Brazil priest opens parish doors to war-battered Syrians

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SHAFAQNA - More than a year before Pope Francis urged Europe’s Catholics to take in Syrian refugees, a priest in Brazil marshaled the support of his parishioners to ease the suffering of those fleeing unimaginable horror.

More than 30 Syrians — almost all Muslims — have found safe haven in Brazil thanks to the efforts of Alex Coelho and his flock at St John the Baptist parish in Rio de Janeiro.

Syrian arrivals here have found a warm welcome, and thanks to donations from the faithful, room and board for at least three months.

Coelho even learned some Arabic in order to communicate with the Syrians, the vanguard of what is likely to become a much larger influx, as a human tidal wave flees the war-torn country.

Just this week, President Dilma Rousseff said Brazil would greet Syrian refugees with “open arms,” and would welcome those “driven from their homeland, who want to come live, work and contribute to the prosperity and peace of Brazil.”

Refugees sheltering at Father Alex’s church are given access to Portuguese language lessons and assistance in finding work.

And even though the help they receive comes from the Catholic church and church-affiliated charities, they are given the freedom to practice their Muslim faith.

“We have a chapel here, but the refugees can come to pray the Koran if they wish,” Father Alex said, as he gave AFP a tour of the spacious, sparsely furnished dwelling currently housing nine Syrians, located in the courtyard of the church.

– Syrian army or death –

The residents, all men, have been in the house for the past month, and only speak Arabic.

Khaled Fares, 27, arrived in Brazil a year and half ago. He is studying Portuguese.

“My options, had I stayed in Syria, would have been either to go to the army, or die,” he told AFP.

“My father begged me to get out.”

Back home, he had training as a technician in making dentures, and hopes to become a dentist in Rio some day.

Fares came to Brazil, some 11,000 kilometers (7,000 miles) from home, because it was the only country that accepted his petition for asylum. He did not want to put his life in peril by trying to travel to Europe illegally.

He is grateful to be here, but admits to sometimes being overcome with sadness.

“Here in Brazil, I know no one. I have no relatives, no home, no language,” Fares said.

Refugees do however find here a larger Arab community, and a tradition of immigration to Brazil from the Middle East dating back decades.

Brazil has received more than 2,000 Syrian refugees since the start of the war in 2011, far more than any other country in Latin America.

The government has accepted all Syrian asylum petitions, as well as established measures to streamline and accelerate the application process.

– ‘God has no religion’ –

Father Alex opened the doors of his church to the refugees a year and a half ago, after seeing a television news broadcast detailing the suffering of the Syrian refugees.

The generosity of his parish extends not only to refugees fleeing that conflict however, but to Nigerians, Afghans, Palestinians and Iraqis as well, although 90 percent are Syrians.

“I am a Christian, and the overwhelming majority of them are Muslims,” the cleric told AFP.

“But there is just one God who looks over all of us, and we are brothers. God has no religion.”

The steady stream of those fleeing the brutal civil war that has already killed more than 240,000 people in four years seems unlike to abate.

The conflict has forced more than four million into exile. Many have wound up in Europe, the largest exodus on the continent since World War II.

Those who cannot find safety and shelter crossing the Mediterranean sometimes find it in Latin America, although some — like Dara Ramadan — harbor hopes of eventually being able to settle in Europe.

Ramadan, who looks far older than his 42 years, sold his home in northern Syria, near the Iraqi border, and fled the war with his wife and four children, after this clothing store was burned to the ground.

His family sheltered in Istanbul, while Dara moved on to Brazil after several countries rejected his application for asylum. Today, he says he would like to return to Turkey.

“In Europe, the government gives you a house, a check and health care,” Ramadan said through a translator.

“If I bring my family here, I have no way to support them.”

Whether or not he makes it back to Turkey, Ramadan has left his native land for good.

“I don’t miss Syria. I have nothing there,” he said.

“There is nothing and no one there for me to miss. I lost everything.”

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