Tamara, the woman behind Syrian refugees in Argentina
By Constanza Heller
Tamara Lalli brings an anecdote by the Santiago del Estero-born percussionist Domingo Cura. The story goes that on Sundays the ground in the Argentine Northern province moves down because Syrian women are cooking the traditional Middle East Kibbe dish as they rhythmically pound the meat and wheat using their pestles and mortars.
It might be rare that at a time when the words “civil war” and “strike” hit international news headlines to describe how developments unfold in the so called Arab world an article about Syrian people begins instead with mementos of aromas and taste.
“Syria has never lost its ties with its millenary culture. Damascus and Aleppo keep ancient, beautiful neighborhoods with their world of people trading in the morning and in the afternoon. Traders invite you to savour teas while you go around and take a look at crafts, fabrics, golden pieces hanging on shop windows”, this 52-year old mother of two says as she receives the Buenosairesherald.com at her family lighting shop in the Buenos Aires City neighborhood of San Cristobal.
But the homeland Tamara was born in and left when she was 11 years old is changing forcing thousands to flee across its borders and seek refuge in the Southern part of the world as rebel groups continue to defy the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
New immigration: The exodus
Only in the past two years Argentina has received more than 300 Syrian families most of them staying in Buenos Aires. Although visa procedures might turn “bureaucratic”, the South American country is among the few granting assistance to those swelling in the list of this 21st century exodus. “In Europe this is impossible”, Tamara affirms and adds that Arab neighboring countries have long decided to reject entry to her countrymen.
“I am a member of the Syrian Cultural Association. From the very beginning, it opened its doors to shelter those arriving first, to help them get a job, to assist them with the residency and renting procedures. Furthermore, we have provided them with Spanish teachers so that they can learn the language. But the nicest thing for them and for us is when we meet once or twice a week to cook and spend time together so that they can get along with natives and Syrian-Lebanese descendants”, she explains as she smiles with satisfaction.
The Syrian-Lebanese community in Argentina accounts actually for around10 percent of the country’s 40-million population. And not only have its members settled in the land of the late Domingo Cura: “Tucuman, La Rioja, and Catamarca but also in the South; there is a large community in the South. They have also stayed in Buenos Aires. In the neighborhood of Villa Crespo there is the Armenian community; we are bond to them because many Armenians have relatives who were born in Syria because of the Armenian genocide by the Turkish”.
This first wave of immigration to Argentina that started in the late 19th century is now resuming. “Syrian-Lebanese institutions that were originally created as an assembly point for migrants became a sort of bridge for new generations that come together to participate in cultural, social and sport events. But current exodus has shocked us all; the institutions were not ready. Besides, one thing is to be an immigrant, you make up your mind; you prepare yourself to leave your country. Instead, they now arrived in despair, many of them leaving their papers in Syria, carrying only their passports, some of them with a few clothes”, Tamara Lalli, a journalist and political scientist herself, retells and continues: “Most of them are professionals, they have a college degree. They don’t know the language here, they can not work of what they studied for and accept jobs of whatever they get. But they make no drama of it; they know this is a transitory situation; they say this will pass and they will return to Syria”.
When the Buenosairesherald.com asks Tamara -who has friends and family in her hometown Yabrud near Damascus- what refugees are escaping from another word making headlines these days comes to the fore: “Revolution”.
“If this is a revolution, then we must take it off from the dictionary because there it designates something positive, a change to improve the conditions of people and societies. In the case of other countries such as Tunisia, Egypt or Libya we could think people there rose up against oppressive systems. But not in the Syrian case and that is the reason why the government is not falling. More and more people have come to support Assad’s government”, this Syria-born Argentinean assures with the sad certainty of who has lost a fellow loved one.
“My cousin was a worker, an ordinary man; he was not even involved in politics. They kidnapped him and the following day they handed in his body in a bag at his house door. He was 45 years old. He had 4 children. They asked for no ransom. It was just a show of terror”.
Tamara is involved in Syria’s politics. She is actually a member of the Syrian National Socialist party or Qawmi Suri in Arab which is part of what she describes as Syria’s “legitimate opposition”. The Free Syrian Army, the Al-Nusra Front or the Sryian Islamic Front fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad are part, Tamara warns, of Syria’s “armed opposition” financed, she insists, by the United States and its regional allies Saudi Arabia, Israel Qatar, Kuwait and Jordan among others.
“This is a challenge to media. Have somebody tell me how any state can put up with an armed opposition raising its guns against the country’s institutions, the army and the government. That is no legitimate opposition. That is called terrorism here and everywhere”.
The challenge is peace
Tamara Lalli is the daughter of Toufic, a Syrian-Lebanese who married Neife, an Argentinean descendant from Syrians. She was born in Yabrud located 80 km north of the capital Damascus. She has two sisters. A non-practicing Muslim, she married an Argentine Christian and allowed her two daughters to choose their own religion. “One is a Christian, the other one is still thinking about it”, Tamara says.
Till 2010, she travelled to Syria once or twice a year because not visiting Syria made her feel “something was missing”. But the crisis that has turned into what the United Nations has officially called “the great tragedy of this century” with refugees reaching more than 2 million has forced her to stay in her second homeland, Argentina.
“Every time I hear about an attack or strike in an area where my friends or relatives are, I immediately call them. Contact with them is permanent. I have told many of them to come here but most of them turned that option down. I understand them because I’d probably do the same myself. One of my friends once told me ‘Syria is not a hotel that when everything is nice you stay and when it serves you no more you just leave’. Syria is home”, she tells the Buenosairesherald.com as her phone at her office in the lighting shop rings.
Tamara speaks in Arab and arranges to join a demonstration organized by the Confederation of Argentine-Arab Entities at the United States embassy in Buenos Aires to protest Washington’s plans to strike Syria and demand peace for its people.