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Five Syrian Families in Uruguay Since 2014 Have Packed Their Bags and Want to ‘Get Out’

Former President Jose Mujica welcomed the Syrians from a refugee camp in Lebanon, but the current government said Lebanese officials don't want the unhappy Syrians back.
September 11, 2015, 11:15pm
Imagen por Christian Müller/VICE News

While countries in North and South America deliberate how to potentially absorb refugees from war-torn Syria, five Syrian families that were given asylum in Uruguay in 2014 are demanding they be taken somewhere else, complaining of conditions that "don't allow them to live."

The families, totaling more than 40 people, have been living in Uruguay for almost a year, after the government of former President Jose Mujica decided to take in Syrian refugees from a refugee camp in Lebanon.

But all this week, the families gathered at Independence Square in Montevideo, just outside the presidential offices, holding bags with all their belongings. Some slept in a tent until Wednesday, and called off their demonstration on Thursday after the refugees met with government officials.

'This is a difficult country to live in.'

The families' leaders improvised a press conference at the square with the help of Ali Jalil Ahmad, head of Uruguay's Islamic Center, who served as translator for the Arabic-speaking families. In essence, they said Uruguay is too expensive and too unsafe for them.

"They came here because they were promised things, and a better life. But they don't live better here, and it's very expensive. They don't want money, they don't want anything from this country. They want to go back," Ahmad said. "They are appealing to the United Nations, or any country in the world, to get them out of here."

In their statements, the Syrians said they'd like to return to Lebanon or "anywhere else" — they have permission to travel anywhere, but some place must agree to receive them. One report suggested a return to Lebanon would make it easier for them to attempt a crossing to Europe.

"Everyone wants to go to Germany, and so do them," Mujica said in a television interview this week.

"This is a difficult country to live in," the Syrians' translator said.

Related: Syria and Iraq Are Disintegrating, US Defense Intel Chief Says

Members of a Syrian family in Uruguay since last year brought their suitcases to Independence Square in Montevideo. (Photo by Christian Müller)

The families aren't the only asylum-seekers to feel uncomfortable in Uruguay.

Earlier this year, five former Guantanamo prisoners received during Mujica's government also expressed their desire to leave the country. Four of them eventually reached an agreement with the government to stay in Uruguay, while the fifth is still negotiating, although with no more Uruguayan aid.

The families fled from a country that has been torn by war since 2011 between opposition forces and the government of Bashar al-Assad. An estimated 200,000 people have died and 7.6 million have been displaced. In addition, more than 350,000 Syrians have fled the country, with many attempting to reach Europe through the Mediterranean.

Uruguay, Brazil, and Argentina have launched programs to host refugees. Venezuela announced its intention to do so, and Mexico plans to welcome its first Syrian refugee next week through an education program.

"The government says that this is a trial experience. We are not here to be test subjects to see if their programs work or not. We are humans, we have rights," the Syrian families said through their translator.

They arrived in Uruguay in October 2014, after Mujica agreed with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to take in a group of Syrian refugees from a camp in Lebanon. Forty-two Syrians arrived, and Mujica even went to greet them at the airport.

The refugees were then accommodated in different spots around the country, and the children were enrolled in school. Two children have been born into the group, making them Uruguayan citizens.

A public opinion poll suggested that 69 percent of Uruguayans agreed with the refugees' presence upon their arrival. But things began to change this year, with some public figures speaking against the use of the hijab among women and girls, and after a case of domestic violence in one of the families became public.

One of the refugees, Ibrahim Alshebli, told VICE News that all five families want to leave, but that they've been told there's no "solution" for them.

Related: Obama Announces Plans for the US to Take in 10,000 Syrian Refugees Next Year

The Syrians say Uruguay is too expensive and unsafe for them. (Photo by Christian Müller)

Javier Miranda, Uruguay's human rights secretary, said the families receive approximately $1,000 dollars each month for their expenses.

Members of one of the families, using travel permits, attempted to arrive in Turkey last month, but were detained upon landing and deported back to Uruguay, a government statement said.

The country's current president, Tabaré Vazquez, said on Thursday that "the government made contact with Lebanon, to see if that country was willing to receive them [the refugees], since Uruguay cannot decide which country to send them to."

Lebanese authorities said they wouldn't take the refugees back, the president said.

Susana Mangana, an expert on Islam and a member of the commission that travelled to Lebanon to pick the Syrians, said that the refugees do not understand that "they are being helped," and that "they knew perfectly where they were being taken."

Mangana acknowledged, though, that the cultural assimilation process "could have been done differently."

Nonetheless, Uruguay's government is planning to accept at least 72 Syrians in the next months amid a global response to the current migrant crisis in Europe.

During their improvised press conference, the demonstrators told the crowd that Uruguay "is not a country for refugees. Uruguayans are good, but they have problems, and they need more help than us."

Related: 'Send Us Back': Former Guantanamo Detainees Are Camping Out at the US Embassy in Uruguay

Follow Christian Müller on Twitter: @cmuller17