‘Sito Badia’, ‘Grandmother Badia’ in Arabic – as her grandsons like to call her – was born in the village of Hwash, in the Western Syrian province of Homs. She immigrated to Brazil with her family 80 years ago, when she was only 13. The following story of her life recalls the early days of Arab immigrants to Brazil and Latin America.
In 1932, Badia's father, Habib decided to reside in Brazil after his elder brothers moved to São Carlos, in the state of São Paulo:
My Grandfather Farah was in Argentina with my eldest uncles, [aged] only 10 and 12 years old. When he knew that his brother had settled in São Carlos, Brazil, he decided to leave the boys with him and went back to Syria and lived there until his death. My father went to Brazil alone to see his elder brothers; he stayed for a year and went back to Syria. He compared life between Brazil and Syria and decided to settle in Brazil and ask us to join him. I was with my mother and two young siblings, Michael, 11 years old, and Adib, 9, when we left Beirut port in Lebanon heading to Santos port, on a 40 day cruise journey to Brazil. I felt sick in the sea; we stopped in Genoa, Italy where I remember the cemetery, and that they kept us for five days in the ship in Marseille, France
Cousins were waiting for the family in São Carlos, where Sito Bdia's father rented a house. She helped her mother raise her siblings, she didn't go to school (she doesn't know how to write), but she remembers the ancient songs like عتابا ودلعونا (Ataba & Delona) and Dabke of Syria, which she would sing for her mother:
لابدا شعيطة ولابدا بعيطة، الأمر المقدر ياأمي لبسنا البرنيطة. من مدة سبع سنين كنا فلاحين، واليوم مرتاحين بلبس البرنيطة
Most Syrians who immigrated to Brazil have similar stories – staying with relatives and opening their own businesses. According to 1962 statistics, 9% of owners of industries in São Paulo [.pdf], were Syrians and Lebanese.
My father started selling clothes, he opened a shop later in Descalvado, where Michael Shamas, a Lebanese, helped us and my youngest brother Badi. After few years one friend told him about a new town being built called Novo Horizonte. I got married to Mossa our Syrian cousin when I was 28 years.
Sito Badia has four daughters, eight grandsons and will welcome her first grand grandson Gabriel in two months. With her brothers’ families and cousins, altogether there are 90 members. A party takes place every Christmas to introduce the young branches of the family tree while nurturing the relations with its Arabic roots.
Sito Badia still maintains a strong relationship with family in both Brazil and Syria through her daughters: Maria, Najat, Marta and Esmeralda (now deceased); thanks to her the Arabic language has survived in the family:
Only I, my brother Michael, my cousins Elias and Jamelihe are the Syrian Arabic speakers in the family. The family only knows the name of Syrian food [laughing]. I visited Syria three times, but it's very hard now to fly. We talk on the phone every Christmas and Easter. Lately, Marta and Najat visited Syria in 2009, while my first granddaughter married a Syrian.
Badia now lives in Novo Horizonte, São Paulo, where she is planning to celebrate her 100th birthday in seven years.