While attending a dinner promoted by the Arab Brazilian Chamber of Commerce at the Mount Lebanon Club, this Thursday night, in the city of São Paulo, to celebrate the National Day of the Arab Community in Brazil, Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva commented that “No people treats immigrants as well as Brazilians do.”
In addition to hailing the good relations between the two communities, Lula also called for debate on peace between Jews and Palestinians in the Middle East, and stated that such attitude must not be left only to large powers such as the United States.
Aside from celebrating the date, the event was organized by the Chamber in return for Lula’s efforts for establishing closer ties between Brazil and the Arab countries, as he was the first Brazilian head of state to travel to the region.
Before him, only (19th century emperor) Dom Pedro II had traveled the same route. Since the beginning of Lula’s government, i.e., from 2003 to 2009, the business volume between the country and the Arab world has risen by 167%.
The president improvised his address and called attention to the integration of Arab immigrants and their descendants in Brazil. “We feel Arab just like you. This tribute is for all of you,” he claimed.
In the middle of his address, Lula highlighted the presence at the event of 102-year-old Violeta Jafet, honorary president of the Women’s Beneficent Society, which manages the Syrian-Lebanese Hospital. “No one represents the meaning of the Arab community in Brazil more than you do.”
Stressing the importance of trade relations with the Middle East, Lula stated that the diversification of foreign trade helped the country overcome last year’s economic crisis. “Without it, we would have sunk,” he explained.
While discussing greater participation in the international scenario, the president claimed that issues such as peace between Arabs and Jews do not depend solely on the actions of wealthy countries.
“Peace in the Middle East is not up to the United States,” he said. “The problem is being addressed the wrong way. There will be no peace until we get the involved parties to sit around the table and start debating,” he asserted.
The declarations regarding peace ended with a mention of the situation of Iran. “I do not want to see a repetition, in Iran, of what took place in Iraq,” he said. “The great powers made up the lie of chemical weapons and, so far, no one has proved anything.”
At the event, Lula was awarded the Grand Collar of the Order of Merit of the Arab Brazilian Chamber of Commerce by the organization’s president, Salim Schahin. He was also presented with a copy of the Koran translated into Portuguese, along with “The Grand Sash,” granted to a Brazilian authority for the first time, which he received from the metropolitan archbishop of the Orthodox Church of São Paulo, Damaskinos Mansour, and a present from the Council of Arab Ambassadors in Brazil. The first lady, Marisa Letícia, was given a blessing in the form of an icon of Our Lady.
An Arab Thank You
With his foreign policy, Lula has laid the foundations of a new phase in relations between Arabs and Brazilians. And with his domestic policy, he distributed income, benefiting the country’s poorest. With these and other statements, the president of the Arab Brazilian Chamber of Commerce, Salim Schahin, paid his tribute to Lula on the Day of the Arab Community in Brazil at the Mount Lebanon Club.
The president of the organization, and the president of the country, were heard by approximately 1,000 people, mostly members of the Arab colony in Brazil.
“The implementing of a series of policies for generating and distributing income has benefited the poorest citizens and led the middle class to represent nearly 50% of our population,” said Schahin, highlighting that these people have become a part of the consumer market, thanks to the Lula administration, and that this was an important contributing factor for Brazil’s having had a smoother situation than the world average during the crisis in 2009.
He also claimed that these consumers have contributed to the performance of the most popular shopping street in Brazil, 25th of March Street, established precisely by Arab immigrants and their descendents.
The date for the tribute to the Arab community, by the way, was chosen because of the street. “25th of March, as we all know, is the name of the best known shopping street in Brazil, adopted by Arabs and their descendents as the center of their business in the country,” said Schahin.
According to him, the social ascension of the new middle class, which goes shopping at the street, also reflects Lula’s life story. “Brazil currently has a president who was able to draw, from adversity, the strength for his personal victory,” said Schahin. He also stated that in foreign matters, Lula has assumed a diplomatic stance of inclusion and diversity.
That, according to Schahin, boosted the expansion of relations with the Arab world. He claimed that in the beginning of Lula’s term in office, the Arab Brazilian Chamber handed him a document on the potential of trade between Brazil and the region.
“We estimated that Brazilian exports to the Arab nations had the potential to grow by 270% in four years, rising from US$ 2.6 billion in 2002 to US$ 7 billion in 2006,” he said. As of 2008, however, trade between Arabs and Brazilians had already reached US$ 9.8 billion. In 2009, a year of crisis, Brazilian exports to the region dropped by only 4.6%, a rate lower than the average.
Nevertheless, according to Schahin, the Arab Brazilian Chamber wants more out of relations with the Arabs, be it in trade and investment or tourism and culture. The organization, said its president, has established work committees in order to increase the flow of tourism and investment with the region.
It also has plans for establishing a Federation of South American Chambers and a House of Arab Culture in Brazil. According to him, the objective is to have the project for the Federation ready before the next Summit of Arab-South American Countries (ASPA), in Doha, Qatar.
Schahin also underscored the importance of the Arab colony in Brazil. “We are approximately 12 million Arabs and their descendants. We, Arab Brazilians, have influenced the formation of Brazil in fields such as industry, trade, arts, architecture, medicine, language, cuisine,” said Schahin. Such influence was evident, by the way, at the dinner itself, through the presence of politicians and ministers with Arab last names.
The mayor of São Paulo, Gilberto Kassab, an Arab descendent, attended the meeting and spoke on the matter. “São Paulo has the largest Arab community outside of the Arab world,” stated the mayor. The colony’s importance was also underscored in an address by state governor José Serra, who is of Italian origin and made several jokes about the subject.
According to Serra, the Arab community was the third one with which he became integrated in his life, after the Italian and Spanish ones. “I used to eat safihas and kibbehs before I even knew what the foreign community was,” he said, drawing laughter from the attending crowd.
The governor made his calculations and claimed that the Arabs comprise roughly 6% of the Brazilian population. He mentioned the number of descendants in the government, including those attending the ceremony, such as the minister of Education, Fernando Haddad, of Arab origin.
Apart from Haddad, the dinner was attended by other non-government authorities of Arab origin, such as Paulo Skaf, president of the Federation of Industries of the State of Estado de São Paulo (Fiesp), federal representatives Beto Mansur, Jorginho Maluf and Paulo Maluf, and senator Romeu Tuma, the author of the project for establishing the National Day of the Arab Community.
The dean of the Council of Arab Ambassadors, Yousuf Al-Usaimi, also talked about the ties that bind Brazilians and Arabs. He praised the efforts that the federal government has been putting on to bring Brazil closer to the Arab world, not only through blood ties, but also in other spheres, such as the diplomatic, economic and political ones.
“Thanks to His Excellency, the first Summit of Arab and South American Countries was held in 2005,” said Al-Usaimi. The dean stated that the Arab world acknowledges Lula’s stance in favor of the Arab nations, as well as his work as president. “The world looks with respect and admiration on his actions for Brazil to attain progress,” he said.
The dean claimed that the Arab community in Brazil takes pride in having Lula as its president, and that the Council of Arab Ambassadors is also proud of functioning in a “friendly country such as Brazil.” The compliments paid to president Lula by both Schahin and the dean were applauded by the community attending the ceremony.