(New Shawarma). Photo: Germano Lüders

Since it began in 2011, the Syrian Civil War has killed 364,371 people, including 110,613 civilians, according to The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Besides the tragedy of tearing a country apart and killing its people, the conflict has also forced 5.6 million people (55 percent of the population) to flee and seek asylum elsewhere.

The majority of those who left Syria have gone to neighboring countries and Europe. But there are those who came to Brazil. Some 823 Syrian citizens requested refugee status in 2017; 310 had their requests granted. Since 2007, Syrians have been the main refugee group in Brazil: 2.771 have been given refugee visas, making up 39 percent of the total number in the country.

One of the main reasons for that is a 2013 resolution made by the National Refugee Committee that made their entrance in the country easier. This measure increased the number of arrivals, especially in São Paulo.

One of the ways they found to integrate themselves in the job market and in Brazilian society was through food. And this is what motivated the Research Group on Food and Culture at the School of Public Health of the University of São Paulo to study this particular migrant group. Researchers interviewed 10 Syrian refugees rebuilding their lives in Brazil and the result is the article “Representations of Syrian food by Syrian refugees in the city of São Paulo, Brazil: An ethnographic study” published in Appetite magazine.

It is part of the research project “Food as a refuge – Syrian refugees in the city of São Paulo, Brazil,” which aims to explore the sociocultural roles of food in the lives of Syrian refugees working with Syrian food in the city of São Paulo. Most of the participants (eight of the ten) had different professions and found many barriers in the way of their economic integration, especially after the political and economic crisis in Brazil.

Rebuilding life while reaffirming national identity

The researchers’ interest in the subject was sparked by reports in the media that showed Syrians using their local cuisine as a way to reestablish their lives in Brazil. “From this,” says Fernanda Imamura, one of the authors of the study, “we are interested in understanding the processes that were related in the dialogues between food, culture, migration, identity, and gender.”

According to Fernanda Scagliusi, coordinator of the group and the article’s first author, food builds a bridge between the present and a reality that most likely will not exist again in their homeland. It is a way of reinforcing their national identity and not presenting themselves as refugees. Therefore, cooking is a bridge to Syria, after the traumatic separation they suffered, which makes them feel ‘at home’ despite the physical distance, according to Ms. Imamura.

“Rebuilding life from scratch in a country whose culture and language are completely different was a major challenge and Syrian food made it possible for them to become established in Brazil,” says Fernanda Imamura, another author of the study.  Brazil has a history of Syrian and Lebanese migrations, which makes the environment friendlier for these recent migrants. Brazilians are used to Arab food and enjoy this type of cuisine.

The research group will publish two more articles: one on how working with food has repercussions on the identity of Syrian refugees and another on gender issues.

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SocietyNov 11, 2018

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BY Diogo Rodriguez

Rodriguez is a social scientist and journalist based in São Paulo.