“Ratatat! Pow!” For a few years, these were the only sounds that 12-year-old Hanan Daqqah heard in Idlib, in northeastern Syria. She spent days locked up inside, unable to attend school or meet up with friends. Her childhood was passing her by.
In 2015, Daqqah and her family left Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp, where they had been living for approximately two years, and sought asylum in Brazil, where there are currently more than 2,000 Syrian refugees.
Together with 79 other refugees, Daqqah recently completed a six-month Portuguese language class, jointly organized by the United States Embassy, the Mesquita Brasil (Mosque Brazil) and the São Paulo-based NGO Missão da Paz.
She currently lives in a small apartment in the Glicério district near downtown São Paulo with her parents, three siblings and a few other relatives.
Daqqah’s father Khaled works in a helmet factory. Her 16-year-old brother Mustafa sells cellphone cases to help support the family. “My father would like Mustafa to get an education in order to secure a better future. But things are complicated,” Daqqah told HuffPost Brazil.
Daqqah, who was the only one in her family to enroll in the Portuguese class, says she learned the language with surprising ease. “In just over two months I was speaking Portuguese. I don’t know how I learned it,” she said.
In her pink notebook, and with excellent penmanship, she writes things down in Arabic, English and Portuguese. And she says she wants to keep writing. “I want to be a journalist to tell the story of my people.”
The back cover of her notebook is adorned with messages penned by her new Brazilian friends, including: “I love you, Hanan,” “You are beautiful” and “Friends forever.”
“I’m very popular here in Brazil,” she shared proudly.
Another exciting experience for Daqqah was being selected by the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee to carry the Olympic torch in Brasilia on May 3.
“It was the greatest gift of my life. I will never forget it,” she said with a broad smile. “I represented the children refugees from Syria, and all the friends I left there.”
Another graduate of the Portuguese course is Razan Suliman, a 26-year-old woman from Aleppo who has been living in Brazil with her husband for a year.
She graduated with a degree in computer science from a Syrian university, and worked as an English teacher in Aleppo for a few years. She describes her life before the war as “perfect and happy.”
Married and pregnant, she fled to fighting Damascus and then to Beirut, Lebanon, with her husband. After being turned down by France, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt for asylum, the couple tried their luck with Brazil.
“No other country accepted us. I knew nothing about Brazil. I only knew that they had a good soccer team. I didn’t understand a word of Portuguese,” she says.
Soon after they arrived in São Paulo, their son Adam was born. “Despite many sad moments, his birth was the happiest day of my life,” she said.
Both Suliman and her husband have been unsuccessful at finding jobs. “I feel sad and helpless,” she said.
They rely on the support of Brazil’s Mosque, a meeting place for Syrian refugees in São Paulo. The mosque’s sheikh pays the rent for their house.
The Portuguese language class sent Suliman back to her college days, when she would spend her nights studying. “When Adam slept, I picked up the newspapers and practiced everything I learned in class,” she said.
And her hard work paid off, according to her teacher, Bruna Pastoriza. “It is a dream come true to see that after six months they have achieved total autonomy. They are capable of communicating in any situation. They are capable of rebuilding their lives by themselves,” says Pastoriza. “This is the transformative power that comes from learning a foreign language.”
Despite Brazil’s ongoing recession, which has left 11 million people looking for jobs, Suliman has hope that she’ll be able to land a job with her newly acquired Portuguese skills.
“I love that song you sing,” she says, trying to remember the lyrics to a Beth Carvalho song. “Levanta, sacode a poeira e dá a volta por cima” — pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get back in the saddle.
This piece originally appeared on HuffPost Brazil and has been translated into English.