In 2016, most asylum requests in Brazil were from Syrians. Governmental data for the 2010-2016-period indicates a total of 3,460 asylum requests and 2,298 recognized Syrian refugees in Brazil. In 2016 alone, 326 Syrians and 57 Palestinians from Syria had their requests for refuge approved in Brazil. While this is a small number if compared to total number of Syrian and Palestinian refugees in the world, how these refugees engaged the housing struggle in Brazil can shed light on the complexity of the Syrian refugee crisis. We prefer to use here the term “refugees from the Syrian conflict”, for it considers people affected by the conflict, which started in 2011, and includes Syrians and other national groups affected by the war, like Palestinians living in Syria.
Upon the expansion of the conflict in Syria, representatives of the Brazilian Arab community, with the support and intermediation of sectors of the Catholic Church, contributed to put in place a governmental resolution to facilitate the entry of persons affected by the Syrian conflict to Brazil. This resolution considered other national groups, such as Palestinians living in Syria, extending protection to them. This by no means follows international standards, since most commonly these individuals, although affected by the war, were left out of protection programs.
In large cities in Brazil, such as São Paulo, people affected by the Syrian conflict live in squats organized by social movements. Terra Livre is one such social movement. It was founded in 2008 and works by occupying abandoned buildings and terrains with the goal of constructing popular housing. The organization has many occupations in Great São Paulo, which today house a total of more than two thousand people. Since both groups were involved in the struggle for land and home rights, the plight of the refugees from Syrian conflict and of Terra Livre appealed to each other, and some of these refugees went to live in the Leila Khaled occupation,organized by Terra Livre with the support of MOP@T (Movimento Palestina para Todos, or Palestine for All Movement in English).
MOP@T is a pro-Palestine movement, formed by Brazilians and Palestinians born in Brazil, which until the occupation used to perform actions aimed at making visible the Israeli occupation and the injustices inflicted on the Palestinian people. This movement was originally founded to help Palestinian refugees coming from the Iraq Waras a reaction to the abandonment of such refugees by the Palestinian organizations in Brazil. Throughout the years, the movement’s focus became organized around the creation of means to promote the visibility of the Palestinian question in Brazil, especially among social movements and left-wing parties through an internationalist struggle perspective. Although some of its members were Palestinians born in Brazil and others were Brazilians interested in the political questions of the Middle East, its formal objectives and political language had a socialist character, and its relations stretched towards unions, left-wing parties and social movements.
In 2015, MOP@T became aware of Palestinian refugee families that had come from Syria and were living in São Paulo, paying expensive rent for boarding in distant neighborhoods. Considering the strategic importance of Downtown for refugees – where they have access to jobs, schools, hospitals and the supporting NGOs – MOP@T asked the housing movement, Terra Livre, for space in one of its occupations. After agreeing on a partnership, sixty Palestinians flocked to the occupation and occupied four stories of the old commercial building.
The occupation takes place in an eleven-story building that belonged to a Brazilian state-owned telephone company. Abandoned for over fifteen years, this building was occupied by Brazilians and foreigners alike. Despite all its infrastructure issues, interlocutors reported that they lived in very precarious situations prior to moving there. The name of the occupied building is a reference to the Palestinian activist, Leila Khaled. The suggestion was made by one of Terra Livre’s militants, following the movement’s premise of choosing names from notable and politically combative women. The Palestinian Leila Khaled is known in the imagination of the Brazilian left as a guerrilla fighter who in her own time fought for the liberation of Palestine from the occupation of its territory. Until 2016, the Leila Khaled occupation sheltered, Brazilians - mostly low-income workers -immigrants from Egypt and Peru, and refugees from the Syrian conflict. Multiple senses of belonging are present among refugees of the Syrian conflict, and since most of them are of Palestinian origin, most affirm their national identity and recount their two-fold flight. As argued by an interlocutor: “I’m not Syrian, I’m Palestinian. I am a refugee from Palestine. This is a war among Syrians, my war is the one that expelled my parents from Palestine. (…) Now, I am a refugee, twice.”
The occupation provides refugees and other residents with housing and a venue for political participation. In accordance with Brazilian law, foreigners are not entitled to political rights, such as the right to take part in public demonstrations of a political nature. As Helena Manfrinato’s research points out, the reception of refugees from the Syrian conflict, especially after the global media coverage of the humanitarian crisis in Syria in 2015, emphasized humanitarian issues. Activism and social and political engagement in refugee and immigrants’ rights were circumscribed to the environments of political articulation in the context migrants’ movements and other groups like MOP@T. With the Leila Khaled Occupation, a window was opened not only for the visibility of the political struggle for housing and refugees’ rights, but also for connecting different institutions such as social movements and mosques, Christian charity organizations and volunteers that promoted assistance to vulnerable families.
Concomitantly, Mirian Alves de Souza’s researchfocuses on accommodation policies and actions for refugees of the Syrian conflict and determined that accommodation policy in Brazil is ruled by faith-based organizations, mostly Christian, that receive funds from the Brazilian state through agreements and partnerships with the UNHCR. Thus, the provision of accommodation for refugees in Brazil is couched in the language of compassion and charity. Besides, since state and UNHCR’s funds are always minimal, organizations are not obliged to respond to the ever-growing collective demands. By contrast, the Leila Khaled Occupation presents a different scenario. The language used is that of rights, of “class solidarity” and of “solidarity among peoples”, instead of compassion in the humanitarian sense. This occupation’s existence originates from the recognition that housing is a right to be claimed. To its organizers, activists of Terra Livre (whose red flag can be seen on the buildings’ façade), hosting refugees is the duty of the Brazilian state, as refugees do not have access to the city because of “real estate speculation”. Cost of living in the city of São Paulo, as well as in the city of Rio de Janeiro, makes it impossible for refugees to stay in Brazil.
To conclude, both researches point out that while housing rights are shared by all, Brazilians and non-Brazilians alike, the right to engage in political struggle is not guaranteed to foreigners. But for the activists of Leila Khaled, the struggle for housing and for political rights is one and the same. For Palestinian families, to live together as neighbors – like some used to do in Palestinian refugee camps in Syria – achieved an advantage as important as getting affordable housing in downtown São Paulo. It permitted the reconstruction of the camp’s modes of socialization in their coexistence and shared everyday life, their mutual help and belonging.
4: In 2008, 117 Palestinians from the Al Rweished camp - formed after the Iraq War - went to Brazil and settled in Rio Grande do Sul and São Paulo, in cities with large Arab-Muslim communities.
 See Hamid, 2015.
This postdoctoral research has been developed since September 2015 at Centro de Estudos em Direito e Política de Imigração e Refúgio (Center for Studies on Immigration and Refuge Law and Policy) of Fundação Casa de Rui Barbosa, through a grant from the Brazilian Ministry of Culture.
Refugees still tend to prefer these cities, mainly São Paulo, because it has a large Arab-Muslim community, which has mosques, and it is where the NGOs of refugee assistance are concentrated.