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Brazzil - Immigration - September 2004

Arabs Love Brazil. They Are 7% of the Country.

They started arriving in Brazil in the nineteenth century. In their
luggage was a great desire to work and dreams of riches. Today
the Arabs, their children and grandchildren total 12 million
people. Their culture, customs and entrepreneurship can be
seen in the Brazilian industry, cuisine, music, and vocabulary.

Marina Sarruf

25 de Março Street
Picture Businessman Gabriel Issa Bonduki arrived in Brazil in 1897. Bonduki was only 18 years old. He came from Syria to São Paulo, nowadays the largest city in Brazil, by ship, bringing little luggage but a large desire to explore the country described as a paradise for work and opportunities.

The time to win the Americas had come. The Europeans had already noticed this and were coming to Brazil by the thousands. The Arabs had also started coming.

To Bonduki buying cloth and lace, putting them in a trunk, and selling them from store to store, door to door, was no great effort. Brazil was a great promise of riches. And it was in the country that spoke a language so different from his that he decided to stay. He called his brothers, opened two stores, and later a factory.

The story of late patriarch Gabriel Issa Bonduki, whose family currently owns one of the largest spinning houses in the city could be repeated using the names and surnames of other Syrian, Lebanese, Egyptian, Iraqi and Palestinian men and women.

The Arab community started arriving in the country over one hundred years ago. There are currently over 12 million immigrants and descendants spread around Brazil's main states.

"They came after a new life," explained journalist and historian José Asmar, from the midwestern state of Goiás, son of Lebanese immigrants.

His profession as a traveling salesman, common to most immigrants arriving in Brazil, was an honor to those who had traveled thousands of kilometers in uncomfortable ship holds. Most of the immigrants were poor, and had no land to plant on and no jobs in their countries of origin.

That was not the only reason, however, for them to stay. Even those who had only come to make some money and then return changed their minds. Brazil had become a second homeland. The immigrants and their descendants are the largest Arab colony in the world.

"The Arab immigrants adapted to the country very well, and mixed in with the Brazilian people. We may currently find many Arabs who love the country more than the Brazilians," stated Asmar.

Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, in southeastern Brazil, Paraná, in the south of the country, and Goiás, in the Midwest, were the states the immigrants decided to live in, and to open their stores and industries.

There are, however, Arab descendants in practically all states. In the state of Paraná, where they arrived between 1915 and 1920, they were pioneers in the wood, furniture, and civil construction industry.

"The Arabs favored industrialization and agriculture, trade, and the banking sector," stated the administrator of the Arab Brazilian Chamber of Commerce (CCAB) office in Paraná state, Kamal David Curi.

Throughout Brazil they became well known as "businessmen." And they honored the title. In the state of São Paulo, it was the sons and grandsons of immigrants who ran hundreds of companies in the garment sector.

Most started small in the Bom Retiro and Brás industrial neighborhoods, and on 25 de Março street, a famous business street, later opening branches and becoming chains.

The Arabs are currently not only in business and in industry, but also in the service sector, in politics, and in health. Some are at the top of the rank in their sectors and professions, as is the case with Adib Jatene, known as one of the most important cardiologists in the country, and Fuad Mattar, president of Paramount, one Brazil's most important textile industries.

Guilherme Afif Domingos, president of the largest trade association in South America, the São Paulo Trade Association, and Paulo Skaf, president of the Brazilian Textile and Apparel Industry Association (Abit) to be sworn in as president of the Federation of Industries of the State of São Paulo (Fiesp) this month, are another two famous Arab descendants in charge of Brazilian industry and trade.

Even Samba!

The Arab culture has even become incorporated into the simplest things in Brazilian daily life, including the language. According to historian Asmar, many words that begin with al, like alface (lettuce) and algarismo (characters), are of Arab origin.

"The Arab culture is very much rooted in here," he said. Around 5,000 words from the Arab language have made their way into the Brazilian vocabulary. Some of them are used regionally, including alfombra, used by the population of states in the Northeast of the country meaning curtain.

The culture and the customs of the Arabs have even found their way into Brazilian dishes and music. Kibes and esfihas, for example, may be found all around Brazil.

There is Arab influence even in the traditional Brazilian samba. The Arab adufe drum originated the beat that is characteristic to samba, and is currently used by famous samba schools like Portela in their Carnaval parades.

Brazil, the New Nation

The Arab community in Brazil is made up mainly of Syrians and Lebanese, although there are immigrants from practically all Arab nations in the country. Arab immigrants and their descendants total 6.5% of the Brazilian population.

In Brazil there are more Lebanese than in Lebanon itself, which has a population of 3.7 million inhabitants. The stories of Arabs who arrived in Brazil in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries are numerous.

All the stories include very much work. Brazilian businessman Emílio Bonduki, 95 years of age, likes to recall the story that started in 1897, when his father, Gabriel, arrived in Brazil from the Syrian city of Homs.

"My father said that everyone wanted to come to America. They said it was easy to find a job and start a business," stated Emílio.

After working as a traveling salesman for many years, in 1905, Gabriel opened his first store on São Caetano Street, in Luz neighborhood, where many textile industries are located.

Later on, together with his friend Bechara Moherdaiu, he opened fabric store B. Moherdaiu & Co. a wholesaler on 25 de Março Street. In 1915, Bonduki and his partners set up a cotton spinning-house. Gabriel was also the first president of the Syrian Homs Club, established by former residents of the city in Syria.

"Dad loved Brazil. It was a country that offered many business possibilities and received immigrants with love and attention greater than usual," explained Bonduki. Gabriel liked the country so much that he convinced his brothers and cousins to move from Syria to Brazil too.

Emílio Bonduki was born in 1909, in one of the Arab nests in São Paulo: in Bom Retiro neighborhood, a fabric pole. In 1921, Emílio went to study in Syria, where he graduated in Arab literature in Damascus. "I learnt how to speak Arabic, French, German and English," stated Bonduki.

After graduating, he worked for the Bank of Syria and Great Lebanon and returned to Brazil, at the end of 1934. He found a devastated country, recovering from a crisis. It was his turn to contribute to the country.

He worked as a manager at a spinning house belonging to one of his cousins and a few years later, in 1941, opened store Bonduki Bonfio, which sells all kinds of material for sewing. He still runs the store.

Bonduki was also a director at the Arab Brazilian Chamber of Commerce (CCAB), and was responsible for the organization's recognition by the General Union of Chambers, in 1994.

Emílio is still one of the directors of orphanage Lar Sírio Pró-Infância, and helped develop the Mão Branca Beneficent Society, which takes care of elderly people.

"My nickname was `beggar,' as I was always after companies with possessions that could donate money to the poor children," recalled Bonduki. "As I have always liked Brazil, I found that I had to do something for the poor," he said.

From Arabic

Some examples of Arabic words incorporated into the Brazilian vocabulary: alface (lettuce), almanaque (almanac), alfaiate (tailor), bazar (bazaar), mascate (travelling salesman), almofada (cushion), alcaide (mayor), arroz (rice), açúcar (sugar), alfombra (curtain).

Marina Sarruf is a Brazilian journalist.
This material is distributed by ANBA _ Brazil-Arab News Agency

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