By Nelson Belen, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – With the number of individuals fleeing persecution and war reaching unprecedented levels across the globe, for many refugees, Rio de Janeiro has stood out as a welcome haven in an increasingly chaotic and hostile world.
According to the National Committee for Refugees (CONARE), Brazil currently has almost nine thousand recognized refugees in the country from eighty different nationalities.
For some refugees, the draw of Brazil, and particularly Rio de Janeiro, can be traced back to 2013 when the Brazilian government passed an ordinance that offered special humanitarian visas, under simplified procedures, to allow certain immigrants to enter the country seeking asylum.
“The main reason [I came to Brazil] was the war in my country as well as many other factors, such as the difficulty I have with entering most of the countries in the world with my Syrian passport,” explained Tülin Hashemi, who left her war-torn country for Rio several years ago.
Following the 2013 legislation, Brazil received more than two thousand Syrian refugees and today welcomes more refugees from Syria than any other country in Latin America. Hashemi added, “Brazil gave Syrians the chance to settle in and start a new life legally without the need of passing through a dangerous journey.”
Combined with the natural beauty of the Cidade Maravilhosa, for Hashemi, Rio was the ideal landing spot. “The reason I chose Rio is its magnificent nature!” she explained to The Rio Times. “I’m living in one of the most beautiful cities in the world that keeps captivating me each day more than the other!”
Still, for other refugees, beyond Rio’s raw beauty, it was the city’s diversity and chance to give back some of their own culture to the community, that were the biggest draws.
“One of the greatest things, since I moved to Brazil, was the good reception of the Congolese community and the music band we formed together,” exclaimed Ruth Victor Mariana.
A refugee from Angola and Congo who has been in Rio for almost four years, Mariana is a singer in a band comprised of fellow Angolan and Congolese refugees called Bomoko, the Lingala word for “Unity.”
“It has been amazing to share some things of our culture and to show that we are here to add value,” she added.
Of course, like many newly arrived immigrants, one of the numerous challenges for many of the refugees currently pouring into Rio is learning Portuguese.
Organizations like the language school, the Caminhos Language Centre, have stepped up to offer Portuguese classes and other resources to help refugees make this often difficult transition.
“One of the many programs we run at Caminhos consists on offering scholarships to refugees so that they can learn Portuguese and get familiar with the Brazilian culture,” explained Caminhos’ social program director María Dupuy de Lome.
“As a foreigner and immigrant, I know how difficult and challenging it can be to relocate in a new country. In Caminhos we welcome our students, helping them to learn and develop themselves in a positive, fun and safe environment.”
Karen Dantas, a teacher at Caminhos explained, “My role as a teacher is about making them like our language and make the learning a fun and pleasant experience, besides getting them involved in this new culture.”
“What I admire the most,” she added, “is their willingness to learn a new language and to achieve a better life.”
For refugees and former Caminhos students like Hashemi, the school’s support is indicative of the warm welcome they’ve received in Rio, a welcome that millions of other refugees scattered across the globe have yet to receive.
“I met many friends who helped me in my journey like the people in the Caminhos Language Center and many others!” Hashemi exclaimed. “I won many important people in my life that I would never forget their favors.”
In the beginning of 2016, Brazil had 8,863 refugees, according to the National Committee for Refugees (CONARE).
Syrians are part of the largest recognized refugee community in Brazil. They numbered 2,298, followed by Angolans (1,420), Colombians (1,100), Congolese (968) and Palestinians (376).
In comparison, the U.S. admitted 84,995 refugees in the fiscal year ending in September 2016.