Zach Marzouk speaks to Mariano Winograd, the founder of the Argentine Humanitarian Refuge, which is helping Syrian refugees start a new life in Argentina.
At the start of 2016 President Mauricio Macri announced that Argentina would receive 3,000 Syrian refugees as part of the Syrian Programme. But the country opening its doors, it is still very hard for refugees to make the journey: they must find the money to pay their own way as well as a llamante, an Argentine sponsor who will receive them when they arrive, give them a place to live, and generally support them when they are here.
Leah Tandeter is the Director of Policy and International Justice at Amnesty International Argentina. She states that the Syria Programme announcement was received well by the international community despite it being presented “without specific details and its application was dependent on obtaining economic support.” She underscored that Argentina does not appear to have plans to develop a resettlement programme and instead will “delegate it to good willed people”.
“At Amnesty we believe that the solution starts by developing a resettlement programme which gives security, support, and seriousness which this situation needs.” She added: “It is fundamental that the state help refugees with structural solutions, and not leave the lives of thousands of people in the hands of good-willed individuals.”
One of the organisations of good willed individuals helping Syrian refugees to find a sponsor is the Argentine Humanitarian Refuge (RHA), founded by Mariano Winograd. We sat down with him to hear his story and why he decided to set up the organisation.
Winograd is an agriculturalist who has his own vegetable shop in San Isidro. He received two Syrian refugees, Majed and Madlen, six months ago. “They got married in As-Suwayda in Syria on 10th June, arrived here on 27th, and were just in time for my 60th birthday on 30th June,” explains Winograd, who says he has practically adopted the two Syrians and they are now part of his family.
Winograd’s four Jewish grandparents came to Argentina in the 1920s. Their parents stayed in Europe and were killed during the Holocaust. “When we were younger we celebrated Passover and my grandfather always asked for a minute’s silence for his siblings and parents who had died in Europe. It was always clear that fascism and xenophobia were a catastrophe that never solved anything, and we have always seen Argentina as a place where people from all over the world can come, where there is no discrimination and where the Argentine constitution says it’s for us, for everyone of goodwill in the world who wants to live here.”
Winograd was strongly affected by what he had seen in Syria and Europe in the last year and compared it to what happened to Jewish people in the 20th century, which angered him. So he decided to do something.
“I feel like I am giving back to Argentina what Argentina gave to my family, because if my grandparents had not come here then we would never have existed as a family.”
It was the Argentine ambassador in Syria -a friend of Winograd’s from university, and fellow agriculturalist- who told him about the Syrian Programme, where any Argentine can receive a family from Syria. “The ambassador’s wife knew a Druse woman whose nephew wanted to leave Syria, we contacted him and they came.”
In Syria, Majed was an accountant and Madlen a history teacher but as they do not speak much Spanish or English they have had to find other ways to make a living in Argentina.
“When they opened their suitcase when they arrived, the house filled with an exotic aroma,” Winograd remembers fondly. “They had brought a bag of zaatar and spectacular spices. I asked them why they had brought it and they replied ‘Because it is our homeland’.”
They knew how to cook so some of Winograd’s family members set up a website called Beni Maruf, which means honourable people, where they sell Syrian food. “It’s great to start with as they could earn money without knowing the language,” Winograd explains. “They started to sell food in a fish shop in Tigre and now the owner has offered Majed a job there. One day they hope to have their own business or project.”
In order for the two young Syrians to have a place to live, Winograd gave his house to them and went to live with his girlfriend – which means that sometimes he has to sleep in his car if they fall out. “Where else would I go?” he says, smiling.
Recently, the two couple managed to save enough money to rent their own place and have moved out of his house. They now live in Palermo which means that the Syrian food business has moved with them.
Winograd says although there is a long history of migration from Syria to Argentina, these new arrivals are coming from a war and have relatives there which makes them worried. “The difference between immigrants at the start of the 20th century is that nowadays everyone has Whats App,” he highlights. “They talk with their families every day, exchange photos and videos, and are conscious of what is going on. When Majed and Madlen arrived at the airport the first thing they asked me wasn’t ‘where are we going to sleep?’ or ‘What are we going to eat?’ but it was ‘Where is there wi-fi?’.”
The RHA was formed as the young people in Winograd’s family were enthusiastic about the idea. “It’s the first time they have listened to me” he laughs. They decided to set up a website and a Facebook page, which led press coverage and rapidly became popular as people who were interested in helping started to appear. “Thanks to the Argentine ambassador we were put in contact with an Argentine priest called David Fernández, who is in Aleppo, and he sent us 20 documents of families who wanted to come to Argentina. We began to look for llamantes and now we have representatives in Córdoba, Mendoza, Tucumán, Chaco, and Santiago del Estero.”
There are about a hundred people helping in the organisation under three different categories: llamante, donor, and volunteer. The llamantes have a home and income and they receive a family from Syria who they aim to help integrate here. Donors provide the much needed funds, and volunteers give up their free time to help the organisation in some way, like translating or language courses.
“We are looking to bring in 50 more people and that requires resources, essentially passage to Argentina. When the refugees arrive here there are already families to will receive them, but we need help fundraising money,” says Winograd.
He also highlighted that thanks to the University Centre of Languages the refugees are learning Spanish for free. They have also been going to the Islamic Centre who have helped around 50 families in the last five years by teaching them Spanish and helping them to get jobs here.
Thanks to good willed individuals, Syrian refugees are being helped in Argentina but this isn’t enough given the scale of the issue. If you want to help, then head over to RHA’s website or Facebook page to see how you can get involved.