Chilean writer of Syrian origin to ST: Syrian expatriates played active role in political, cultural and economic life of Chile

Dr. Pablo Sapag is a Chilean writer of Syrian origin.  His family immigrated to Chile early the 20th century. Now, he is an associate Professor at Complutense University of Madrid and a lecturer in UK and Greek universities.

Syria Times conducted an online interview with Dr. Pablo to know more about the Syrian expatriates in Chile: their number, their situation, their contributions to the Chilean society and their role in boosting relations between Syria and Chile and in explaining the real situation in Syria during the crisis.

Here is the full text of the Syria Times interview with Dr. Pablo Sapag:

 Would you kindly talk to us about the situation of the Syrian expatriates in Chile? How many Syrians are there in Chile? What are their fields of work there?

Dr. Pablo: The Syrian expatriate Community in Chile is an old one. The first group of expatriates arrived in Chile from Syria in the 1860s when the economic situation and the tough hand of the Turkish Ottoman Empire forced some of our ancestors to find new places to work and live. Syrian emigrants kept on moving to Chile until the 1940s. After the Independence of Syria, the emigration stream stopped. As the situation improved in Syria,  just some individuals arrived later on because of family reasons. Recently some new comers have joined the Community. Syrians that due to the crisis lost their homes or jobs arrived into Chile, either because they already had relatives there ready to host them or because they participated in a Chilean Government-United Nations program to accommodate in Chile displaced Syrians already in Lebanon. In any case, the huge majority of the Community is formed by the descendants of the 19th and early 20th centuries emigration.

Our community is formed by around 70,000 people, the majority has roots in Homs Governorate. First generations succeeded in the small business area, opening shops in most major Chilean cities and towns. Then some could enter into the industrial sector, especially the textile one because many worked in the same area back in Syria. The second and third generations have been more oriented to study at university and now the community has many  professional representatives in the health, engineering, academic and arts sectors.

What about the Syrian's contribution to political, economic and social life in Chile?

Dr. Pablo: At the beginning, our community contributed decisively to the spread of commerce  in such a big country like Chile. The first Syrian expatriates settled in remote villages and opened shops. In so doing they gave ordinary Chileans the opportunity to have access to goods which were at that time only present in Chilean big cities. Once the first industries were opened by the Syrian expatriates, thousands of jobs were created also for the Chileans, mainly in the textile industry, in the building sector and other businesses. Afterwards, we, (Syrian expatriates) contributed to Chile's academic and cultural sector with many Syrian expatriates teaching at universities, publishing books and offering a different point of view of the reality in the Middle East. Finally a few Syrian expatriates entered into local politics contributing in that sphere to a better understanding of Syria and the region. My impression is that the Chilean society as a whole values very much all those contributions.  

Are there any politicians of Syrian background in Chile?

Dr. Pablo: Yes, over the past decades there have been some mayors of middle sized towns and Santiago's districts. Mr. Sergio Bitar Chacra whose parents are from Homs, like most of the members of the Community,  has been several times a cabinet minister, senator and the leader of an important political party.

How did they contribute to the development of the Syrian-Chilean relations?

Dr. Pablo: the Chilean authorities have always consulted the Syrian community and of course those with a political position, about the situation in Syria and the region. The effort has always been focused to explain the rich Syrian culture and Syria's strategic position in a region which is complex and difficult to understand in a far away country as Chile. I am sure that over the past decades this has contributed to improving bilateral relations. Chile was one of the first countries to have a diplomatic representation in Damascus, even before Syria gained its full Independence from the French. No doubt, back then the Syrian community in Chile was taken into consideration by the Chilean Government which found it was necessary to open its embassy in Damascus in order to keep both countries in close ties despite the distance and the cultural and language differences.

How do the Syrians in Chile interact with the crisis in Syria and what role have they played in explaining what is going on in their country?

The Syrian Community in Chile has had an active role during the crisis in Syria. First of all, trying to help Syrians in Syria regardless of ethnicity, religion or place of living. Among other things, the Chilean community has sent six full equipped ambulances to the Syrian Ministry of Health in 2015. It was the result of a solidarity campaign organized to collect money for buying the ambulances. Syrian expatriates and many Chileans participated in the campaign. Even some very important and well-known Chilean artists joined it. It's important to say that all the ambulances are still operating in Syria. It was very important to spot them on TV in Wafeeden corridor in Eastern Ghouta, in Deraa or in Sweida. The Community, through its different organizations (Club Sirio Unido, Sociedad de Beneficencia Siria, Clínica Siria, Comité de Damas Sirias de Chile, Juventud Siria), has also supported several organizations that work in Syria to assist orphans, elderly and disabled people as well as wounded Syrian Arab Army servicemen. The Community has also assisted many Syrians, who because of the crisis arrived in Chile, providing them with jobs, Spanish language lessons and health care among other services. During the crisis, we have also tried to explain the real situation in Syria to help Chilean people and government to have a better and more in depth picture of the reality of events in Syria. Some members of the Community have always been ready to talk in the media or in public conferences in order to share with the Chilean general public their knowledge of Syria. For example, in order to do so in an accurate and precise way, two delegations representing the Syrian Community in Chile visited the motherland during the crisis. The delegations' meetings with Syrian officials and ordinary Syrians as well as their tours around the country have enabled members of the delegations, once back in Chile, to provide the Chilean society with true information about the real situation in Syria.

Would you tell us about your own experience as an expatriate in Chile?

Because the Syrian Community has a respectable size as part of a broader Arab Community in Chile,  which also includes Lebanese and Palestinians, I always had a sense of belonging to a distinctive, modest, hard working and proud community. When I was in primary and secondary school in Santiago, around 15% of the students in my class were of Arab descent. At normal supermarkets it was easy to find pita bread, baklavas and even burghul for preparing kubbe. Chileans are very friendly and curious. As the country is so far away from Europe or the Mediterranean basin and separated from the rest of the continent by the impressive Andes mountains, Chileans have a sense of isolation which they want to break by knowing as many peoples and cultures as possible. That is a very positive attitude that I think has made the Syrian Community very accepted and valued by the broad Chilean society. Personally and as an academic and author of a book on Syria (Siria en perspectiva/ Syria in perspective), I have always felt that in Chile the media and the public wanted to know more about what was going on in Syria regardless what some international media and outside governments were saying. I think that the Chileans have always shown a deep respect  for the Syrians and the Syrians have shown the same for the Chileans. That is the result of a deep-rooted and positive relation regardless of the cultural differences and the geographical distance. No doubt that the Syrian Expatriate Community has been decisive in this.

What is the role of the Syrian Embassy in Santiago in rapprochement between Syria and Chile.

The Syrian Embassy in Santiago has played a very important role because through its activities and its support for the activities of the Syrian Community, it has been able to explain the reality of events in Syria in such an important Latin American country which served as an example to follow by some neighboring countries. Chile never closed its embassy in Damascus. But, because of security reasons the embassy moved its operations to Beirut. However, since May 2019, the embassy has been fully operating again in Damascus. Having a Syrian Embassy in Santiago and a Chilean one in Damascus has facilitated direct support to the Syrian people. Now, more and more Syrian expatriates can and will visit the Motherland because the embassies are fully operating and providing very important services to facilitate procedures . As a long time expatriate Community, many of its members don't have Syrian travel or identity documents. The embassies have been very, very important to facilitate our return to the Motherland. We have never forgotten Syria regardless the years since our ancestors moved to Chile and the respective embassies serve as the bridges that help us keep in touch with the Motherland. We are sure that the end of the crisis in Syria will facilitate the paperwork for visas or for Syrian expatriates to recover Syrian documents as second or third generations of Syrians citizens. That is a dream for many who have understood that during the past years in Syria there were other priorities.

Is anything being done to strengthen the Arabic language amongst second and third generation expatriates?

I think now there is a renewed interest in learning the new generations the Arabic language. The second generation learnt Arabic from their parents, the ones who first arrived in Chile. Even though some don't speak Arabic well, but at least they understand it. The new technologies are very important tools for the third and fourth generation expatriates to have preliminary contact with the Arabic language before visiting Syria. Once you go there, the contact with the family and other Syrians helps a lot to catch up the language, at least in its ammiya version (colloquial Arabic). The Community has also exerted a big effort, offering Arabic classes directly or supporting the Arabic Schools opened in several cities in Chile by the broad Arab Community. The crisis in Syria has strengthened our links with the Motherland and the appeal of Arabic is bigger than before.

Interviewed by Hamda Mustafa