SAO PAULO: This year’s Eid Al-Adha celebration was not a happy one for a group of 150 Afghan refugees who recently arrived in Brazil.
They had to spend the most important Muslim holiday in an informal camp at the terminal of Sao Paulo airport, facing lack of food and hygiene and a surge of scabies.
Fleeing persecution by the Taliban, which took control of Kabul in August 2021, thousands of Afghans have been coming to the South American country, one of the few nations in the world which is issuing humanitarian visas for them.
A total of 7,000 visas were issued, but only half of them actually arrived.
However, Brazil has no program to welcome refugees, so many arrive at Sao Paulo airport without somewhere to stay in their new country. A makeshift camp was set up at the terminal in 2021, with waves of Afghans staying there for up to four weeks till they find accommodation.
Earlier this year, the federal government, along with local authorities and nongovernmental organizations, was able to send all refugees to shelters and clear the terminal. But as new groups kept arriving, the camp was formed again. At the beginning of June, more than 200 refugees were sleeping at the terminal.
The local government has been distributing hot meals for them and relief groups also provide help. But the problems are manifold, from insufficient numbers of meals to lack of regular bathing access.
Weeks ago, Aline Sobral, a Muslim activist who has been helping the refugees in the airport since the beginning of the crisis, told Arab News that the government sent sausages made of pork in the hot meals distributed to them.
Those are many challenges for Afghans in Brazil, but the past few weeks have been especially tough. The number of refugees kept growing at the terminal and no help was provided. That was when the first cases of scabies were reported. More than 20 people, besides some children, were affected.
“Eid Al-Adha is a very important date for us and even when Muslims are facing adversities, they keep worshipping Allah. There was no special food in the airport, but we worshipped Allah,” Sobral said.
Shabir Ahmad Niazi, an Afghan refugee who arrived in Brazil seven months ago, was with his fellow countrymen at the terminal on June 28. When he arrived in Brazil, seven months ago, he spent one month at the camp, so he knows quite well the sufferings they are going through.
“We could not organize a proper Eid Al-Adha celebration, given that we did not have special food or gifts to give to the refugees. We only prayed, shared a few moments, hugged each other,” he told Arab News.
Along with his brother and a few friends, Niazi founded the Afghanistan Refugee Rescue Organization, which has been struggling to find solutions for the Afghan refugees’ problems in Brazil.
“People are tired of all that. It has been psychologically difficult for them. Being far from their families and not knowing when they will see them again is something very sad, especially during a holiday like that,” he said.
In Afghanistan, people would celebrate Eid Al-Adha wearing new clothes, visiting their relatives and sharing a special meal. Here in Brazil, Niazi and other activists tried to organize a visit to a mosque, but it was not possible.
“I brought candy to the children and played with them. We wanted to see them happy, despite so many problems,” he said.
Sobral’s husband, Sheikh Hosnir Badawi, was asked to lead the prayers on that special day. But he was concerned about the sanitary situation at the terminal.
“In Islam, we cannot provoke agglomeration of people if we know that there is a disease going on. So, I told them to keep a safe distance from each other during prayer,” he told Arab News.
Only a small part of the camped refugees attended the prayer, Badawi said, “given that people were sad and dispirited.”
“Some of them also feel impure due to the difficulties they have in taking a shower. Others avoid praying in public because they fear there may be some kind of reaction from Brazilians,” he said, adding that he explained to the refugees that in Brazil religious freedom is constitutionally secured.
Only two days later, the camp was cleared again, after all refugees were sent to a shelter in the coastal city of Praia Grande.
Media coverage of the scabies surge prompted authorities to take action, but many, including Badawi, fear that the camp will be formed again.
“Afghans will continue to arrive and there is no program to adequately welcome them,” he said.
Last week, Shabir Niazi traveled to Brasilia and discussed the refugees’ crisis with authorities. He outlined a project he conceived, called First Shelter, in the hope that he will get government support to implement it.
“My idea is to establish a temporary shelter for all Afghans who arrive in Brazil, a place where they can be taught about Brazilian culture and receive Portuguese lessons,” he said, adding that the newly arrived must be informed about the risks of human trafficking, a rising problem among them.
“They arrive in Brazil and do not know that human traffickers may take advantage of them. We need an adequate system like that to deal with the refugees, otherwise all problems will keep emerging again,” Niazi said.