Syrian refugees in Uruguay protest to leave country

Montevideo (AFP) - Syrian refugees who arrived in Uruguay last year under a resettlement program protested Monday outside the presidential offices, saying they are living in poverty and want to leave.

"We didn't flee the war to die here in poverty," 36-year-old Maher el Dis told AFP. "This is not a place suited for refugees."

Five families, with more than 30 children, camped out with their luggage on one of Montevideo's main squares, saying they will stay there until they are able to leave the South American country.

The resettlement program, launched last year under Uruguay's then-president Jose Mujica, aims to take in families with small children, house them and provide them with a modest income.

But the protesting families, who arrived in October, said they are isolated and struggling in Uruguay, which has just a tiny Arab population and a relatively high cost of living.

"We want to live with (our) identity and (our) values," Maraa el-Chibli said through tears, speaking through an interpreter.

"We're not here for them to test this out on us," said the 55-year-old father of 15.

The families have been housed in shelters and receive a small stipend, but they said it was not enough.

"The people here are nice, but it's very expensive," said Ibrahim Mohamed, who had a little girl in his arms.

One of the families recently tried to leave Uruguay but was detained in Turkey because of visa problems and finally sent back to South America.

President Tabare Vazquez, Mujica's successor, has pledged to welcome a new group of Syrian refugees by the end of the year. In all, Uruguay has promised to take in 117 people from Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon.

The protest comes as the Middle East and Europe struggle to deal with the massive flow of refugees out of Syria, whose civil war has now been raging for more than four years.