SAO PAULO, Brazil – “My name is Muna Darweesh. I am 36 years old. My country was being destroyed by a civil war, so I fled to Brazil and restarted my life. As a Muslim, I’ve always covered my hair, but I haven’t covered my mind.”
These are the words with which Muna, a Syrian refugee turned Brazilian success story, introduced herself the first time she went on stage to tell her entrepreneurial story to an audience in São Paulo, Brazil’s commercial capital. That she spoke to them in Portuguese was a mark of how far she has come.
In 2013, when life in her home city of Latakia was made unlivable by war, Brazil was one of the few escape options for those Syrians who could afford the cost of the journey. Although she knew next to nothing about the country, Brazil was letting Syrians enter on a holiday visa and then apply for refugee status.
“I dreamed of a country that would receive my children. So we got our visas to Brazil,” said Muna.
Since the civil war in Syria began, Brazil has taken in 2,300 Syrian refugees, according to Conare, the Brazilian National Committee for Refugees. The majority of them, like Muna and her family, have ended up in São Paulo, home to the country’s largest Arab community.
As Muna and her husband, Wessam Jammal – a marine engineer – discovered, reaching safety was only the first step. They still had to make a life and find work in their adopted country.
Syrian asylum seekers have the right to work as well as access education and public healthcare while their applications are considered. But outside of funds distributed through the Catholic charity, Caritas, there is no government system to receive asylum seekers and offer them longer-term support.
Brazil’s long economic boom has turned to bust in recent years. At least 14 million of Brazil’s 210 million citizens live below the poverty line. While a number of charities and nonprofits from Caritas and Missão Paz, to Adus, a refugee integration group, offer help with language lessons and finding jobs, the emphasis is on the new arrivals to help themselves.
With help from relatives, Muna and her family rented a house, but within a year their money had run out and they found themselves trading down. They moved from a relatively comfortable neighborhood to the cheaper central areas of São Paulo where some Arab and Muslim communities have traditionally congregated around a handful of mosques. The presence of many of the Arab residents can be traced back to an influx of textile traders in the late 19th century. The family were given a loan by one of the mosques to cover rent and found themselves in a run-down apartment.
But housing was only part of the problem. With her degree in English literature, Muna thought she could be an English teacher, but quickly found that it was a lot of work for very little money. While her husband had been a well-paid engineer in Syria, the language barrier meant this was a nonstarter in Brazil.
Then some inspiration struck at the mosque: “One day, I saw a woman selling bread at the mosque and I got the idea of working with food.”
That is when Muna tried her first sentence in Portuguese: “I asked a woman of Arab descent, ‘Onde tem árabes?’ (Where are the Arabs?)”
Muna’s catering business was launched with 1,500 reais ($470) in the little kitchen in her apartment, which she packed full of Arabic herbs and spices. Her first offering was halawet el jibn, sweet cheese rolls. The initial plan was that Muna would cook and her husband would do the hawking.
“Then, one day, I saw a woman selling things on the streets, something I have never seen in Syria,” said Muna. “When I saw this different side of Brazilian culture, something occurred to me.”
Determined to make a go of it, Muna took her four children and Wessam and went out to sell Arabic sweets on the street and in Arab-owned neighborhood stores. Sales were astonishing. While Wessam had sold 10 pieces that day, Muna sold around 50 desserts. “Now, I am famous there,” she said with a laugh.
The family’s routine for the next year and a half was set. Apart from selling sweets at Arabic stores six days a week, Muna would sell desserts outside the Brazil Mosque on Fridays, while Wassem would do the same at Santo Amaro Mosque.
Muna says that she often thinks about how different her life would have been at home, where there would have been no impetus or support for her to work. “I couldn’t show my talents in Syria, because of the social control, and my father and my brothers. Fortunately, I have an open-minded husband. I could not have done anything in Brazil if I had been with another man.”
Her local reputation received a boost after she came to the attention of refugee support organizations Migraflix and Adus. They invited her to give talks and hold cooking workshops. She has since catered for organizations such as the U.N. Refugee Agency in Brazil and TEDx Sao Paulo, as well as embassies and large corporations. Her Facebook page ”Muna Sabores e Memórias Árabes” (Muna’s Arabic Tastes and Flavors) is often besieged with orders.
Brazil’s television stations soon took note and an appearance followed on Brazilian Master Chef. Last December, she appeared on TV Globo, the nation’s top network, as part of the project, “My Refugee Friend,” through which refugee families spent their Christmas Eve with Brazilian families.
At home, as well as doing all the cooking, Muna and her husband process the online orders and hone their language skills. “I learn Portuguese with my Brazilian customers through their food orders,” she said.
Meanwhile, her four children have thrown themselves into their new lives, with three of them becoming citizens. Only her oldest daughter, Gawa, could not apply for citizenship because she was over five years of age when she entered Brazil.
They are all in school, have made both Brazilian and Syrian friends, and speak fluent Portuguese. Still, the couple believes “it’s good for them to listen to their native language,” so they keep the TV on and tuned to an Arabic channel.
Muna is unconcerned about how the Brazilian lifestyle might affect her children’s native culture. “I will let them choose what to do. I can give some guidance for their lives, but I cannot force them to do anything. My children are Brazilians now.”
Future plans include the launch of a restaurant where Muna aims to combine Arabic gastronomy, music, dance, poetry and history. “I want to create a cultural experience for people,” she says.
The pace and extent of the change she has experienced leaves her sometimes wondering whether she is living ”another woman’s life,” she says. “It never occurred to me that, one day, I would do what I have done here.”
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