on for other types of help. It is not like socialist Sweden, where Darweesh’s brothers live.

“Here, nobody gives you anything,” she says.

With the help of a refugee-aid group, she gives cooking workshops, and she and her husband fill food orders received on her smartphone.

He still dreams of the water, of commanding the engine rooms of big diesel tankers. As a chief engineer, he was a respected professional. “But here I make falafel,” he says, and laughs. “Engineer of falafel.”

In their living room, they keep the television tuned to a Syrian channel they get on cable. They watch it for the dramas, they say, but it is filled with music videos extolling Syrian President Bashar Assad. His troops march bravely into battle and perform somersaults with assault rifles. Missiles fly heavenward. The flag flutters. All is well in Syria, the point seems to be.

“A message from the government,” Darweesh says, and laughs. “But why we are here?”

::

Wessam Kourdi never carries more than a little cash and doesn’t wear a watch or his wedding ring in public. It’s too dangerous. “This is one reason I don’t want to stay in Brazil,” he says. “Maybe I will die for my cellphone.”

Kourdi, 34, worked for a communications firm in Damascus; he and his wife fled when the fighting got dangerously close. After they reached Brazil in October 2014, Kourdi spent 12 hours a day looking for jobs. His weight dropped from 200 pounds to 140. Finally, he got work teaching English.

He knows he is lucky. Of the friends he left behind in Syria, he says that 80% escaped and the rest were killed.

“We hear names all the time. ‘Hey, do you know who died yesterday? Ali died.’ After 30 times, it’s like normal. Now, if someone says, ‘Did you hear your friend died?’ I don’t feel anything anymore. Life continues.”

He dreams of getting to Canada. “The risk percentage here is very high,” he says as he walks along Paulista Avenue, one of the city’s main streets. “All the buildings have security. They have a fence. They have guards. They have cameras recording everything. What does it mean? It’s not safe.”

His wife Rabia, 30, spends most of her time indoors.

They socialize with friends at the mosque after Friday prayers, but “the Islam here in Brazil is a milder Islam,” he says unhappily. The mosques host parties with balloons and cake, a practice he can’t endorse.

He stands in line for coffee at a Starbucks. Nearby, a young male couple kiss passionately. He sits down with his drink. At the table behind him, a man and a woman are kissing.

“It’s a good country, but it’s not for us — not for Muslims,” he says.

Some of the women he tutors in English like to greet him with a hug, and he hugs back, because what is he supposed to do? Mostly, he is anxious for his son, Ryan, now 3 years old. He is haunted by the worry that he’ll grow up and forget his religion.

One recent night, Kourdi saw police struggle with a shrieking, writhing man in a downtown metro station. The officers wrestled the man to the ground and shoved him into the back of a van.

“I see this and I feel nothing,” Kourdi said. “Brazilians live in peace. They don’t have any idea what we faced...In my mind, there are more horrible pictures than this.”

::

On the 10th floor of a long-abandoned office building above Sao Paulo, in a makeshift kitchen, 27-year-old Mohammed Othman is laying out chickpeas to make falafel.

Every Tuesday he and his 30-year-old brother, Rami, bring their ingredients and their cooking equipment to the patio of a local disco, where they sell their food to curious locals.

They moved into this building, one of many squatters’ buildings around the city, a few months ago. The lower five floors are occupied by Brazilians, the top five by Syrians.

The Othmans are double refugees, Palestinians who grew up in a refugee camp in Syria and then fled the civil war.

They have a donated washing machine, old couches and a coffee table hammered together from cast-off wood. On the walls are emblems of Palestinian nationalism — flags, a drawing of a Kalashnikov rifle and a sketch of Handala, a barefoot Palestinian refugee boy popularized in political cartoons.

The brothers say they have received little help from the established Syrian-Lebanese community in Sao Paulo, which they say either ignores the newcomers, or tries to prey on them.

“We help ourselves,” says Rami. He has a constant feeling that their precarious existence could come apart at any time. But he likes Brazil. “I can’t go back anywhere. All my plans are here.”

The brothers hope to open a restaurant. “Being here is better than dying there,” Mohammed says. “This is the first time I have hope. Even if it’s 1%.”

::

His real name is Wahib Hayek, but since he arrived in Brazil a few months ago, he has called himself William. He is 24, and on a recent night he stood in a karaoke bar in downtown Sao Paulo, with a nice buzz from beer and Smirnoff, trying to muster the courage to take the microphone.

You’re William now, he tells himself. You can step onto that stage as William.

He thinks of Wahib as the chubby, paralyzingly shy kid he used to be, growing up in the Christian quarter of Homs. It is Syria’s third-largest city, but it felt claustrophobic to him, a place where everyone wanted to know his business and he worried what people said about him.

Wahib would retreat to his room and eat. Wahib said no to everything. Now he’s William, and William’s motto is, “I never say no.”

Even though his hand is shaking, he takes the microphone and sings Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black,” and then Beyonce’s “Sweet Dreams,” and it is another victory for the person he wants to be.

He is reading a self-help book, “Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power,” and one of the laws is, “Re-create yourself.”

He decided to leave Syria in early 2012, when Al-Baath University refused to grant him a deferment from military service. He didn’t want to kill anyone, and he didn’t want to die. He father pushed him into a car and sent him to Jordan, where prospects were dim.

He says he felt at home as soon as he got off the plane in Sao Paulo. Before long, he had a job at a hair salon. Someone put the Brazilian national cocktail, a caipirinha, in his hands. He parties till the small hours, many nights, even if he has to work the next day.

“I’m 24,” he says. “I’m pushing my body to the limit. I don’t want to be 50 and go, ‘I was 24 and I didn’t go out.’”

Soon after he arrived, an aid agency offered him a spot in a “Portuguese for refugees” class. He shunned the class for Arabic speakers. This meant he was the only Syrian in his class, which was fine by him.

He hates the word “refugee,” with its connotations of desperation and neediness and dependence. The 10th Law of Power says, “Avoid the Unhappy and Unlucky,” on the theory that misery and bad luck are contagious. “I have enough drama in my life,” he says. “I don’t want to have anyone else’s drama.”

Every day, people hear his accent and ask where he’s from, and when he says “Syria,” there is often another question: Why did you come here, instead of Europe?

Not long ago, a friend took him to a restaurant atop the Edificio Italia, one of the tallest towers in Sao Paulo. He held a mojito and looked out at the tightly packed high-rises, stretching in every direction. It made him feel he’d like to be famous, somehow, leave a mark of some kind, like Fayrouz, the Lebanese singer.

Far below, people were coming home from work, racing off to trysts, getting mugged, getting married, suffering, thriving. The sun was setting. Lights were coming on in 100,000 windows.

No single vantage does justice to the city’s immensity, but this view hinted at it, and it was all possibility. “It’s like science fiction,” he said. “And people ask why I came to Brazil.”

christopher.goffard@latimes.com

Special correspondent Vincent Bevins contributed to this report.


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