Tropical welcome for Afghans in Brazil

The welcoming warmth of the Brazilian people for arriving Afghans.

Nessar and his wife, Safia, with other Afghan refugees in Brazil's Porto Alegre.   © UNHCR/T.Alvares

PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil (UNHCR) - On their second day in Porto Alegre in southern Brazil, the refugees had their first outing to a local store. While waiting at the checkout counter, the other customers spontaneously formed a line to welcome them to Brazil.

"Afghanistan will always have a special place in my heart as it is my home country, but Brazil is already in my heart for the future it is offering my family," said Nessar, surprised and delighted by the warm welcome in his host country.

Nessar, from south-eastern Afghanistan, is one of 23 Afghan refugees resettled in Brazil this April. He is a father of eight, a former teacher and a religious and political leader who had been living in Iran on and off during the past 20 years.

Nessar first left Afghanistan in 1980 with his father, a respected clergyman. The family returned to Afghanistan several times - both voluntarily and involuntarily - with the changing political and military landscape.

After a forced repatriation to Afghanistan in 1998, Nessar made one last attempt to re-establish his family and resume his role as a community leader. But unwilling to give in to the pressures of the Taleban government, the family returned to Iran again. This time, Nessar was resigned to set aside his role as a leader, in order to provide his family with the safety and security they increasingly needed.

He arrived in Brazil on April 12, along with his wife Safia and their three unmarried children. His other children are still in Iran and Afghanistan.

Another family of five came together with Nessar. These 2 families were the first to arrive out of the 45 Afghan refugees approved for resettlement in Brazil last November, under a UNHCR agreement with the Brazilian government. On April 26 they were joined by three other families of Afghan refugees who had struggled for many years in New Delhi, India, without ever acquiring the right to permanent residence there.

The refugees stayed at a hotel temporarily while their long-term housing was being arranged. The hotel staff quickly became part of the welcoming committee. In good Brazilian fashion, they made sure coffee and tea were readily available, and assisted with meal arrangements and other basic needs.

One Sunday when a volunteer arrived with his car to take three teenage refugees to a local park, 10 refugees showed up ready to go. The hotel manager and the restaurant cook quickly joined the group to drive the rest to the park.

During the refugees' first weeks in Brazil, there were many practical matters to address - applications for identification and employment documents, medical exams and their first Portuguese lessons. In between, time was spent learning basic information on life in Porto Alegre, and getting to know the staff and volunteers from the resettlement agency, the Center for Orientation and Referrals (CENOE).

Nessar and Safia's youngest son, Ali, has started attending eighth grade. Their 26-year-old son, Wali, never had the opportunity to finish high school, so in his new country he hopes to work during the day and study at night to receive his high school diploma.

Nessar and Safia both say they want their 16-year-old daughter, Azya, to be able to take advantage of all the opportunities that Brazil has to offer. She will soon need to decide between enrolling in a traditional high school, with the possibility of working part-time at night, or working during the day and joining her older brother in night school. There is a moment of laughter as Azya makes a face and gestures, clearly teasing her brother about attending the same school.

In the longer term, both Nessar and CENOE agree that it is important to teach the Afghan children about their cultural heritage and to share it with their adopted community, already home to many different nationalities.

After the basic language course in their first month, refugees can enrol in more advanced courses at the local universities.

Education aside, job opportunities have also been aplenty for the Afghan newcomers. In the month prior to their arrival, CENOE began looking into employment opportunities, particularly those that do not require knowledge of Portuguese. In the short time before the refugees' arrival, the receiving community's enthusiasm for employing them was striking - over 100 job offers were received by CENOE.

Wali has been offered a job in a carpet shop. In the brief exchange with the storeowner, he shared some of the new techniques used for carpet repair.

Safia wonders if she can sew and embroider items for sale. Rosaura, CENOE's programme co-ordinator, tells her about arts and crafts markets in Porto Alegre, and considers getting her a sewing machine to make table linens and other items.

Nessar is less sure about what he wants to do for a job in the short-term. Portuguese does not come as easily for him as for his children.

Three weeks after arriving, the family moved into its 3-bedroom apartment. Furniture and household equipment have been installed and the family is ready to begin their new life of independence.

Reflecting upon his first days in the country, Nessar is thankful for the sense of security and peace they have found here. He is also moved by the openness towards religious expression, which he experienced during a brief exchange with a Roman Catholic priest.

Among the other differences with life in Afghanistan, Nessar is quick to point out the role of women in Brazil, especially the number of women in leadership positions and their level of independence.

When asked about their wishes for their family now that they are in Brazil, Nessar says that he trusts UNHCR and CENOE to help them make the right decisions to start a life here.

But Safia is concerned about the rest of her family. "I am worried about my other children and their families who are still in Iran. I hope that they can join us in the near future where we can all be safe together," she said.

By Susan Krehbiel, Resettlement Consultant
UNHCR Brazil