The ongoing political conflict in Syria, opposing rebel factions to government forces, has generated an influx of Syrian immigrants to Argentina since its beginning in 2011. Due to the existence of an important Syrian community in the country, many of those who had relatives here chose Argentina as their exile destination, as the lack of security and the paralysation of the economic activity in Syria obliged many families to leave their homeland.
Syria’s downward spiral into a dreadful conflict has caused a great number of fatalities. By the start of 2013, according to UN estimates, more than 60,000 people -mostly civilians- were killed. More than 400,000 Syrian refugees had registered in neighbouring countries (Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon) and it is estimated that there are tens of thousands more unregistered.
Since the beginning of the conflict, the Argentine consulate in Damascus has seen the number of demands for visas increase by 40%.
“I decided to leave Syria and go to Argentina in June 2012, as it was difficult for me to keep on studying. The roadblocks made it very difficult to circulate and I couldn’t attend my classes in university” says Leila (not her real name) a 26 year-old biology student who arrived in Buenos Aires on 13th January 2013.
Leila is from the Syrian village of Kalaat Yandal, located 50km from Damascus. She had to go through Lebanon to be able to leave the region, as the Damascus airport is closed. Leila had never travelled before. She came alone to her great uncle’s in Buenos Aires, who lives with his Argentine wife and their three children in a 150-year old house in Belgrano, which belongs to their family. He is a descendant of Syrian immigrants from Kalaat Yandal, who arrived in Argentina in the 1930s.
The Syrian-Lebanese Community in Argentina
It is estimated that a high percentage of Argentina’s current population descends from immigrants, who arrived in the country in various waves of migration escaping wars, economic hardship, and religious persecution. After the Spanish and the Italian, the third wave of immigrants to arrive were the Syrian-Lebanese. Today, it is estimated that there are about 3,500,000 Syrian-Lebanese immigrants and their descendants living across Argentina.
In the early 1860s, a significant number of Syrians and Lebanese started to immigrate to certain countries in America, such as the United States, Brazil, Chile, and Argentina. The majority of the those who immigrated to Argentina at that time were Christians who were -as minorities- escaping persecutions under the Ottoman Empire.
At the same time, the demographic boom in the Middle East -and the lack of work it generated- incited many more to emigrate for economic purposes.
A massive first wave of Syrian and Lebanese immigration to Argentina took place between the 1860s and the 1950s. According to the official registries, 108,000 immigrants from the Middle East arrived in that period. They were classified as ‘turcos’, as their countries of origin were provinces of the Ottoman Empire.
After the 1950s, the number of immigrants from Syria and Lebanon diminished drastically. Since then, Syrian immigrants have been coming in small numbers to join relatives and look for work opportunities.
“In the last decades, the number of Syrian immigrants has been very small, but the increase from 2011 is significant,” says Hugo Moujan, from the Immigration Department, explaining how the civil war has contributed to the increase of Syrian immigration to Argentina in the past year.
Statistics show an increase of almost 500% in the grant of permanent residency permits to Syrian citizens and of 460% of temporary residency permits between 2011 and 2012.
Integration Into a New Society
The first waves of Syrian immigrants have integrated themselves in the social structures of the country and local organisations. They showed permeability to adapt to the Argentine culture and way of life, and have merged with the local population.
This has led to a certain loss of the feeling of belonging to their nation of origin. Their leaders are not identified as representatives of the Syrian-Lebanese community, but more as Argentines.
Like Leila’s relatives in Buenos Aires, the majority of Syrian descendants do not speak Arabic; the first immigrants did not teach the language to their children. She explains the difficulty she has to communicate with her relatives since her arrival, as she does not speak Spanish. Moreover, Leila had never met them before, as they never visited Syria.
“Their lifestyle here is so different from the Arabic culture,“ she notes. “They have the Arab spirit, but in very minimal doses”.
The Syrian immigrants who arrived in the last few decades have different characteristics, as the newcomers preserved a certain sense of loyalty to their country of origin, and wanted to stay close to their own culture.
Rached Deglauy is part of a second wave of immigrants who came to Argentina to join relatives and find work opportunities. He arrived in Buenos Aires in 1976, at the age of 17, and started working in his uncle’s shop, until he opened his own textile business.
As he explains, unlike the past waves of immigrants who “forgot their origins”, the immigrants from the 1970s were much more attached to their Syrian culture and taught their children Arabic -as Rached did.
“The visa was easy to get at that time: your relatives could get you a residency permit before you even arrived,” notes Rached, explaining how his uncle helped him to obtain a work visa.
“Nowadays, it is more complicated: you need to have a work contract, they want to check if you are paying taxes (…) you can’t get a permit before arriving anymore. Things have to be done from here; so people come to their relatives [with a tourist visa] and try to get a residency permit once they arrive”.
A Temporary Exile
Whilst Rached and his generation settled in quickly and did not have problems to integrate into their new lives in Argentina, most of the Syrians who arrived in the last two years are not planning to settle in the country.
Leila, although she likes the city and the life here, thinks of going back to Syria when her tourist visa expires. “I arrived only one month ago, I don’t know yet how I feel about being here. I will probably go back to Syria (…) I hope things will calm down soon [there]”.
Rached had to get his mother from Syria, via Lebanon, in October 2012, as she did not want to leave her home.
“I had to go and get her myself, she has health problems and needs medical assistance. It wasn’t a good place for her to stay (…) there wasn’t a hospital near the village, and it is very hard to enter in the nearest city of Homs,” he says. Rached’s mother is now in a safer environment, and can count on her two sons to take care of her (Rached brother also immigrated to Argentina).
Likewise, Leila is here is with family. “My great uncle is extremely nice to me (…) my great cousins help me with everything and take me out when I want to”. They helped her feel at home, and to let her rest her mind and “forget” about the frightening and violent environment she came from.
Also, thanks to the modern ways of communication, the recent immigrants have been able to keep in contact with their families in Syria. Leila had never seen her relatives in Buenos Aires, but she knew them. “I chatted with my great-cousins all the time and they were telling me about their lives in Buenos Aires (…) I wasn’t afraid to come here by myself, as I felt I knew them already, and they were telling me great things about Argentina”.
However, she worries about her family in Syria constantly – even though she speaks to them on a daily basis. She feels very far from them, and since her arrival, she tends to stay at home and does not do much. Sometimes she meets an Arab-speaking Lebanese priest at the Saint-George Orthodox Church in Palermo, who is, according to Leila, helping many recent Syrian immigrants find their feet and feel at home in Buenos Aires, as they come from a very chaotic situation in Syria.
As well as the Saint-George priest, the Syrian community in Argentina is trying to help the recent immigrants. The Syrian-Lebanese institutions established in the country have received and hosted fleeing Syrian families since 2011, helping them to live and work in the country.
Leila’s great uncle is part of the Charity Association Syria Kalaat Yandal, founded in the 1930s by the first group of Syrian immigrants coming from Kalaat Yandal village. This association was founded with the aim of creating a space where the Syrian immigrants could gather, speak their language, eat typical Syrian food, and keep in contact with those who immigrated here.
The first families hosted newcomers from Kalaat Yandal who arrived in Buenos Aires, and helped them find jobs and settle. Today, the association still welcomes immigrants from Kalaat Yandal, but the more recent migrants left Syria for very different reasons.
Leila has never been to a Kalaat Yandal event, as she is not planning to stay here and does not think it is necessary to becomed involved with the local Syrian community.
The Syrians in Argentina participate in such events as it is a way for them to “stay united with Syria,” Rached observes. A Syria that tends to be idealised, and that seems far from the reality of the country today.
How do Argentines feel about the country taking in immigrants fleeing danger? Click here to find out.