SAO PAULO: Faisal Ziadah is a smiley 8-year-old Syrian whose parents sought refuge in Brazil two years ago.
Last Sunday in São Paulo, inside the same stadium that hosted the opening match of the 2014 World Cup, he walked out on to the pristine pitch to deliver the match ball to the referee ahead of Corinthians’ top-flight clash with Ceará. The 38,000-strong crowd, holding aloft a sea of banners reading “Respeita os Refugiados,” Respect the Refugees, erupted in cheers.
A total of more than 200 refugees were invited to the stadium, including 18 children from Syria. All the children were involved in the pre-match activities and wore branded T-shirts with “Time dos Povos,” Team of the People, emblazoned across the chest. The initiative was organized in conjunction with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and various other local organizations aiming to raise awareness of the humanitarian crisis in Syria.
It was not the first time Corinthians has shown such support to minorities. Founded in 1910 by five railway workers who had gathered together on Rua dos Imigrantes, Immigrants Street, the São Paulo-based club have long championed support for minorities and promoted important social movements. From violence against women to blood donation, breast cancer awareness to children with disabilities, fighting for such causes “is in the club’s DNA” Felipe Davidovich Cusnir, who works in the club’s marketing department, said.
“It was a very special Sunday for the club and for the more than 200 refugees here,” Cusnir added. “Corinthians has always been a club that raises the flag in favor of minorities, be it social responsibility or humanitarian issues. Due to the state of calamity that is hurting both Syria and its people, we couldn’t stay quiet. We know that there is still much to do, but we are trying use our power to increase publicity of the situation.”
The Corinthians players, as well as entering the pitch holding hands with the children, also wore specially commissioned jerseys with their surnames printed in Arabic on the back. Some of the shirts will be auctioned off later this year after being signed and given to various charities, including Lar Sírio Pró-Infância. The São Paulo-based non-profit organization was founded by young Syrians in 1923 and now helps more than 3,000 children and their families every month.
“I was very pleased with this initiative because it reinforces respect for refugees and gives the issue more visibility and emphasis, which is also the desire of Lar Sírio,” said William Adib Dib Junior, president of the 95-year-old institution. “Corinthians brought the idea to us and working with them has been important, it’s an admirable and respected club.”
There was even a splash of celebrity, with Kaysar Dadour, a larger-than-life Syrian refugee who last month became the first foreigner to reach the final of Big Brother Brasil, acting as ambassador for the event and accompanying young Faisal on to the field. The 28-year-old formerly worked part-time at children’s parties and has posted photos on social media proclaiming his love for Brazil and the support his adopted country is providing. According to the UNHCR, 39 percent of Brazil’s 10,145 refugees are from Syria.
“This cause crosses boundaries and borders,” he wrote on Twitter. “It’s for all of them — refugees from the past and present. That great-grandfather of yours from Europe or Africa or your grandfather who came from Asia or America, who chose Brazil as their new home.”
Dadour tweeted using the hashtag #RespeitaOsRefugiados. By the end of the match — a 1-1 draw — it had generated more than 55,000 tweets.
“Man, I’m still trembling now,” he told Globo Esporte after watching the match with the Syrian children and acting as their interpreter. “It’s been very emotional, I’ve never seen anything like this is my life.”
Corinthians captain Henrique, who scored for the hosts, wore a special armband displaying the logo of UNHCR, while the in-stadium screens displayed messages in Portuguese calling for peace and showing support for children victimized by conflict. According to the UN, a quarter of the world’s 22 million refugees are Syrian, while more than half are children. Dadour’s success and the event at Arena Corinthians can provide inspiration, said Miguel Pachioni, senior public information assistant at the UNHCR.
“Kaysar is one of the 5.6 million Syrian refugees that had to flee his home,” said Pachioni. “The conditions inside Syria are worse than ever, with 69 percent of civilians languishing in extreme poverty. Kaysar represents hope for this population. This war has left a huge human tragedy. It was important to see the children given the chance to enjoy an event like this.”