Every morning, Salim Alnazer travels on two subway lines and takes two trains and a bus to get to work. The 32-year-old Syrian refugee leaves home in São Caetano do Sul, just outside São Paulo, about 7 a.m. to make sure he arrives on time.
He starts his day on the ground floor with the other five employees of Jadlog, a transportation and logistics company where he is the resident pharmacist.
He checks that packages containing medication and diet supplements are safe to go out to local pharmacies. Afternoons are often spent in his second-floor office, going over paperwork and preparing for the days ahead.
Alnazer and his wife, Salsabil Matouk, both pharmacists who had been living in Damascus, came to São Paulo three years ago with their eldest daughter Jury, thanks to Brazil’s open-door policy for Syrians fleeing the conflict in their country.
Simplified visa procedures at Brazilian consulates in the Middle East allowed the family to travel to Latin America’s largest country, where they were able to submit asylum claims.
They feared they might have to leave their careers behind. Their Syrian diplomas needed to be certified, but the process was expensive and complicated. So Alnazer worked in a cellphone accessories shop and Matouk started making and selling Syrian food.
However, he did not give up. He tried to obtain information from universities responsible for validating diplomas, but even they were unsure how to advise him.
Alnazer sought advice in an online chat room for Syrians living in Brazil. Someone suggested he talk to Compassiva, a non-governmental organization that has helped refugees with their diplomas in partnership with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
The process can be long and tedious, but the support given to Alnazer and Matouk, including Portuguese language classes to help them in their future job searches, gave the couple hope.
“Validating a diploma is the first step in these people getting back their dignity and their identity.”
“It’s not just a piece of paper,” says André Leitão, executive president of Compassiva. “Validating a diploma is the first step in these people getting back their dignity and their identity.”
The NGO has helped about 60 refugees submit applications and 20 have had their diplomas recognized. When the programme began, 90 per cent of requests were from Syrians, many of whom are engineers, doctors and dentists. Now, they make up about 50 per cent, as refugees from other countries have started to ask for help.
A few days after their wait came to an end and their diplomas were validated, Alnazer and Matouk were selling Syrian food at a Compassiva event when an executive from Jadlog approached the NGO in search of a pharmacist. Alnazer says it was lucky that he was there that day, but if you ask his boss, it was his competence as a pharmacist that got him the job.
“He studied five years to be a pharmacist and because of what happened in his country he ended up in Brazil,” says Genivan Borges, who owns the Jadlog franchise where Alnazer works.
“If you close doors [to refugees] and say no, you might miss out on a great opportunity. For me, that opportunity was Salim. He is an excellent professional.”
Jadlog plans to arrange a part-time internship at a pharmacy to familiarize him with work practices in Brazil and give him experience in dealing with Brazilian customers.
Daughter Jury, now aged 6, is at school during the day, but the couple’s two other children, Walid, 3, and Yasmin, eight months, who were born in Brazil, are still at home with their mother. She might take up Jadlog’s offer once the children are all at school, she says.
For now, the family is happy to be in a place that has welcomed them and given them the opportunity to rebuild their lives.
“A lot of countries have peace. I could have found that in many places,” says Alnazer. “But I didn’t only find peace here in Brazil. I found a future.”
See also: The Syrians starting over in Brazil