¡Bienvenido, Habibi!

How Latin America is opening its arms to Syrian refugees.


BOGOTÁ — Before he came to Colombia, all that Mohammed had ever heard about the country was "violence, drugs, and war." Certainly, when the 28-year-old Syrian fled Damascus just over a year ago, Colombia did not register as a possible place to resettle. "I never thought about South America at all," Mohammed says, sitting in an upscale apartment in Bogotá where he offers visitors coffee, vodka, Oreo cookies, and yogurt. He speaks in a mix of heavily accented English and halting Spanish. "The idea to be a refugee here was so far from my mind."

But while living in Lebanon, he met a Colombian who said his country was a wonderful place and suggested that Mohammed give it a try. With the help of that friend, Mohammed got to Colombia on a tourist visa. When that expired after three months, he applied for refugee status. Immigration officials "asked so few questions and everything was easy," he says of the asylum process. "Probably in Europe or America, it would be very hard." Within just a few months, he had a Colombian identification card and travel document. Now he is pursuing a singing career and earning a living as a runway model for local designers.

If the foremost dream of nearly every Syrian refugee is get out of the cramped, precarious conditions in which they live in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq and return home safely, the second dream is to be resettled in a European country or the United States. Facing strict asylum policies and stiff competition for entry slots in such places, however, the number of Syrians winding up in the coveted West scarcely makes a dent in the 3 million people — according to the United Nations, as of late August — who have been made refugees by their country’s civil war. Meanwhile, for some Syrians, faraway and unfamiliar Latin American countries — Colombia, Uruguay, Brazil, and Argentina among them — are increasingly becoming viable options.

To be sure, the number of Syrians who have fled to Latin America is small: Based on reports, it sits at fewer than 6,000. But Daryl Grisgraber, senior advocate for the Middle East with Refugees International, says it’s just a beginning. "This will continue to grow," she adds.

In part, this is because some Latin American states are drawing on past experience and deciding to open their doors. Historically, the region has taken in many immigrants and asylum-seekers. A wave of Spanish immigrants fled here during the Spanish Civil War and the Franco era, and a significant number of Jewish refugees settled in South America during and after World War II. In the late 20th century, the flow was reversed: Latin America’s dictatorships and civil wars created a wave of outbound refugees who sought asylum in Europe, the United States, and Canada. Today, in welcoming Syrians, "Latin America is repaying its debt to the world," says Javier Miranda, director of the secretariat for human rights of the Uruguayan presidency.

Brazil, which has a large Syrian and Lebanese immigrant population, launched a humanitarian visa program in 2013 for those affected by the Syrian conflict. So far, it has issued 4,200 such visas, which give individuals the right to apply for refugee status once they are in the country; as of August, 1,245 applications for refuge had been approved, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The Guardian says Syrians have now surpassed Colombians as the largest refugee population in the country. Colombia — which, indeed, thanks to its 50-year-old conflict is better known for producing refugees than for absorbing them — has granted asylum to all Syrians, including Mohammed, who have applied for it since 2011. (Admittedly, at 19 total applicants, the number is negligible.) And Argentina, whose Syrian and Lebanese community accounts for an estimated 10 percent of the total population, has admitted as many as 300 Syrian families in the past two years, according to press reports.

But the boldest experiment in the region comes from tiny Uruguay. The nation of 3.4 million, which sees itself as a bastion of humanitarianism and solidarity, especially under the leadership of President José Mujica, has offered to resettle 120 Syrians. "We know it’s just a drop in the ocean, but drop by drop, oceans are created," Miranda says. (Comparatively, it’s a bigger drop than some more-developed nations have allowed: For instance, Spain, a country of 47 million, has resettled only 130 Syrians.)

Through a deal with UNHCR, the first 40 refugees will arrive in Uruguay in late September and will initially be housed at a Catholic mission just outside Montevideo, where they will receive health care, a monthly stipend, and education: Spanish classes for adults and regular schooling for children. Eventually, they will be relocated to individual homes. Another 80 are due to arrive in February 2015.

The initiative came about after Foreign Minister Luis Almagro (a strong candidate for the secretary-general of the Organization of American States) visited a UNHCR camp in Jordan while on a tour of the Middle East. What he saw there, he told the press, were "people living in conditions of vulnerability," especially children. Uruguay proposed taking in 100 or so orphans from the camp, but while UNHCR officials applauded the offer, they reportedly encouraged the Uruguayans instead to bring entire families from camps in Lebanon, where conditions are more difficult. Uruguay accepted but still made a point of selecting families with numerous children, "because they are the most vulnerable," explains Miranda, who led a mission to Lebanon to interview prospective participants in the program. Uruguayan officials arrived with brochures in Arabic and videos about their country. "We tried not to create any false expectations," Miranda says.

The toughest challenge will be finding work for the adult refugees. Because a large part of Syria’s economy has traditionally been based on agriculture, Uruguayan officials had expected that most of the refugees would be farmers. They were surprised at the diversity of occupations: There are construction workers, retail-business owners, and service workers in the initial group, according to Miranda. Officials have had to rethink where families might be relocated; instead of being placing in rural communities, some may end up living in Montevideo and other cities.

The resettled refugees won’t be the only Syrians arriving in Uruguay: The government has also offered to receive six detainees, four of whom are from Syria, cleared for release from Guantánamo Bay after being "held unjustly," according to Miranda; they cannot return home due to concerns about their security. (They were originally slated to be transferred to Uruguay in September, but the operation has been delayed at least until after the first round of presidential elections in October.)

The Uruguayan government hopes Syrians integrate smoothly into the country’s larger society, but officials are conscious that Uruguay is a fairly homogeneous nation that is not accustomed to new faces. There is no official mosque in the country; Muslim prayer services in Montevideo are held at a small Islamic cultural center. The government also faces criticism that the program is largely self-serving. "President José Mujica’s aspirations of winning the Nobel Prize for Peace and the desire of Foreign Minister Luis Almagro to become secretary general of the OAS [Organization of American States] have become the central axis of Uruguay’s foreign policy," columnist Tomás Linn wrote in Búsqueda, a news magazine.

Miranda, however, sees welcoming Syrians as a possible first step toward a broader refugee and resettlement policy that could benefit Uruguay in the long run. "Bringing in people with different backgrounds could help us grow as a society," he says. He also hopes other countries in the region will follow Uruguay’s lead. "We are hoping to create a sort of ‘contagion effect,’" he says.

Refugee agencies hope so too. "This could encourage other nations in Latin America to take in more refugees," says Grisgraber of Refugees International.

Mohammed, in Colombia, says he would not mind seeing more compatriots in his host country. Since arriving, he has not met another Syrian.

Nonetheless, he says, Colombia has turned out to be the perfect choice for asylum. Though he longs for home and worries about his family still in Damascus, he says he is making every effort to integrate — with good results. His physical appearance, uncommon in the country, helped him land modeling work and he has recorded his first song, an electronic dance track with lyrics in both Spanish and Arabic, in a local studio. "It is a mix of my two worlds," he says.

<p> Sibylla Brodzinsky is a freelance journalist based in Bogotá. </p>