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Resettled Syrian refugee family thrives in Portuguese college town


Resettled Syrian refugee family thrives in Portuguese college town

Students, faculty, and locals in a small Portugal city coalesced around the Albakkars, helping ease the resettled family’s transition and making them feel welcome.
31 August 2023
Four young women wearing headscarves hold up a tray of cookies.

Syrian refugee sisters Taimaa, Fatima, Saja and Ilaf show off a batch of homemade Syrian cookies in their apartment in a college dormitory.

During final exam periods, when nearly all of their neighbours can be found in the library or behind a stack of books, the Albakkar family is almost sure to be busy in the kitchen. 

For the past two years, the Albakkars – a Syrian refugee family of eight with a passion for home cooking – have been living in a college dormitory in a university town in rural Portugal.  

“All the neighbours are students,” said Ilaf, 14, who is the youngest of the six siblings resettled from Türkiye to Portugal, along with their parents, in 2020. “They’re very nice.” 

The idea of putting the Albakkars up in student housing while they found their feet in a new and unfamiliar country was the brainchild of Leonor Cutileiro, the coordinator of “UBI Acolhe,” the project responsible for overseeing the family’s relocation to the small Portuguese city of Covilhã. 

Leonor Cutileiro sits for a portrait in a field of long dry grasses.

Leonor Cutileiro, the coordinator of “UBI Acolhe”, a project that has provided Syrian refugee families with housing in student dormitories on the University of Beira Interior campus in Covilhã.

"The whole idea was using the campus as a space where refugees could find accommodation and also, more importantly, they could find an inclusive community," recalled Leonor, 47, who was pursuing a PhD at a university in Britain when the idea came to her.

"This community helped the family create a sense of belonging," said Leonor. "It's only when you feel you belong that you feel at home."

While none of the Albakkars are students at Beira Interior University, living in the institution’s dorm, where they are surrounded by curious and engaging students, has undoubtedly played a crucial role in making them feel welcome, said Leonor. Being part of the close-knit university community has also helped the family adjust to life in this remote city of just 30,000 inhabitants, where they are among the few Muslims and Arabic-speakers. 

Hope for a better future

Natives of Aleppo, one of cities hardest hit by the conflict in Syria, the Albakkars escaped to neighboring Türkiye in 2013. Like many of the estimated 3.6 million refugees in Türkiye – the world’s largest refugee-hosting country – the family struggled to recreate the same stability they had enjoyed back home. They scraped by on odd jobs, surviving but never really managing to thrive.   

Hope for a better future came with the start of their long resettlement process, which was interrupted halfway through by the COVID-19 pandemic. Resettlement aims to offer protection to refugees whose specific needs cannot be met in the country where they first sought asylum. It also helps share the responsibility for addressing refugee situations more evenly by relocating vetted individuals and their families from countries hosting large refugee populations to others, with fewer forcibly displaced, where they can stay permanently and rebuild their lives. Portugal, a nation of 10 million on Europe’s westernmost edge, has committed to accepting some 300 resettled refugees per year in 2022 and in 2023.  

After several interviews and a longer-than-expected wait, Muna Albakkar, her husband, Moustafa, and six of their seven children boarded a flight from Istanbul to the Portuguese capital, Lisbon. There, they were met by Leonor, the project coordinator, and driven the roughly 280 kilometres to Covilhã, which is tucked in a mountainous, rural region in the east of the country, near the Spanish border.   

“I didn’t know that there was a country called Portugal,” said the youngest, Ilaf, in nearly perfect Portuguese, adding with a laugh that before touching down in Lisbon, she and her sisters knew “only one thing about Portugal, which is Cristiano Ronaldo.” 

A warm reception 

As the family set up house in the dorm, in a simple but spacious apartment on the top floor of a residential tower, Leonor and a cadre of dedicated volunteers were on hand to iron out the details of what otherwise could have been a rocky transition. While moving into the dorm solved among the most pressing needs for relocated refugees – housing – without speaking Portuguese, even apparently simple tasks at first seemed daunting to the Albakkars. 

Enter UBI Acolhe, a group of roughly two dozen volunteers, which includes university faculty, staff, and students, as well as locals of all ages and walks of life. They walked the Albakkars through everything from registering for school and Portuguese classes to figuring out the bus schedule; helped them find jobs; drove them to doctors’ appointments; and even guided them through the unfamiliar aisles of the local supermarket, with its intimidating assortment of novel products. 

The supermarket proved of particular importance to the Albakkars, as throughout their years of forced displacement, food had become an anchor to their former lives in Aleppo – a reminder of their heritage and history. In Portugal, their passion for Syrian food also became a source of extra income, supplementing the salaries that Moustafa, and his two adult sons, Ayman and Ahmed, bring home from their jobs at nearby factories. Impressed by the Albakkars’ homemade delicacies, members of the volunteer group, suggested they set up a stand at a street fair – where they sold out – encouraging the women of the house to begin an online catering service. Their most popular product? Falafel.    

While the Albakkars’ integration is a work in progress – mastering Portuguese has proved challenging for much of the family – they say they feel part of the fabric of Covilhã, thanks in large part to the warm reception by the university and the cadre of community volunteers.  

“Universities are very inclusive places,” said Leonor. “Everyone is a foreigner – in the sense that students come from all over to attend – which means that actually no one is a foreigner.” 

This community helped the family create a sense of belonging.

Leonor Cutileiro, coordinator of “UBI Acolhe”