MONTEVIDEO – President Jose Mujica welcomed 42 Syrian refugees, the first group coming to Uruguay under a pioneer program to resettle families displaced by the civil war in their country.
The five Syrian families landed in Montevideo after a 30-hour flight from Lebanon, where they resided in a refugee camp.
Mujica, who had announced the initiative in April, Foreign Minister Luis Almagro and other officials were at Montevideo’s Carrasco Airport to receive the refugees, who were later taken to Hogar San Jose, a retreat belonging to the Catholic order of the Marist Brothers.
Dozens of people cheered the Syrians as they came out of the terminal, and neighbors gathered around the Hogar San Jose facility to show solidarity with the refugees and shower them with gifts, including soccer balls the children immediately put to good use.
“They are already playing soccer,” Mujica told the press as he left the facility. “I think kids are the ones who integrate quicker. We cannot stop a war, but we can mitigate its impact.”
Javier Miranda, the secretary for human rights, told a press conference the government is very pleased with this “first step.”
“In February, another 72 people will come and we will continue the program to help them to rebuild their lives,” Miranda said. “If they wish to settle here, they will be able to stay, and if they wish to return, they will be able to do so when the war ends.”
UN Refugee Agency representative Jose Samaniego called the resettlement program historic and said it was “relevant not only for Uruguay and the region, but for the whole international community.”
Samaniego said this marks the first time a Latin American country has established a comprehensive refugee and resettlement program.
“It is important to encourage world solidarity and particularly in Latin America,” he said. “We hope others will join. We have had visa programs to leave the country (Syria), especially from Brazil, and some individual cases in other countries. But this Uruguayan program is the first organized resettlement operation.”
Uruguay has a long tradition of welcoming political exiles and people fleeing from wars and poverty.