SÃO PAULO, Brazil — On a bustling street in downtown São Paulo, a man is tidying his tiny shop before it opens for the day. Anas Obeid, the owner of Perfumes 24, pulls the pink cap from the top of a small glass bottle and spritzes a musky floral mist into the shop’s entryway. The 30-year-old Syrian refugee is expecting regulars to stop by today to see what new perfume oils a pilot friend has delivered from Lebanon and Qatar.
The walls in one corner of the shop are lined with simple versions of Middle Eastern perfume bottles, each made of etched glass and shaped like an hourglass. Some of the hand-written labels note famous perfumes similar to the scents the bottles contain: Chanel N°5, Calvin Klein Euphoria, Drakkar Noir. Others are labeless, ready to be mixed into the perfect individual scent for each customer who walks in off the street.
For Obeid, this shop in São Paulo has allowed him to bring a small piece of his homeland to his new country. While the perfume oils don’t come straight from Syria—an impossible feat while the country has been fighting a brutal civil war since 2011—they are the same scents he used in his shop in Damascus, which he ran while studying journalism in the capital city.
Obeid knew he had to flee Syria in 2012. He was recording a voiceover with his professor, Mohamed Saeed, the host of a popular political TV news program, when several men pushed their way in and told them to drop their recording equipment. In his last year at university, Obeid had begun working for Syrian government TV to gain experience as a broadcast journalist. He needed a job and the situation in Syria was not what it is today. He had no idea what his government would become or what President Bashar al-Assad would do in the coming years. The rebels who took him and Saeed to a prison just outside of Damascus, however, had targeted the two journalists because of their association with government TV. Obeid was released after 11 days, when his parents paid 1 million Syrian pounds ($4,842 USD) for his freedom. Saeed never made it out of the prison.
As soon as he was freed, Obeid knew he couldn’t stay in Syria. Death threats came daily during his time behind bars, and he feared for his life and those of his parents and siblings. Without stopping to pick up documents or a change of clothes, he drove his family across the border to Lebanon, where he found work with a UN project that helped children in refugee camps and lent a hand at a friend’s restaurant. With the little money he earned he was able to rent a house, where his family lived together for three years. But Obeid knew they wouldn’t be able to stay there forever. With his passport and other documents still in Syria, he started to search for a country that was willing to help.
Brazil has been issuing special visas to Syrians since 2013, allowing those fleeing the war to enter the South American country through a less bureaucratic process and then present asylum claims. The program was expected to come to a close at the end of September 2015, but the National Refugee Council decided that same month to extend it for another two years. As of February 2017, Brazil was home to 2,622 refugees from Syria, making it the largest refugee community in the country. Since the beginning of the conflict, 3,772 Syrians have requested refugee status in the South American country. Requests, however, are now on the decline, with just 391 received in 2016.
“It wasn’t a difficult decision to make, but it wasn’t easy either,” says Obeid, as he mixes traditional oud perfume oil with alcohol and a fixative for a first-time customer. “I knew where I was going and that I would be able to work, but that I would have to leave my parents behind until I was settled. The paperwork wasn’t hard, but getting the money together was.”
“[E]ventually have to start living here, like a Brazilian. You eventually have to remake your life.”
During his first year in Brazil, Obeid worked at one of many Syrian restaurants in São Paulo’s hectic downtown. He also sold his perfumes and other typical accessories at bazaars, fairs and markets, many of which were created by local NGOs specifically to help refugees make a living and feel like they belonged in their new home.
“Brazilians are good at making you feel welcome,” he says with a smile. “They treat you well, and they’re really warm. I already made good friends after just three months here.”
But Obeid knew he had to do more to save enough money to bring his parents to São Paulo. His perfumes were already a hit with Brazilian women, who loved that they were able to customize personal scents, so in 2016 Obeid decided to open his own shop. After almost a year in operation he was able to fly his parents to join him in São Paulo.
Obeid stops blending the fragrant oils as he talks of plans to bring his two brothers, his sister and their families to live with him. The scents of Syria have helped him rebuild his life in Brazil, but they’re also a reminder of a difficult journey and those left behind.
“It’s been a good start,” Obeid says, as customers glance into his shop. “I love Syria and sharing my culture, but you eventually have to start living here, like a Brazilian. You eventually have to remake your life.”