From Syrian High School to Salvadoran Jail

Nawaf, middle, and Hamoudi, right. >Photos courtesy of Nawaf

From Syrian High School to Salvadoran Jail

As told to Taylor Barnes in Rio de Janeiro

Cousins Hamoudi and Nawaf are two of the many Syrians who are selling snacks along Brazil’s bustling streets. They are part of a wave of newcomers that took Brazil up on its offer to allow asylum-seekers from the Syrian civil war to migrate legally to the country. The pair sat down with The Islamic Monthly’s foreign correspondent in their new apartment, along with a young woman from the Amazon who, like the two men, came to Rio de Janeiro looking for a new life.

Hamoudi: I’m from Qamishli, Syria. I was born in 1994.

Nawaf: I’m from Qamishli. I was born in 1996.

Hamoudi: Qamishli has about a million people, perhaps a little less. People from many different backgrounds live there — Kurds, Christians and Arabs. They were all living in harmony before the war, and it was a very safe place. Even now during the war, it is relatively safe, but not like it was in the past. There are a few very dangerous spots in the outskirts where some terrorist organizations like ISIS and others try to make their way into the city. Nowadays, a lot of refugees from other war-torn cities like Homs and Aleppo live in Qamishli. There are some explosions.

Nawaf: Before the war started in Syria, I was studying. I was still in 10th grade.

Hamoudi: Before the war, I was in college studying psychology. I didn’t even finish the first year — only one semester. Then I had to leave and I went to Turkey in 2013. I lived there for about two years, then I came to Brazil. Yeah, this was what happened to us!

Nawaf, middle, and Hamoudi, right. >Photos courtesy of Nawaf

Nawaf, middle, and Hamoudi, right. >Photos courtesy of Nawaf

In December 2010, a street vendor in a small Tunisian town set himself on fire after he was harassed by a city official. His act of defiance became a catalyst for protesters in the North African nation to overthrow their dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who had been in power for 23 years. Countries across the Middle East and North Africa followed suit, staging pro-democracy protests against authoritarian governments in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria.

Hamoudi: When the Arab Spring protests first started in 2011, we were hopeful that Syria would finally be rid of that tyrannical government and ruler. We thought it was only going to take a year or two at the most and that everything would be back to normal. But as you see now, the war may continue forever.

Nawaf: So, when things first started and the war began — actually, there was really nothing going on in Qamishli, but in other cities like Daraa and Homs, a lot of problems started to appear. There were tanks in the streets and a lot of people got killed. Qamishli was affected in that the unemployment rates got higher and the prices got high as well.

When Syrians first began to flee the civil war, they largely settled in neighboring countries — Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt — which now host about 4.8 million Syrian refugees. By comparison, all of Europe has received about 1 million asylum applications from Syrians since the crisis began. The result was a deep shift in human geography: One in five people living in Lebanon now is Syrian; Turkey has the highest number of refugees of any country worldwide. Syria shrank — the exodus and war took its population from 22 million to about 17 million.

Nawaf: Turkey is a beautiful country. The problem was that we were renting there and we were working from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. in a clothing factory.

Hamoudi: I made shorts and pants. It wasn’t difficult. It was a machine. Bzzz.

Nawaf: So life was not so — life for refugees there is very difficult because rent and bills are very pricey.

Hamoudi: If I had the choice to travel legally from Turkey to any other country in the world, I would have chosen Germany. I never got the chance to go because you need to get a visa to go there and visas are very hard to get. Especially for Syrians. They never give visas to Syrians. If you don’t do it illegally, you would never be able to set foot in Germany. We tried leaving Turkey by land and by sea. And we failed.


By 2013, large numbers of Syrians began taking the most seemingly straightforward route to get to Europe — crossing the Turkish border with Bulgaria, a treacherous frontier of rushing rivers and thick woods. Bulgaria responded by sending in guards and constructing a border fence. In its Soviet era, Bulgaria had a similar fence — to prevent its own people from fleeing the country and becoming refugees. With this land route to Europe increasingly hostile, migrants piled by the hundreds of thousands into boats on the Turkish coast to cross the Mediterranean into Greece.

Hamoudi: We were directed to one of the cafes that were known to be frequented by smugglers. We were given a smuggler’s name. A lot of my friends had used this way and they got to where they wanted and they are alive! We actually tried the overland option through Bulgaria twice and both times we failed to cross the Bulgarian borders. We were also considering the sea option but it was very dangerous, especially in the winter, so we didn’t want to take the risk. We figured that taking a flight would be easier anyway.

Nawaf: We had to pay $10,000 to the smuggler. But there was an agreement that the money should be kept in an insurance office in Turkey, which was a third party, and not given to him until we actually reached our destination. So the plan was that once we get to Germany from Turkey, the office would give the money to the smuggler. Otherwise, we would get our money back. It was a type of collateral. There was not much of a difference between the prices for the different traveling options. Other options were between $7,500 and $8,000. So we chose that option because it’s safer than both the sea and overland options, where one risks getting caught and beaten up.

Hamoudi: I was the one who decided that we should go to Brazil using our Syrian passports. We got visas to Brazil from the Brazilian Consulate in Istanbul. So we used our Syrian passports and it was all legal until we got to Brazil.

In a quiet policy shift, Brazil in 2014 began a virtual open-door policy for refugees from the Syrian conflict. Syrians received visas in a streamlined process in consulates in the Middle East and flew legally into the country. In line with UN guidelines, Brazil even had a relaxed approach to refugees with fake documents, asking only that asylum-seekers declare fake passports as such upon arriving.

Hamoudi: We were supposed to fly from Brazil directly to Germany, but the smuggler changed the route and had us go to El Salvador in Central America. We didn’t even get to choose the nationality for the falsified passports the smuggler gave us. It was not our choice to get Israeli passports! And it wasn’t a problem that we didn’t know Hebrew, since it’s a language that is only spoken by Israelis and won’t be understood by the people at the airports. The chances of getting exposed because of not knowing the language were very slim. We stayed in El Salvador for 10 days and the plan was to go from there to Germany. But we got caught.

Nawaf: We were at the hotel when the police arrived. They arrested us and took us to the place where they questioned us. They took our fake Israeli passports and examined them very well, but they couldn’t find anything suspicious about them. They didn’t know the passports were falsified until they called the Israeli Embassy. They asked us whether we were Syrian and told us two other families reported seeing Syrian young men.

Hamoudi: When we were detained in El Salvador, they were trying to communicate with us in Spanish and they could not understand anything we were saying. We even tried to speak Kurdish to them!

Nawaf: Then they jailed us. We were taken from one prison to another. We were kept in what seemed like cages. We would sleep on the ground and for a whole week. We didn’t eat. They had no right to do that to us, and they kept transferring us from one prison to another. When we refused to eat for a week, they had to give us a trial.

Hamoudi: When we were first arrested, we were kept in a prison for seven days where Salvadoran prisoners who were awaiting trial were kept. Those seven days were very hard — very, very ugly — to the point that we decided to go on a hunger strike. And we did it for six days until we were tried and then cleared. They told us they had claimed our Syrian passports for us and that they would let us go. After those seven days, they took us to what they called the “immigration.” They told us we would be there for two or three weeks until our paperwork was complete. But they had also caught the smuggler who came with us to El Salvador! So we had to wait for his trial for seven, eight months.

Nawaf: At the “immigration,” I learned a lot of Spanish. Everyone was speaking Spanish there, the police, the workers, the supervisors, etc. We were there for seven months and there was not a single person who could speak Kurdish or Arabic.

Hamoudi: The situation at the “immigration” was much better than where we were first jailed, but we could not leave or do anything. It was like a regular prison. After five months there, we decided to go on another hunger strike, and we did it for seven days. We didn’t have anything except some water and juice. They told us they would get our passports for us and let us go, but it took about two months before they gave us our passports and sent us back to Brazil.

Nawaf: After we got deported from El Salvador to Brazil, we wanted to return to Turkey and cancel the agreement with the smugglers.

Hamoudi: Smugglers are not good people. A person who wants to help people would never charge them $20,000 or $11,000 or $10,000 in exchange for that help! That isn’t help, it’s exploitation. They know that a lot of Syrians want to leave their war-torn country, so they set their price and people pay. I don’t call that help. When we got caught and jailed, they could have helped us, but none of them did. None of them even tried to check on us or talk to us. All they are in it for is the money. I have a lot of friends who are detained in other countries and the people who smuggled them have no concern for them.

Nawaf: The smugglers threatened to take all our money if we decided to stay in Brazil and we couldn’t let them do that. It seemed that there was some kind of a connection between the smugglers and the insurance office. So the new agreement was that if we got caught one more time, we would get all of our money back. But if we make it to Germany, they would get to keep it all. So they agreed and sent us Greek passports to make another attempt to get to Europe, this time through the Dominican Republic.

Hamoudi: When we got to the Dominican Republic, it was only us — we didn’t have a smuggler with us. We stayed in a hotel for about 10 days until we got our plane tickets from the smugglers in Turkey by e-mail. We went to the airport, checked in and finished everything. I boarded the plane and sat and there was only about two to three minutes left for takeoff when Nawaf was seized at the door of the aircraft. Then we were pulled out and the plane took off. They found out once again that the passports were fake and that we were Syrians.

Nawaf: They arrested us and we were there for about three months in prison. We wanted to go to Turkey from there but they said we would need our Syrian passports to be able to leave. They imprisoned us for three months, although we did receive our passports, but they were just delaying and asking us to book flights with this or that airline, and it seemed as though they were buying time to further investigate our case. Three months went by. Eventually, we got plane tickets to Turkey and we had connecting flights in Colombia and Brazil. But when we arrived in Turkey, we were seized for eight hours at the airport because we didn’t have visas.

Hamoudi: When we went back to Turkey in December 2014, the immigration laws for Syrians had changed. Entry visas were required, whereas you could just use an ID card or passport to get through in the past.


In addition to enforcing this visa requirement, Turkey also began turning away Syrian refugees at its land borders. It was one of several ways escape routes for Syrians began to be blocked after the summer of 2015, when Europe’s refugee crisis dominated global news. More than 1 million crossed the Mediterranean to Europe in that year, a number that also included many Afghans and Somalis.

By March 2016, another deeply controversial measure to push back asylum-seekers took effect. The EU reached a deal with Turkey in which migrants who arrived by boat on European shores would be deported back to Turkey in exchange for financial aid to the country. Refugees increasingly took to a longer and even more dangerous route: crossing from civil war-torn Libya by boat to Italy.

Nawaf: Then we were deported back to Brazil and in Brazil we were told that we would have to be deported to the Dominican Republic. So at the airport, we told the police that we wanted to claim asylum in Brazil and that we couldn’t go back to the Dominican Republic because we would be imprisoned again.

Hamoudi: Brazil is a very beautiful country, but this is not the life that I wanted for myself. I want to go back to school, get my degree and build a good future. But it is next to impossible for me to study here.

Nawaf: It has been a year and eight months since we first left Turkey. We transited through  El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Costa Rica, Qatar and Brazil. We took more than 15 to 20 flights.

Hamoudi: We got back about $6,000 of the money we had left at the insurance office in Turkey. And one of the smugglers took $1,500 from each of us and never gave it back or showed his face again. Of course, if there were a legal option for us to travel through different countries, we would not have taken all those risks and paid all that money, but we had to do what we did because we needed to get to safety.

Hamoudi and Nawaf lived in a Catholic church on bunk beds with other refugees before earning enough selling snacks on Rio’s streets to be able to rent one-bedroom apartments. Nawaf got a bicycle; Hamoudi, a girlfriend.

Franciane: I did not know anything about Syria. For me it was a country like any other. I didn’t know what was going on. I met Hamoudi through a friend of mine. We went to the beach in Copacabana.

Nawaf: That’s right!

Hamoudi: Fran, you said to her, do you have an amigo?

Franciane: It was nothing like this!

Hamoudi: She said, yeah, a friend from Syria!

Nawaf: Syrian! [Imitates swooning]

Franciane: I am from the Amazon. I am from Belem, from the state of Pará. Belém is a really simple place. It’s difficult to get opportunities to work and to study. There you work a lot and you earn very little. So I had to look for something better. I have lived here in Rio for two years. When I got here, I was able to get a job in a fashion store. I came to work and to study, and to get to meet Hamoudi!

Hamoudi: Tell the story!

Franciane: That day on the beach, he wanted to make a move on the spot, but I didn’t want to.

Nawaf: Hamoudi told me, she doesn’t want me! Ella no quiere. But afterward —

Franciane: I didn’t understand anything he said. He didn’t understand anything we said. So it was all confusing. And him over there, crazy to give me a kiss!

Hamoudi: I thought she was linda (beautiful). The first day she was very closed off and didn’t speak much. I speak muito muito muito and she doesn’t.

Franciane: He barely spoke. He just sat there observing. Then later we went to a pizza parlor.

Hamoudi: You said to me, “Hey, let’s go out.”

Franciane: You didn’t want to! He was playing hard to get. “I don’t know if I’ll go, I’m thinking about it.” Liar, you wanted to go, you were crazy to be with me! We chatted a lot, I thought a little bit, and at the end of the night, I gave him a kiss.

Hamoudi: The first time when I wanted to kiss her, she doesn’t. But when she wants to kiss me…!

Franciane: He had wanted to kiss me there on the beach!

Hamoudi: Sim! (Yes!)

Franciane: Like them, I also come from another place. These are things that happen in your life, they come and go and you are able to overcome them. For them, it’s different because it’s a different country, they aren’t able to speak much and understand much.

Hamoudi: She was the one who wanted to live together.

Franciane: I wanted to?! Really it was both of us who wanted to live together. One day we went to the mall and we walked along the beachside, and he asked me to be his girlfriend. He said it correctly in Portuguese.

Nawaf: You said, “Wait a week for me and then I’ll say yes!”

Hamoudi: That’s the truth!

Franciane: Then we started dating. We started seeing each other every day. I help him to sell esfiha snacks.

Hamoudi: My family has seen her photo. I tell them I like her. And they say, that’s good, tá bom (okay).

Franciane: I like his disposition. He’s very calm. I’m not a calm person. Sometimes I get really upset with him, since he’s just really calm. I talk to him and he just stays calm, quiet.

Hamoudi: She speaks muito, muito, muito and afterward I say, is everything OK? OK, so everything’s ok. We take little day trips around here.

Franciane: We are happy here in this apartment. We’re happy we got it. We’ve been able to buy the things we need. This is important to us. I didn’t imagine this, I didn’t dream of this. I never imagined I would date a Syrian. I’ve never lived with another person. I have to adapt and learn to live with his mannerisms and his way of doing things. I have to adapt to everything. A new house, everything new.

Hamoudi: I didn’t imagine any of this. In Syria I just thought about what I was going to study. I didn’t think about anything about living in Brazil, my coming here to live, I didn’t understand. If someone said, “Brazil,” I’d say, what’s that? Two, three years. They go by really fast.

Nawaf: I haven’t told the story of my journey to my Brazilian friends, but I do tell them about how hard it is to live in Syria, and that we came here to find safety. But we don’t tell the story in its entirety. We told them that we have claimed asylum here and we want to live and work here because there is a war in Syria, and we can’t go back because we fear for our lives.

Hamoudi: There was no option other than what we did. You would have had to either stay in Turkey, where life was just as bad as staying in Syria, or take the risk and get smuggled. Everyone heard about people drowning in the Mediterranean and dying on the very dangerous overland Bulgarian route. There are two options. You either get to your destination or you die trying. We have not seen our families for two years now. We talk to them on the phone, but that’s it. We are stuck here. No other country is willing to take us in. We can’t leave.

Nawaf: There’s nothing more to say about this because no matter what you say, no one is listening.

This interview has been edited for clarity and translated from Arabic, Portuguese, and Spanish.


This article appears in the Summer/Fall 2016 print issue of The Islamic Monthly.

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