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Brazil Welcomes Refugees

18 August, 2016

Fleeing places such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan is not easy because few countries will accept refugees.

Several of the countries that do welcome refugees are in South America. Over the past five years, Brazil has been the place where refugees arrive and stay – or at least live temporarily -- before they are sent to Europe or the United States.

Ahmad Hamada is one of those refugees. Seven days a week, he sells Arab food in the Botafogo neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro.

"Here in Brazil, no person [helps you], gives you money, give[s] you [a] house," he said. "You must work. No work, cannot eat here."

Hamada is a Palestinian who grew up in Syria and Lebanon. He decided to flee the conflicts in the Middle East 11 months ago. He wanted to go to Europe and believed he could get there by going first to Brazil.

Before Europe began to accept large numbers of refugees, Brazil was one of the few countries that would give Syrians and Palestinians a visa. Since 2013, thousands of refugees have entered Brazil. Many of them hope to be sent to Europe.

Ahmad was one of them. But he says immigration officers attacked him in Rome and returned him to Brazil. He says he woke up on a plane, guarded by four Italian police officers. He said his hands and legs were in chains.

Refugees who arrive in Rio de Janeiro are often sent to the Sao Joao church. It is led by Father Alex Coelho Sampaio.

Father Sampaio operates The House of Support for Refugees in buildings behind the church. He says Brazil has, for many years, accepted those who are being persecuted or are fleeing conflict.

"Brazil for many years has had an open-door policy and that was true after the Second World War, for example," he said. "And at the moment, in particular, regarding Syrian refugees, we are receiving quite a lot."

Father Sampaio says at one time he was caring for so many Syrians that the refugees had to sleep on mattresses on the floor. With his help, some have gone to Europe and others have remained in Brazil. He now cares for 35 refugees. Three are Syrians. They include Ahmad Barour, from Damascus.

"I would love to go to Europe, Britain, a country that is democratic," Barour said. "Everybody is equal -- no discrimination between black, white, stranger, or native. They respect everybody."

For now, he is happy to stay in Brazil. He says he earns enough money to buy food. And he says he has friends. But he says someday he hopes to visit his sister in Denmark.

I'm Pete Musto.

VOA Correspondent Jeff Swicord reported this story from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted his report for Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.

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Words in This Story

persecute – v. to treat (someone) cruelly or unfairly especially because of race or religious or political beliefs