By Marcus M. Gilban
RIO DE JANEIRO — A group of 137 immigrants from Brazil and Argentina landed in Israel on Monday after 40 days of limbo brought about by Israel’s closure of its main international airport last month and Europe’s restriction on Latin Americans making connections through its airports.
Part of the group was slated to fly out of Sao Paulo in January, but those plans were shelved after Israel shut down all but emergency and cargo flights to Ben Gurion Airport on Jan. 24. The airport partially reopened two weeks later, but entries were limited and further complicated by the inability to make connecting flights through Europe. Currently there are no scheduled direct flights between Brazil and Israel.
“There were moments when I thought we’d give up. It was a continuous exercise of patience, persistence and wish,” said Geni Gelman, who had been staying with her 89-year-old mother at a hotel at the Rio airport since Jan. 23.
Most of the immigrants had resigned from their jobs, given up their homes and withdrawn their children from school in advance of the scheduled Jan. 25 flight. Some passengers from remote cities in Brazil had flown to Sao Paulo and were staying at hotels in anticipation of their flight to Israel.
The logjam was broken thanks to a partnership between the Jewish Agency and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a charity that helps facilitate immigration to Israel. The organizations teamed up to charter a plane and secure authorizations enabling the immigrants to be included among the 200 arrivals allowed into Israel each day.
“When the aliyah organizations work together, unity makes strength,” said Gladis Berezowsky, the president of Olim do Brasil, a nonprofit that serves as the official voice of Brazilian immigrants in Israel.
Since 2016, an average of 650 individuals have immigrated to Israel from Brazil each year. The tough economic climate in Brazil, combined with urban violence and political corruption, have been driving factors for Brazilians seeking an improved quality of life in Israel.
“The flight was sublime, one of the most emotional things of my life,” said Ricardo Balassiano, who arrived in Israel with his wife, two children and his wife’s parents. “The general feeling is that it was all worth it after all.”