SAO PAULO – Aboud does not like to use the word “war” to refer to the conflict in Syria; he prefers to say that a “problem” forced him to pack his bags and seek out a new life in Brazil, where he opened an Arab restaurant and has provided jobs to other refugees like him.
Abdulrahman Alsaied, 32, opened his small restaurant a year ago in downtown Sao Paulo, in which shawarma, a typical Syrian dish, is more than the specialty of the house, it is his lifeline, as well as that of a Somalian and two Angolan refugees.
Aboud, as his friends call him, tried to obtain a visa at the Brazilian embassy in Damascus three separate times, but it wasn’t until bombs starting pouring down that “Brazil opened its arms.”
Aboud left his hometown of Raqqa four years ago, leaving his 80-year-old father behind.
“I decided to come to Brazil because problems came to my city,” Aboud told EFE during an interview at his restaurant.
“Everybody left Raqqa,” he said.
Located in northeast Syria, Raqqa was taken over by the Islamic State organization in January 2014, where it established a terror regime and “the capital of the caliphate.”
After a one-year military operation launched by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) with the support of an intense bombing campaign by US forces, IS was driven out of Raqqa in October 2017.
Aboud arrived in Sao Paulo without knowing a word of Portuguese.
He worked for three years as a waiter in an Arab restaurant, where he “made a little money,” and then decided to open his own restaurant to take advantage of his culinary skills.
His business was a success and he was soon able to hire a Somalian and two Angolan refugees to help him expand.
“They also came here to work, because they need to make a living and help their families,” Aboud said, adding that he also sent money to his relatives who stayed in Syria.
“My father is still in Syria, alone. He doesn’t want to abandon his property, he just doesn’t. Life is very hard there, but he doesn’t want to leave. He is 80 years old and he doesn’t want to leave his home,” he said.
After the SDF and US forces took Raqqa, very little has been said regarding the fate of the city, which once had a population of some 220,000 and is now almost completely abandoned.
Aboud said that he would like his father and his brothers to come live with him in Brazil to open a new restaurant because cooking shawarma requires somebody “who knows and loves” to prepare it.
According to figures from Brazil’s National Committee for Refugees (Conare), the South American nation received 126,102 refugee applications in the last seven years, although it only granted refugee status to 10,145 people, of which 5,100 are still in the country.
Syrians, like Aboud, represent 35 percent of refugees living in Brazil.
Aboud expressed his concern regarding the way refugees have been treated in countries like Italy, saying that Brazilians have been more welcoming.
“It’s not good, not good. The attitude of Brazilians is different. I like Brazil and I will stay in Brazil,” he said.