Immediately it reminded me of what happened in the verge of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire when thousands (now Syrians and Lebanese) made a long journey to the other side of the Atlantic to begin a new life. Most of them were Christians persecuted fiercely in the last years of the Empire. They paid to go to Amrik (America) and they meant The United States of America. But thousands ended in the ports of Brazil after being fooled by their takers. Mostly confused while arriving in “the wrong Amrik” they often asked where they were: “It´s Amrik the same” would be the answer.
Is there such a thing like “wrong Europe” to a refugee? It seems normal that a Syrian thinks of Germany as an asylum seeker. Not only because of Angela Merkel welcome statement when children´s dead bodies were floating in the Turkish shore last summer but because for years (before the Civil War erupted in Syria) German universities accepted Syrian and other nationalities students from the region and their certificates. Germany is the largest economy in Europe and yes, they know that chances to find a job are superior than in weakest European economies. On the other side, they are also becoming aware of rising hate crimes and anti-refugee plotters amongst German far-right extremists.
On the other hand, what they know about Portugal? Many of them never heard of it. When they did, the news was about the economic crisis. I talked to a few Syrians who are students in Portugal in a fellowship program former Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio funded shortly after the Syrian war started. Those youngsters come here to finish their university studies or masters and stay with Portuguese families who volunteered to open their houses to them. Although they don´t have a refugee status, they “have never heard of Portugal prior to coming” or “knew only about the beautiful beaches and its economic crisis”. One young lady was surprised to find out that Arabs were in Portugal centuries ago. She as many of her compatriots knows nothing or little about the country. They agreed that Portugal was not their first choice.
A Syrian passport is a toilet paper or a golden horn
Once here they were welcomed in a way they couldn´t image. We walked together in the streets of Lisbon. One of them was wearing a scarf and children and adults who crossed us gave her a look. “When you smile, they smile back, you don´t feel you are not respected, you don´t feel hate. It might be lack of knowledge, some prejudice and curiosity but not hate”.
After being here for a few months, they wouldn´t choose Germany as their destination although they are not sure jobs will come after they finish their studies. They do not have illusions. “My passport (a Syrian) passport is a toilet paper or a golden horn”. “On one side, they look suspicious at you in any European border, on the other, there are many people who are not Syrians who want it to enter in Europe [This conversation took place in Lisbon prior to Paris attacks in November 13th]
In the opposite side of the recent statement of the associate director of Portuguese border agency, Teresa Tito Moraes, President of the Portuguese Refugee Council, said that there is not enough evidence to say there is a refusal to come to the country. She believes that as long as refugees are given a choice they will come.
Since the peak of the refugee crisis only 700 have been settled in European countries out of 160,000 who are waiting to be relocated. Only 50 will come before Christmas. Portugal should give asylum to 4574. It is hard to believe that the lack of willingness to resettle amongst refugees is stronger than bureaucracy and inertia of European leaders to set it as a priority.
In the case of Portugal where the Socialist Party, in a left-wing alliance including the Communist Party and the left bloc, just took power after four-years of a conservative right-wing Government, the question is what will be their policy to integrate refugees and avoid the mistakes other European countries did as creating “ghettos” foreigners mainly when they are Muslims. As the Syrians students I spoke with remind us “Differently from Germans, Portuguese haven´t realized yet that refugees will come not for a time but to stay”.
Back to “the wrong Amrik”, the Syrian-Lebanese community in Brazil was the only one who went to all its five regions. Today there are three more times Lebanese descents in Brazil than Lebanese in Lebanon. Syrians and Lebanese descents are present in all fields of society from politics, gastronomy, economics and culture, responsible for some of the best hospitals in the country. Is there such a thing as “a right country” to go? and what we expect as a nation? A Portuguese who opened his house to a Syrian student gives the answer: “It will help us to gain respect for itself as a nation, to open us again to the world”.
Read more in this debate: Christian Schnee.