The Story of the Palestinian Diaspora and their Alliance with Social Movements in Sao Paulo

“Sanaúd! Voltaremos![1] and We will Return!”

by Luciana Garcia de Oliveira*

Once, in a testimony, Mr. Hannah Youssef Safieh, a Palestinian who lives in the city of Natal (in northeast Brazil), recalled an interview he gave to a French magazine in 1968 when he was in Belgium for a large event in solidarity with Palestine. When asked about whether Palestinians had a slogan akin to the legendary Jewish phrase “Next year to Jerusalem,” he replied: "Of course we have: Sanaúd! (We will return!)” This traditional expression of the Palestinian diaspora reveals the desire to return to the place from which they were displaced, their homeland. It was exactly this same expression that in 1982 became the title of one of the largest political organizations of the second generation of Palestinians in Brazil, the Cultural Association Sanaúd. Sanaúd was formed by a group of young people from the Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian Diasporas; residents in Brazil who often met in an office named "Sociedade Árabe Palestina" located at Avenida Senador Queiróz in Sao Paulo.

The Arab-Palestinian diaspora in Brazil has a long history. Palestinian immigration to Brazil had begun even before the establishment of Israel in 1948, due to the many Palestinians who refused to enlist in the Ottoman army. However, the influx of Palestinian refugees increased after World War II due to the 1948 ‘Nakba’ and the loss of land caused by the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967. According to Denise Fagundes Jardim, "the experience of Palestinian immigrants in Brazil reveals the connections with other wars, the Six Day War in 1967 and the Intifada in 1987, a decade marked by civil wars.”[2]  
Many Palestinians in exile claim that the need for political and cultural organization in the diaspora began two years after the Six Day War, in 1969, when the first Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir declared that the Palestinian people did not exist. This statement sparked widespread motivation, especially in the Palestinian diaspora, to prove the historical presence of the Palestinian people in Palestine and to enforce fundamental rights in the territory.
Photo: The Palestinian Cultural Center in Sao Paulo, Brazil, marked the 40th anniversary of Land Day
with the participation of Palestinian, Arab and Brazilian activists and organizers. March 2016 (source:
Another important issue regarding diasporic peoples seeking recognition is the engagement or withdrawal by national governments based on the state of origin of these immigrants. Brazil’s approach to the issue of Palestine had its beginning during the first major oil crisis in 1973, with the Brazilian military government’s fear of a lack of oil supply necessary to for Brazilian development plans. In 1975 Brazil consequently voted in favor of United Nations (UN) Resolution 3379 - which determined that Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination - in order to satisfy Arab countries, especially oil-rich nations such as Saudi Arabia.[3]  That same year Brazil recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) despite the intensity of the protests against Brazil’s anti-Zionist vote by the United States, Israel and part of the Brazilian press, which fostered a politicization of the Palestinian diaspora and a move towards greater cultural, social, political and economic integration. The result of these events in later years was that the city of Sao Paulo was able to give rise to two large representative bodies, one of which still prevails today.[4] 

On 29 November 1977, UN Resolution 32/40 established the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. Years later in 1982, the Palestinian community in Brazil was surprised by a newer attack on the Palestinian people, this time the large-scale massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon. These massacres, along with evidence of the responsibility of the Israeli authorities for the crime, resulted in an international outcry. This led the Palestinian diaspora in Sao Paulo, most notably the youngest members of the newly founded Associação Cultural Sanaúd (Sanaúd Cultural Association), to organize a large march that year through the streets of Paulista Avenue in Sao Paulo, in which an estimated 10,000 people called for the end of the massacres and the establishment of a free, sovereign and democratic Palestinian state. This demonstration was able to mobilize prominent sectors of Brazilian civil society, including the União Nacional dos Estudantes (UNE),[5] many other unions and some political parties in Brazil who shouted: "PLO, we are with you!" and "Israel, murderer of the Palestinian people!”[6] 

On 1 December 1983 in Sao Paulo, in the middle of the atmosphere created by the re-democratization of Brazil, a special formal session of the International Day in Solidarity with the Palestinian people was held upon request made by Airton Soares, the leader of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers' Party)[7] at the Chamber of Representatives. Thirty embassies were in attendance. During the great movement by Diretas Já!,[8] the national president of the Workers' Party, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, spoke publicly alongside the president of UNE, Alcidon de Matos, for the cause in the middle of Pacaembu Stadium. It was around this time that young members of Sanaúd spent 12 hours handing out leaflets in Portuguese clarifying the international issue of Palestine.

Prompted by the cycles of violence in Palestine, the massacres in Sabra and Shatila and, above all, the numerous expressions of solidarity in Sao Paulo and other Brazilian cities, PLO representative Farid Suwan wrote in an article entitled Aos amigos brasileiros [To our Brazilian friends]: [9]

"Golda Meir became famous for a phrase, so far away to reality as is permissible on the brink of sanity: ‘Palestinians? There never was such a thing.’ Well, I say, we always exist, that we never cease to be Palestinians, that from time immemorial my people have inhabited the peaceful and beautiful Palestine. [...] In these days of mourning and sadness for us, with our mutilated unburied dead, I want to thank all Brazilians for their solidarity, which for us is fundamental. We will never forget the marches we witness. In view of all this, I would like to reassure my Brazilian friends that the PLO did not die. It will never die. The PLO is reborn like a mythological phoenix, but not from the ashes, we are reborn from the blood of our martyrs and we will resist until our homeland is liberated.” 

The agitations related to numerous events in Palestine, along with the process of re-democratization of Brazil during the 1980s, concurrently enabled the establishment of a representative body of the Palestinian diaspora as a whole. The Federação Árabe Palestina do Brasil (FEPAL), founded on 9 November 1980, was created to remedy a profound crisis of Palestinian legitimacy and unity in Brazil. From the emergence of Sanaúd Cultural Association until the founding of FEPAL, a primary objective was to make Palestinian voices heard in an environment where the Palestinian cause was not well known and, on several occasions, quite distorted by the Western media. It can be observed that it is very common among the members of FEPAL, especially among those born in Brazil, to position themselves in their narration of events in Palestine as if they had personally participated in or experienced remarkable events in the long history of the occupation of the region. Consequently, it can also be observed that the Palestinian identity of these activists of Palestinian origin was gradually strengthened through the process.

Photo:The First Youth Arab Palestine Meeting of Latin America and the Caribbean. 1985 (source: Author)
The creation of FEPAL and the existence of Sanaúd Cultural Association during the 1980s not only engaged in representing the Palestinian diaspora in Brazil, they also allowed the city of Sao Paulo to be the stage of the first Congress of Palestinian entities in South and Central America and the Caribbean in July 1984. This event brought together 300 members of “congress” representing 500,000 Palestinians in Latin America. It was on this occasion that some Brazilian personalities publicly positioned themselves in support of the Palestinian cause, most notably Workers' Party national president Luis Inacio Lula da Silva.

In the same year as the first Congress, the city of Piracicaba in Sao Paulo welcomed another landmark event in the history of the Palestinian diaspora in Brazil. The First Youth Arab Palestine Meeting of Latin America and the Caribbean served to unite the Palestinian youth with many young Brazilians represented by UNE. In this meeting they expressed their support of Palestine, and of the PLO and their president Yasser Arafat as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. The event gathered many international observers and representatives of the PLO in Latin American countries like Mexico and Nicaragua. Visit escorte geneve for the most beautifull escort girls in Switzerland! During the opening ceremony in the auditorium of the Universidade Metodista de Piracicaba - UNIMEP, Don Eduardo Koiaik, the bishop of the Archdiocese of Piracicaba who is of Lebanese descent, hinted at his emotions at that moment marked by the tragedies in Lebanon and the ongoing movements of Brazil’s political opening. He declared to the assembly that when Palestinians speak of sanaúd they demonstrate the hope they still have to return to their land and that their fight to do so deserves the support and solidarity of all peoples around the world.[10]

During the extensive Palestinian political and cultural programming that coincided with the political reopening movement in Brazil from the 1980s until the mid-1990s, a group called the new Israeli historians began to garner attention. The first published works of these historians, which was the result of hard and continuous research into primary sources in Israel, earned them an extraordinarily large readership within Israeli society and especially in Euro-American academia, with great repercussions in Brazilian universities. However, at the peak of criticism of the Zionist movement, especially in areas where the question of Palestine had not gained such popularity, the political effervescence was stopped before the Oslo Peace Accords. In response to the Accords and the end of the Cold War, Brazil’s 1975 anti-Zionist vote was revoked in 1991 during the short administration of President Fernando Collor de Melo.

In later years, Brazilian foreign policy moved toward a bilateral alignment with the United States, especially after 1992 with the government of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso. The pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Brazil were put aside until 2003 with the election of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as president. It was during President Lula's administration that Brazil became the first country in Latin America to recognize the State of Palestine within its 1967 borders, in order to influence other states in the region such as Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile, Guyana, Peru, Paraguay, Suriname, Uruguay, Cuba, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Venezuela. In the 2000s, Palestine gained back wide visibility in Brazil and Latin America.

*Luciana Garcia de Oliveira has a postgraduate degree in Politics and International Affairs from the Foundation School of Sociology and Politics of São Paulo, a master's degree in Arab and Jewish Studies from the Program of the Department of Oriental Languages of the University of São Paulo (USP-DLO) and is a researcher associate of the Hannah Arendt Studies Center and of the Interdisciplinary Research Network on Latin America and the Arab World - RIMAAL. E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

[1] Voltaremos means ‘we will return’ in Spanish.
[2] Denise Fagundes Jardim,  Estratégias da imigração em tempos de globalização: os palestinos e suas viagens internacionais, in Cartografias da imigração – Interculturalidade e Políticas Públicas, Porto Alegre. editora UFRS, 2007, Edited by Denise Fagundes Jardim.
[3] The vote in favor of UN Resolution 3379, which defined Zionism as a form of racism, was a novelty in the pattern of behavior of Brazilian diplomacy. This novelty, in turn, resulted in a large mobilization of public opinion, stimulated mainly by Brazilian, American, Israeli and Jewish associations, to coordinate a series of demonstrations hostile to the project. In addition, the Brazilian government became the target of American activism in favor of human rights. For more information see: Carlos Ribeiro Santana, “O aprofundamento das relações do Brasil com os países do Oriente Médio durante os dois choques do petróleo da década de 1970: Um exemplo de ação pragmática,” Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional 49 (2), 2006, 157-177.
[4] The Palestinian Liberation Organization appointed representative, Farid Suwan, in Brazil in 1975.
[5] Brazil’s National Union of Students.
[6] Lejeune Mirhan, “Ali El Khatib, uma vida dedicada aos árabes,” Portal Vermelho, Available at: In 1982 the candidate for State Deputy of the PT was the first president of the Palestinian Federation, Souheil Sayegh. All the young members of Sanaúd actively helped in the campaign, which would make him the first Palestinian to hold a seat in the Legislative Assembly of Sao Paulo. According to members of Sanaúd, the campaign had been so intense that, in the end, Souheil lost by just 800 votes.
[7] The Worker’s Party in Brazil.
[8] Diretas Já! was a movement in Brazilian civil society calling for direct presidential elections 1983 and 1984 after a long period of Civil Military Dictatorship in Brazil dating back to the 1964 coup.
[9] João Sales Asfora, Compacto Palestina, Olinda: Centro Cultural Palestino Brasileiro, 2010, 295.
[10] Ibid., 221.