Brazil: Rio de Janeiro Carnival to Feature Refugee Children, Including Syrians

Reuters/Paulo Whitaker
Reuters/Paulo Whitaker

Brazil will feature forty refugee children in its largest parade celebrating the national holiday Carnival, including children from Syria, Sudan, Angola, and Libya. The children will march in a procession expected to draw thousands, even amid Latin America’s Zika virus pandemic.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ office has confirmed that they have helped the government of Rio de Janeiro plan the display, in which the forty children will wear extravagant holiday costumes and march as part of the parade. “Dancing in this world of fantasy, colors and rhythms will be a magical experience for them,” Vivianne Reis, the head of an NGO working with the UN on this project, said.

The children will receive samba dancing training from the Grêmio Recreativo Escola de Samba Mangueira, one of the nation’s most prominent dancing academies. The children will be aged 6 to 14. “Rio de Janeiro is the most beautiful city in the world, and I want to participate very much,” Gabriela Vicente Garcia, a 12-year-old Angolan refugee, told Brazil’s O Globo newspaper. Reis told the newspaper she expected significant pushback from refugee parents, particularly in Muslim communities, but managed to find forty children whose parents allowed them to participate.

“There is a carnival association with alcohol, sex and naked people on the street. I thought that no Syrian family would agree,” she said, noting that her group had to show parents images of the children’s show they had imagined to convince them that no anti-Islamic activity would occur. She noted one modification to the show she had imagined: “I chose the tin soldier,” she notes, but the UN considered it inappropriate to dress refugee children in military uniforms. Instead, the children will be dressed as ghosts.

Brazil has granted 8,000 visas to Syrian refugees since the civil war there began in 2011, and signed a new agreement with the UN in October to make it easier for fleeing Syrian refugees to come to Latin America. Many have made their home in the Latin American country despite unfavorable economic circumstances and jarring cultural differences. The Economist has reported that Brazil’s economy is expected to shrink 3 percent in 2016, and many refugees struggle to find a place in the labor market. “Everything here is wonderful—except for jobs,” Mobkaf Altawil, a Syrian architect who now bakes pizzas in Brazil, tells The Economist.

For some, beyond the economic troubles, they find the individual freedoms in Brazil oppressive and anti-Islamic. “The Islam here in Brazil is a milder Islam,” one refugee lamented to the New York Times last year. “It’s a good country, but it’s not for us — not for Muslims.” Another, a woman who fled Syria alone, fears what her family will say of her if she is ever to return to Syria: “They’ll say, ‘Who knows what she did there?’” Her family cut contact with her for months in objection to her decision to flee the civil war.

Brazil has fared better in assimilating Syrian refugees than neighboring Uruguay, whose much-publicized Syrian resettlement program has triggered a number of social problems. In 2015, Uruguay announced it would restart its refugee program after halting it for months. Uruguay first banned male Syrian refugees from entering the country, arguing that the rate of domestic abuse cases in the country skyrocketed following the implementation of the refugee program. The government paused the program entirely shortly thereafter, as the 42 Syrian refugees (five families) living in Uruguay demanded further government aid, outraging Uruguayan citizens.

In October, the head of one of the five Syrian attacked government and UN officials at a meeting in which he demanded further aid, before dousing himself in gasoline and threatening to self-immolate.

While Uruguay claimed it had restarted the refugee program, it says that those scheduled to arrive in Uruguay at the end of 2015 will not be taking the flight out of Lebanon, as the government has lost touch with them.