Refuge and Shelter

Updated: Dec 3, 2020

The refugee struggle for a fresh start in Brazilian territory

The route for acceptance and adaption of refugees in Rio de Janeiro

Among spices and delicacies, the apartment in Tijuca where Venezuelans Maria Elias Elwarrak and José Joaquim Rodriguez live is the foundation for the family's gastronomic enterprise. In search of better conditions for their two children they moved to Brazil in 2015 and started a Lebanese culinary business, as Maria Elias comes from a Lebanese family. The family says that when they left Lebanon, the signs of economic crisis in Brazil were clearing, which made them decide to restart their lives in Rio de Janeiro. They have since received refugee status. Maria states that the situation in Lebanon has worsened. For example, there are people who are no longer able to buy a kilo of meat at minimum wage, which was quoted at approximately 53,000 bolivars by the time this article was released, the equivalent of about three dollars.

In Lebanon, Maria worked as a computer technician, while her husband was a civil engineer. Upon their arrival in Brazil, the couple sought work in another sector, food, and now they sell homemade dishes, in addition to offering the service “Chef at home”, where they prepare a meal at the client's home. The family argues that the respect for culture is essential for integration: “We were welcomed, we never suffered prejudice from anyone for being refugees. They always helped us. When they realize that we are from outside, people offered to help”, said Maria.

Maria Elias launches in gastronomic fairs with Lebanese cuisine

Forced migration is a term commonly used to explain what it means to be a refugee, but it does not cover the complexity of the title. Refugees are all immigrants who had to leave their country due to a fear of persecution related to issues of race, religion, nationality, belonging to a social group or political opinion, as well as due to the serious and widespread violation of human rights and armed conflicts. When they arrive in a new country, fleeing from conditions that infringed their rights, they are forced to look for a way to survive and restart life from scratch. This includes facing difficulties finding jobs, learning the language and, finally, making a completely different cultural environment their new home.

Increasing displacement

Migration flow in recent years has increased so much that, at the end of 2018, the number of refugees globally surpassed 70.8 million. This figure is taken from the 2019 annual report on Global Trends of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), an international agency that in Brazil, is responsible for transforming policies and services that affect displaced people, including protection and assistance at the borders. The 2018 data revealed the highest number of forced displacements ever recorded by UNHCR since its creation in 1950 – which was close to the population totals of countries like Thailand and Turkey. In Brazil, it was no different: that year the highest number of requests for refugee status was received, over 80,000. Of these, 61,681 were Venezuelans.

For those who went through great difficulties to leave their country and finally reach Brazil, there is still a long way to go. The ‘Caritas Internationalis’ of Rio de Janeiro created the Refugees and Asylum Seekers Assistance Program, known as PARES Caritas, in 1976. Initially it helped Argentines, Chileans and Uruguayans, who had the protection of Archbishop Dom Eugênio Sales, to escape from the political persecution of dictatorships. This was despite the fact that Brazil itself was still under military dictatorship at the time. Today, they provide protection and help with integration, as Caritas communication advisor Felix Diogo explains: “When [the person] arrives, the Federal Police Department (FPD) usually directs them to us and we guide them in filling out the refugee request form. It is the first opportunity for us to analyse the urgency, if they have a place to sleep, if they need to eat, what is missing for this person”, she explains.

Diogo Felix works at Caritas in Rio de Janeiro helping refugees arriving in Brazil

After filling out this form, the applicant receives a document from the Federal Police Department, while their request is being dealt with. Recognition can take a long time, as the National Committee for Refugees (CONARE) needs to conduct interviews and decide whether to accept the person or not. During this process, Cáritas helps the asylum seeker with the assistance of lawyers, social workers and psychologists, as well as access to language learning, educational training, health care and even preparation for the job market. The difficulty in finding work is huge, despite most refugees having a high level of education, as confirmed by the UNHCR: “According to the socioeconomic profile of refugees in Brazil, they demonstrate high linguistic and school capital above of the Brazilian average: 34.4% of the interviewees completed higher education, many with postgraduate courses”. Also, according to the survey, only 2.7% did not complete elementary school and only 0.6% are illiterate, with 92% speaking Portuguese.

Caritas' work goes beyond entering the labour market and providing legal assistance. They even offer the ‘Casa de Acolhida’, a place where refugees who have been transferred from borders to cities, can stay up to six months. The institution has about 30 employees and 60 volunteers and receives donations to continue their work. Diogo says that in this work there are many difficulties to be faced, such as the lack of knowledge about the topic, but that it is worth participating in this story: “The good part is that you closely monitor the start of a person, who arrived with nothing and had to do everything from scratch. You see the whole process of recovering their autonomy and getting up. It is very gratifying”.

Shared knowledge

Although forced displacement often means the only way to survive, the option of leaving one’s whole story behind is still very difficult. At the moment of arrival, all they have to share is knowledge and culture, something that helps them to not completely abandon their past. It was from this thought that the ‘Abraço Cultural’ language course was formed, which in English can be translated to “cultural hug”. It opened the doors of the headquarters of São Paulo in 2015, and of Rio de Janeiro in 2016. The idea was one of the first initiatives that opened vacancies in the job market exclusively for refugees in Brazil, with English, Spanish, French and Arabic teachers on its team.

Since the launch of the project, the Tijuca and Copacabana units in Rio de Janeiro have been able to employ 12 teachers from countries such as Syria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Venezuela and Morocco. The communication coordinator, Roberta de Sousa, says that the objective of the course is to result in their students being offered jobs: “A Congolese who arrives in Brazil, for example, speaks several languages. He speaks Lingala, the native language, French, the language of the colonizer, probably also English and Portuguese”, justifying the choice for teaching the language.

When the effects of the war in Syria worsened, Tulim Hashemi, aged 28, sought refuge in Brazil in 2015. The conflict began in 2011 and according to UNHCR, more than half of the population was forced to escape, totalling 5.6 million Syrian refugees. Tulim came to Brazil in search of a life outside refugee camps, a reality that most Syrians face when seeking asylum in European countries. Since the beginning of the war, she has lived in Lebanon, Turkey and Malaysia before coming to Brazil: “To go to Europe, it is often years of waiting in a field. You end up not being free. I wish I could go to a place where I could make my own choices”, she points out.

Tulim Hashemi is one of the English teachers at Abraço Cultural. Syria accounts for a third of the refugee population around the globe, according to UNHCR data. She recognizes that coming to Brazil was not easy, but that today she cultivates a great exchange of experiences with the students. The classes go beyond the language and create a cultural channel for both sides, a relationship that goes beyond the classroom walls: “The ‘Abraço Cultural’ is the best thing that happened to me in Brazil. The space is more than work. I spend hours here because I feel so good. I feel like it's my home”.

Inclusive Cuisine

In addition to language, cooking is one of the best ways to integrate into the new country's labour market, since gastronomic knowledge of other cultures can be an interesting novelty to explore. Based on this, the ‘Chega Junto’ fair was created, taking place every last Saturday of the month in Botafogo, a neighbourhood in the city of Rio de Janeiro, for the last three years. The name of the fair can be translated as ‘Come together’ and that is truly what happens when exhibitors, who are refugees, show customers some of their countries' food. It is from initiatives like this that some of the cooks were able to open their own businesses in the gastronomic field.

Venezuelan Isis Parra, aged 39, was an exhibitor at the fair and today helps to organize the initiative

Isis says: “The idea is that Brazilians can get to know the cuisine of our countries and the culture of the people, which is rich, varied and diverse”. One of the participants is the Syrian Rami Shubaji, aged 29, who has been at the marketplace since its creation, preparing Syrian barbecue, the shawarma. The cultural and gastronomic difference between countries is huge, but he says he likes life in Brazil: “While we are very closed, Brazilians are open. The food is different, but I've lived here for five years so I've gotten used to it. I love it here, especially the people, who are polite. I was well received, and I really like Brazilian cuisine!”. Despite the difficulty and bureaucracies they face, the vast majority of them describe the reception of Brazilians as warm. This is what Venezuelan Luz Marina highlights, who sells a typical Venezuelan punch at the fair: “I was welcomed when they greeted me, everything went well and was resolved. I am very grateful to Brazil”, she says.

Luz Mariana selling her traditional Venezuelan punch

Like Luz, another four million Venezuelans have left the country since 2015, making this one of the biggest recent forced displacement crises on the planet. The UNHCR reported that compared to 2019, the increase in flow is evident: “Yes, there is a clear increase in asylum applications. In 2016, Brazil received 10,300 requests. In 2017, there were 33,800. In 2018, it reached 80,000”. Also, according to the UNHCR report, the growth in requests from 2016 to 2017 in the State of Roraima was 300%, a clear reflection of the negative effects of the Venezuelan situation, since the state of Roraima shares the biggest border with the country.

Despite the uncertainties that refugees have when they arrive in Brazilian territory, the security offered ensures they can stay away from their original country where they were in danger. With the request for refugee status, it is possible to access services such as the Unified Health System (SUS) and programs such as Bolsa Família (a government programme to help those in severe financial difficulty by providing a minimum wage). According to Diogo Felix, from Cáritas, the federal government does not offer specific economic assistance to these people, but Brazilian law follows an international treaty that guarantees reception: “The country can neither prevent entry nor return people. This is because they are in danger of dying and it is an international principle. All countries that signed the UN Convention must respect this”.


UNHRC (2018) Global Trends: forced displacement 2018, available at:

Click HERE to see the original article; Published by O Prelo, written in Portuguese.

Ana Luísa Vasconcellos, is a Journalism graduate. She currently studies Public Relations and Advertising at Fluminense Federal University (UFF). She has worked at the O Prelo magazine since 2018.