Syrian refugees reap benefits of Argentina's new visa rules
Tony Kassab had little idea what the future held when he fled his home in the Syrian city of Homs and arrived in Argentina last year.
The 26-year-old was granted a humanitarian visa under the country’s new programme for Syrian refugees and he is now managing a takeaway restaurant which cooks Middle Eastern dishes for residents of the city of Córdoba.
Just a few years ago, he could not have imagined leaving Homs, let alone working some 8,000 miles away from there, despite the brutal conflict that has raged in his home country since 2011.
Tony, who has a university degree in tourism, had a close brush with death during a bombing which helped him decide it was time to leave.
He is one of 320 Syrians now living in Argentina under the government’s “Programa Siria”, which grants humanitarian visas to people affected by the conflict in Syria if there is a sponsor in the country willing to help meet their living expenses during the first year.
The programme was originally launched in 2014 and reinforced in September 2016, when President Mauricio Macri announced that Argentina would accept 3,000 Syrians. A rule requiring visa applicants to have a family connection was relaxed. Any Argentine individual or non-government organization can now theoretically become a sponsor, known as a “caller”, and receive a refugee or migrant.
Tony is more fortunate than most. His uncle, Farhan Kassab, who has been living in Argentina’s second-largest city, Córdoba, since 1998, and now runs his own restaurant business, submitted documentation to Argentina’s Migration Directorate to become a caller and sponsored his nephew.
At first, the pair worked together at the business headquarters, as Tony learned to cook family recipes. When he realized that speaking Arabic with Farhan was holding back his Spanish, he requested a move to the second takeaway outlet, which he now manages.
“People here don’t have much of an idea about Arab food.”
“People here don’t have much of an idea about Arab food, so it’s a chance to show my culture,” he says.
His Spanish teacher, Verónica Segui, gives a free course for Arabic speakers at the National University of Córdoba, with an emphasis on practical conversation and comprehension. “Interacting is the most important thing,” Segui explains, “and writing comes in second place, because it’s very different in Arabic.”
Another pillar of the programme is a volunteering scheme run by the White Helmets, a humanitarian assistance platform which is part of the Argentine Foreign Ministry, one of several state bodies that form national and regional working groups or Mesas Siria to help Syrians adapt to life in Argentina.
In Córdoba, Tony was matched with volunteer Gonzalo Fiore, a lawyer who has been vital in helping the young Syrian find his feet. Officially, the pair are required to meet three times a month, with Fiore reporting back to the White Helmets on a regular basis, but they quickly became friends and now see each other socially.
“I learn more from Tony than from my textbooks,” says Gonzalo, 26, who is now studying for a master’s degree in international relations. Using English as a common language, they have forged a strong bond. Tony hopes to eventually speak Spanish all the time with his friend.
Argentina is among a group of countries in South America that have agreed to accept more resettled refugees and will soon start receiving Syrian refugees living in Lebanon referred by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
However, not all Syrians have integrated as well as Tony, and authorities are trying to strengthen the integration components of the programme that make the difference, such as language classes and the assignment of a local volunteer.
“The state can provide tools, but the person has to make an effort as well.”
“Integration needs to come from both sides,” says Diego Puente, who manages the national migration authority in Córdoba. “The state can provide tools, but the person has to make an effort as well.”
With 35 Syrians living in the region and 15 more expected soon, his role is to “accelerate the process of adapting” by developing measures such as free Spanish lessons and local employment networks.
Hearing Tony’s story has given Gonzalo a new sense of appreciation of his lot in life. According to UNHCR, the voluntary assistance component is a distinguishing feature of Argentina’s policy.
“In the south of Latin America, the generosity towards refugees is a fact. An initiative such as the Programa Siria is innovative and constitutes an excellent opportunity through which the local communities can help refugees", says Michele Manca di Nissa, Regional Representative for UNHCR’s southern Latin America office.
UNHCR provides technical and financial support to the Programa Siria through the Emerging Resettlement Countries Joint Support Mechanism (ERCM), a joint cooperation framework with the International Organization for Migration. The ERCM resources are focused to strengthen institutional capacity and to support the selection, reception and integration process of Syrian refugees in Argentina.
Argentina is also receiving support from the Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative, which is helping countries establish community sponsorship models for refugees, learning from Canada’s experience.
Esteban Tomé Fuentes, a cabinet adviser on the Programa Siria, says Argentina plans to welcome another 100 Syrians this year, taking the total to 420. In the long term, he is focusing on organizing federal and provincial agencies as effectively as possible to help newly arrived refugees and migrants plan beyond the first 12 months with their sponsor, making sure they effectively enjoy “all the same rights and opportunities as Argentines”.
“It’s very good of Argentina to receive us."
After less than a year in the country, Tony already intends to apply for citizenship. He is exploring possibilities to have his Syrian degree certified in Córdoba, so he can look for tourism-related jobs when his Spanish is good enough.
“I hate to be different, so I want to learn the language and be like other normal people here – not just seen as ‘the Syrian guy’,” he says. “It’s very good of Argentina to receive us. They are very easy people. I want to thank Argentina for everything.”
The Programa Siria is one of the schemes designed to help Syrian refugees travel further afield to third countries in an organized way.
It provides an example of responsibility sharing that could be replicated or adapted by other governments as part of the effort to develop a global compact on refugees and find ways of responding jointly to refugee movements, rather than leaving a handful of countries to shoulder the burden alone.
UNHCR is leading the process to develop the global compact and discussions will be held on the subject in Geneva this month. A key focus will be on helping refugees find a solution to their plight, which could include returning home voluntarily when conditions allow, finding ways to become self-reliant in the country of asylum, or moving to third countries.
Ahead of the talks, UNHCR has proposed measures in a concept paper on how to expand complementary pathways, alternative ways for refugees to be admitted to third countries in addition to the traditional resettlement routes. The goal is for these to be included in an action programme as part of the refugee compact.
These include community-based sponsorship and humanitarian admission programmes, expanding the eligibility criteria and simplifying procedures for family reunification, making access to education easier through scholarships, apprenticeships and traineeships, and opening labour mobility schemes to include refugees.