The Atassi family in Buenos Aires circa 1974.

War hits close to home for Latin Americans of Syrian descent

The recent news of the Venezuelan-Syrian member of parliament, Adel El Zabaya, leaving to fight alongside the government of Bashar Al Assad was no surprise to the millions of people of Syrian descent in Latin America.

Syrians began to arrive in Latin America in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

In many countries they were known as “Turcos” or “Turks” because they arrived while Syria was still part of the Ottoman Empire, and thus possessed Ottoman or Turkish passports. There are no reliable figures on the size of the Syrian diaspora in Latin America but it is thought there are around 18 million. Brazil has the largest population at around 8 million, followed by Argentina.

Yaoudat Brahim left Syria for Argentina 83 years ago when he was just one year old, but his passion for Syria is still strong.  Like many others in the Syrian diaspora, he is afraid of what the result of a US strike would be. “We are living with a lot of anguish and fear with the situation in Syria,” he said.

Brahim, a Christian who settled in Buenos Aires along with his parents and sister, is concerned about his relatives in Syria whom he hasn’t seen since he last visited in 2007. He said he doesn’t support the government in Syria, yet he is convinced the government did not use chemical weapons against its people.

“A Syrian would never kill his fellow brother. The violence is being caused by mercenaries from other countries … I lament that the US would support the terrorists… this will only bring more deaths,” Brahim said.

Brahim’s reaction is not unusual. It is common for Syrians in Latin America to sympathize with Assad and reject any kind of foreign intervention, particularly the US.

Joseph Hage, Executive Director of the American Lebanese Policy Institute, spent four years living in Mexico and witnessed the diaspora first hand. He said people in Latin America of Syrian origin continue to be divided religiously just like in Syria.

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The majority of Syrians who immigrated to Latin America are Christians, Alawites, and Druze – and just like in Syria, they are less critical of Assad. Sunnis and Shias did not immigrate to Latin America in large numbers. According to Hage, this is because many of the Sunnis and Shias were religiously conservative and found it difficult to incorporate their lifestyle into Western society.

“Christians felt at home in Latin America because it was easy to find churches and family life was very similar,” he added. Alawites and Druze are less religious than Sunnis and Shias so they also did not find it difficult to adapt to life in Latin America.

“In the diaspora, they still stick to their religious beliefs… when they leave their country, they indoctrinate their children to stay within their roots,” he added.

In fact, there are over two dozen Syrian organizations in Argentina and many identify themselves by religion. For example, the “Administrative Orthodox Council,” the “Association of Druzes,” or the “Pan-Alawite Islamic Association.”

Oubay Atassi comes from a prominent Sunni political family in Syria.  His great-uncle, Hashim Al Atassi, was the first president of Syria and his cousin, Nureddin Al Atassi, was president when Hafez Al-Assad overthrew him in a coup. Atassi grew up in Argentina among other countries in Europe and the Middle-East while his father was ambassador. He now resides in Miami, but constantly travels to Latin America for work and tries to help the rebels’ cause. He said “unfortunately in Latin America they are more on the side of Assad than the rebels” and are against US intervention.

However, he thinks this is just part of anti-US sentiment which is found in parts of Latin America.

Laila Tajeldine lives in Venezuela and is the granddaughter of Syrian immigrants. She identifies herself as a Marxist-Leninist and “categorically condemns” any action from the US or any foreign nation. “When you are against imperialism, against invasion of sovereignty, and the use of mercenaries… then you have to stand by Syria and the President,” she said.

In the meantime, Atassi is working with groups in Latin America to try to change the public’s opinion about the Syrian rebels, and many of those working with him are Christian Orthodox and other Christians. Any news that comes from the rebels is translated immediately to Spanish and divulged to the press.

Atassi welcomes limited US military action in Syria. “We don’t want foreign troops on the ground or an invasion. We want a no fly zone to be created, so there is more of a balance and Syrian rebels can move around with more ease,” he said.

Hernan, 48, who asked not use his last name, said his grandparents were Syrian Alawite immigrants to Argentina. He said the situation is shameful.

“The government and the rebels each have their own interests… [A US intervention] would cause a humanitarian disaster larger than the one that already exists,” he said.

There is a new generation of Syrians making their way to Latin America due to the violence in Syria.

Nabil Haddad, a Christian from Damascus, arrived in Buenos Aires one year ago. He said he left behind properties and a business to work in a parking garage earning minimum wage.

Haddad said he is not a politically driven person and left because he feared for the future of his two daughters, ages four and seven. He chose Argentina because, like many, he already had relatives in the country.

It has been difficult for him to adapt, though he already has a good grasp of Spanish. He hopes to live in Syria again one day but for now he avoids reading news about Syria on the internet and cries each day when he hears news about his homeland. “I don’t watch news, I don’t open the internet … I cry … I love Syria and I just want to live in a peaceful Syria,” he said.

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