A Syrian refugee crosses three continents to build a life in Latin America
Years later when his father’s supermarket in Damascus was gone, Almotaz Bellah would remember the delight he once found in its bounty. There was a section for sweets and a section for soft drinks; one for American coffee and another for Arabic qahwa.
He could spend hours walking the narrow aisles to admire the products. Amid the bustle of customers, he saw his family, his life, and his future secured in place.
The supermarket had given them two houses, three cars, and big dreams.
So when a string of bombs went off in October 2012, gutting the Damascus market and several buildings nearby, “all my life changed,” Bellah says. Returning home from university that day, he saw only black.
“Don’t have a supermarket. Don’t have anything. Don’t have.” As he and his father cried, Bellah’s brother calmly repeated, “God gives and God takes. God gives and God takes.”
Four years later, living on a barren, dead-end street in Bogota, Colombia, Bellah feels like he has lived his brother’s words a hundred times.
He is one of just a handful of Syrian refugees to have made it to this South American country, and the only one to come without a single family connection. In doing so, he lost his country, his family, his education, and his future.
He spent two years and crossed three continents trying to get here. And while his story may be more extreme, it is just a wave in the ocean of tales from Syrian friends and family who, having seen the world close its doors, found their own way to restart their lives on every corner of the planet.
Today, Bellah runs a pocket-sized Syrian restaurant out of an open storefront. He is married to a Colombian woman called Jessica, whose initial friendship explains why he ended up here.
The two have an infant son, whose birth christened his restaurant Al Banun (Arabic for children).
Bellah’s journey began the day his father’s supermarket was destroyed and Syria’s war hit home in Bellah’s case, literally.
Twenty-four years old at the time, he had been called for national military service. His family thought they could shelter him by dodging and bribing, as everyone did.
When a friend’s family in the neighborhood was slaughtered one night, after refusing to let their son serve in the Syrian army, the family knew Bellah had to flee.
His father sold one car, bought a passport for $3,000 on the black market — authorities wouldn’t have granted one to a male eligible to serve in the military — and drove his son to the Lebanese border, paying off checkpoints, a few hundred dollars at a time.
Outside the only country he had ever known, Bellah had just one person to turn to—an online contact he had met six years earlier through a friend of a friend, via one of his father’s foreign suppliers.
Jessica was a Colombian studying English, dreaming about the world. Bellah loved her sweet spirit and kind conversation; he often saved a few Syrian pounds each month to send her trinkets from Syria by DHL
By the time he was a refugee, the relationship was “so big” he said. “I told Jessi, I will go to Colombia because I have no other person to help me.”
ACROSS THREE CONTINENTS
First in Lebanon, then in Turkey, his requests for legal visas from several diplomatic missions were rejected.
The couple presented letters, notaries, and invitations. They got married on Skype, and Bellah’s father sold another car to pay for the paperwork.
None of this convinced the Colombian embassies.
In Bogota, Jessica tried everything she could think of. She visited government offices and NGOs.
A Colombian man told her that Ecuador, one of Colombia’s neighboring countries, is the only state in the world that requires no visa to enter, and Bellah could fly to Quito from Turkey, via the UAE and Brazil.
Bellah didn’t have a cent in his pocket to buy the $3,000 ticket.
But God gave, as the saying goes.
Abu Fares, a kind Syrian man in Turkey who had often helped him, showed up at his door one morning ready to buy the airfare.
Overjoyed, Bellah, his family, and Jessi too, spent everything they had to add another $2,000 in pocket money for him to safely make the journey.
He flew from Istanbul to Abu Dhabi, then Brazil and Ecuador. From there, Bellah crossed into Colombia via the land border in December 2014, and applied for status as a refugee.
BUILDING A NEW LIFE FROM SCRATCH
Bellah arrived in Colombia a year and a half ago, not speaking a word of Spanish; his refugee status took six months to process, during which he couldn’t legally work, rent, or open a bank account. Penniless, the couple sold sweet rice with milk on a street corner in the troubled neighborhood of San Isabel.
Their cell phones were robbed at gunpoint and they slept on the floor because they couldn’t afford a mattress.
The U.N. refugee agency helped Bellah buy a used food truck, and every evening, he made Skype calls home to learn the Damascene recipes that his mother had cooked for years.
“Do this, don’t do this,” he recalls his mother saying. “I want to cook perfectly, the same as they do in my country.”
Saving a few hundred pesos at a time, Bellah accumulated enough to open his current restaurant, with its two wire-rimmed tables, fully stocked Coca-Cola cooler, and a wealth of ingredients from the Levant: durum wheat from Turkey, coffee and olive oil from Lebanon.
He dresses to accommodate his new role. In the bright yellow jersey of the Colombian national football team, he waves to neighbors as they pass by.
He could be Colombian, with his dark, course hair and thin glasses. Yet his “Hola, como estas?” greeting slides longer with an accent betraying his looks.
Back home, the situation is “so bad,” he says. Bellah’s youngest brother is now wanted for national service, but he is unwilling to kill fellow Syrians.
MEMORIES OF HOME
Bellah has tried everything to bring him here and wakes up each morning thinking about how he can help.
Meanwhile, with each chicken he grills and each sambusa he bakes, Bellah’s business is growing.
He has already employed one other person—an Arab refugee from Venezuela named Mohammed. If only the police would secure the park nearby, he’d put chairs and umbrellas outside so customers could sit late into the night.
If only he had a bit more support, he would buy advertising space to explain his dishes to Colombian customers.
Instead, the neighbors have come to know by word of mouth about his paprika-spiced falafel, arranged artfully on paper plates and gushing with garlic.
“What do you recommend if we don’t know the food?” a middle-aged woman asked on a recent visit to Bellah’s cafe, as she and a friend sat down for lunch.
“Everything here to us is new,” the other woman told him, as Bellah patiently explained each item on the menu taped to the wall.
Soon the women got to asking him about where this strange food comes from, about Syria, and about Bellah—is he Muslim?
He smiles and begins to tell them about the compassionate God who brought him here, taking and giving, but never leaving his side.
When Abu Fares helped Bellah buy the ticket back in Istanbul, he asked just one thing in return.
“We Muslims are good people,” the man told Bellah. “If you let your wife understand this and the Colombian people understand this, you have repaid my money.”
Through those eyes, Bellah has no debts to reconcile.