Refugees in São Paulo: A City of Acceptance and Opportunity


BRASILIA, Brasil — São Paulo, Brazil has become what UNHCR refers to as the “Cities of Light,” welcoming refugees from around the world and implementing programming designed to help them build successful lives. Immigration has always been central to Brazil’s cultural identity, giving Brazilians familiarity with ethnic diversity. As a result, many residents of São Paulo understand the struggles of starting over in a new setting and are very accommodating to refugees. Refugees in São Paulo come from all over the world, including the Middle East and Latin America. It is both programming in São Paulo and the open-mindedness of the city’s residents that makes this city ideal for refugees.

Welcoming of Syrian and Venezuelan Refugees

Of the world’s 25.4 million refugees today, approximately 60 percent live in camps and cities in the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. São Paulo, among other cities, including Vienna and Erbil, has embraced refugees, rather than shun them, as other countries and cities have done.

One of Brazil’s most beneficial programs is one aimed at helping Syrian refugees. In 2013, Brazil implemented a program that allows Syrian refugees to easily claim asylum at the Brazilian embassy. Refugees who claim asylum are given a tourist visa, which enables them to safely and legally travel to Brazil and legally work when they arrive. This program has helped reduce the prominence of people smugglers, as Syrian refugees have no need to be illegally smuggled into Brazil.

In addition to Syrian refugees, refugees from Venezuela have been entering Brazil at extremely high rates. 200,000 Venezuelan refugees crossed into Brazil since 2017. However, nearly half have moved on, and the current number of these people in the country is 98,000 currently. Approximately 500 additional refugees arrive each day, many of whom become settled in São Paulo.

Language Barrier

One of the main setbacks faced by refugees in São Paulo is the language barrier, as most refugees do not speak Portuguese before coming to Brazil. Not knowing the language can be a barrier to accessing employment and housing, as well as functioning on a day-to-day basis in the city. The “Open Doors” project seeks to remedy this by offering Portuguese language classes to refugees from all backgrounds.

While many other cities with high refugee populations offer language classes, São Paulo is unique in that the teachers are employees, rather than volunteers and they are trained specifically to teach Portuguese to foreigners. Additionally, refugees do not have to show any documentation to join a language class.

This project has helped language schools to spread across São Paulo, with at least one in four of the city’s five regions. Previously, language schools were concentrated in the center of the city, which made them more expensive, making it difficult for many refugees to come to classes. As of October 2018, 13 schools had been opened, with over 500 students enrolled, and the “Open Doors” project plans to increase these numbers even further.

Positive Integration Examples

Eyad Mohamed Dabour, a Palestinian refugee living in São Paulo, reported that taking a language class has enabled him to open his own landscaping business, in addition to helping him integrate into the community. He stated: “They’re taught by real, qualified teachers and the classes aren’t too big. Now I can talk to my employees, my customers, Without these classes, I wouldn’t have my business.”

One way refugees in São Paulo can get around the language barrier is by opening food businesses. Syrian refugees, in particular, have found that this business has a lot of potentials, as many people in Brazil enjoy Middle Eastern cooking and they can get by with a remedial knowledge of Portuguese.

A Syrian refugee named Ahmad initially opened a food stand to sell Shawarma in São Paulo and now owns three restaurants. More than half of his staff are Syrian refugees, allowing them to communicate in their native language. Employing other refugees is also crucial to helping those with a similar background find meaningful work in the city.

Benefits for Brazil

Many Brazilian businesses also employ refugees, helping them become autonomous. Johnny José Gonzalez, a Venezuelan refugee, was hired through a job program that helps refugees in São Paulo find work. This enabled him to move out of the refugee shelter and into his own apartment, giving back some control over his life.

Significantly, some Brazilians clearly recognize that employing refugees not only benefits the refugees but can also benefit themselves and their companies. The operations manager at Dox, the company Gonzalez was hired by, stated: “I think we as a company have learned more from them than they have from us.” He went on to say: “They teach us about their culture, about being proactive. They share a lot with us and we’ve become better because of them.”

Both the specific programming offered and the open-mindedness of the people help refugees in São Paulo succeed and thrive. This is a view that would benefit refugees around the world if it was more widespread.  Hopefully, other cities and countries can learn from São Paulo and use it as a model for their own approach to help refugees.

– Sara Olk

Photo: Flickr


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