Building home

Por Maria Ahmad.

Arriving in Uruguay four years ago, I was greeted by the protesting Syrian camps in Plaza Independencia. Having worked with internally displaced people, refugees and emigrants fleeing wars and natural disasters in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Haiti and Libya, and being a lifelong immigrant in several continents myself, the protests hooked me. From initial narratives there couldn’t have been a more compassionate response for these ravaged families. But when I delved deeper, I saw the cracks and the gaps.

Uruguay is a Cartagena Signatory through the Organization of the American States since its regionwide adoption in 1984 and passed its own Refugee Law (Ley 18.026) in 2006. The Uruguayan immigration law (Ley 18.250) passed in 2008 is progressive and liberal, an echo of the liberalization of immigration policies across the region. But the gaps in the implementation of both policies undo their goodwill. While Uruguay instantly regularizes refugees to ensure their equal rights and access to services like Uruguayan citizens – a laudable intervention indeed – it has no plan for extracontinental, non-Spanish speaking refugees or immigrants, arriving from wars or disasters. There is no comprehensive immigrant or refugee reception program, including health evaluations, academic revalidation systems, job placements as per skill levels, language assistance, housing assistance and social integration with local communities.

Uruguayan public and political communication regarding immigration needs critical attention too. Public statements by political leaders that blame immigrants for ‘job robbing’ must be challenged publicly as they contribute to hatred, xenophobia and fear of the incoming immigrants. The new government’s communication is focused on bringing in wealthy immigrants willing to invest, but there is no optimal utilization of the highly skilled Cubans and Venezuelans in Uruguay, working in jobs below their qualifications or simply unemployed. The knowledge about, awareness of, and public acknowledgement of the benefits of a diverse workforce, the jobs immigrants can create in the Uruguayan economy, and commentary on their contribution to society and culture, need to flow from the highest office. Such communication is critical to changing public opinion and acceptance of heterogenous populations in a country where 45% do not agree immigrants are good for the economy and 43% believe that employment competition due to new immigrants is negative. Cues from political offices support innovative and contemporary thinking wherein highly educated immigrants can contribute to socioeconomic challenges of Uruguay.

Many point to the quick integration of immigrants in the labor, health and education services, but we must understand that ‘integration’ in this case refers to documents that give immigrants the same rights to be employed, educated, employed and taken care of like Uruguayan citizens. Social inclusion and integration are an entirely different endeavor, more important than economic and professional integration.

In CERES’ survey of all recent nationalities arriving in Uruguay 15% say it’s difficult to know and be friends with Uruguayans. All people have a basic and inherent need to belong. People who have left homes, families, languages, cultures and histories, need it more than those living in familiar environments with loved ones. For a country that proudly keeps its immigrant roots alive through their last names, tolerating immigrants is not enough – we have to reach into our DNA to feel their trauma of uprooting, and extend the empathy they would have needed. For a cohesive society that can face social, political and economic challenges without being torn down lines that differentiate them, compassion and understanding is key. Walking in the other’s shoes, extending respect to beliefs, joining in celebrations and moments of grief, breaking bread together, being there for and checking on the other is what home feels like.