Between Fear and Cruelty: Egypt’s Refugees tell their Stories

Friday 30 June 201709:22 pm
When the first wave of refugees hit the Middle East in the wake of the 1948 Israeli occupation of Palestine, Egypt was the only country to grant them citizenship, while other Arab states were crowding them in camps. Even if they were not granted the Egyptian citizenship, refugees were able to lead a normal life like any other citizen in the country, as long as they followed the law. With the concession of different regimes, and the high number of refugees coming from countries hit by the "Arab Spring", Egypt hosted thousands of refugees from Iraq, Syria, Libya, Sudan and elsewhere. After the 2011 revolution, the status has changed as new obstacles come to face refugees who are seeking a safe haven in Egypt. Today, they have to deal with the many complications and conditions that come to burden those who had to leave home forcibly.   The Syrian Investor Mourad is a Syrian man who settled in Cairo, fleeing the war in his country, after having failed to join his mother and brother in Turkey. He fought in the ranks of one of the Syrian opposition factions, until he was convinced that the war was not his to fight. He gathered what was left of his scattered humanity, and headed to Egypt. The situation then took a turn for the worse, with heated debates springing up among Egyptians about the situation of Syrians. Many were concerned about Syrian shops that have “invaded” the Egyptian market, saying they are a threat to Egyptian business, while others took it upon themselves to speak out against the ill treatment that Syrians and refugees of other nationalities receive by the Egyptian state and its institutions. Mourad al-Suri (Syrian Mourad) is a title given to him by those who know him. He started his first project in the neighborhood of Abdeen in downtown Cairo. He opened up a café that attracted most customers in the area because of its beautiful decor and cheap prices. The business grew to become a landmark; only to trigger envy from others- he was then faced with many hardships, and was even physically assaulted several times and imprisoned. "I started this business to put an end to my unemployment," says Mourad, whose good-looks had also caused him some troubles. "Fortunately, the business was a success in ways I could not have imagined. But this is also why the problems started. A man had a kiosk next to my café, and when he saw my business booming, he closed his kiosk, put some chairs in the street, and claimed it was a café too. Then he used his connections in the neighborhood to have them threaten and assault me." Mourad adds: "I then agreed with him to have him as a partner in my business, with a third of the capital. However, he wanted to takeover the whole business, and continued to threaten me to do so. I faced many problems and was imprisoned more than once because he was filing police reports against me. To avoid trouble, I decided to give up my share, he bought it for a cheap price, and I decided not to start another business. Now I am a worker at someone’s patisserie."   October 6th: A Syrian city on Egyptian soil Syrian-refugee-in-Egypt_AFP October 6th City is now home to many Syrians who sought refuge in Egypt. Egyptians comment on the demographic change of this area saying “October: A Syrian city on Egyptian soil," mimicking a real estate advertisement with the slogan “Madinaty: an international city on Egyptian soil.” Wherever you go in the city, you encounter shop signs that are inarguably Syrian. "Syrians are a practical people and they might be the only group of refugees who have benefited Egypt by making investments. They have also improved the food service industry in Cairo," says Ahmed G, an Egyptian journalist. "The problems they face in Egypt are mostly individual incidents triggered by the greed of some Egyptians," he adds. Ahmed elaborates, "Generally, Egyptians have come to appreciate Syrians as hard-workers in pursuit of success. It is an undeniable fact that some Syrian businesses have achieved great success in a record time that it might have caused jealousy among those waiting for success to come knocking on their doors." "As for the rude and harsh treatment Syrians encounter in governmental institutions, it should not be held against Egyptians. This type of treatment is very common in such institutions and is not particular to Syrians," he adds. Ahmed finally points out that "there is another problem in the way Egypt handles refugee crises, which is opening the door for refugees without setting a limit, then suddenly closing it, then complaining about the large number of refugees that the country is struggling to accommodate for. In order to overcome such poor planning, the state should determine its capacity and decide on the number of refugees it can welcome."   Palestinians without papers Alaa, a Palestinian refugee who lived in the Gaza Strip before moving to Cairo about three years ago, says, "I came to Egypt with a job contract to work here, only to be shocked by the ugly reality and the even uglier image promoted against Palestinians; especially after the Egyptian revolution." The majority of Palestinians who came to Egypt after the revolution were not given residencies; which had pushed them to stay in the country illegally. Alaa adds: "Unfortunately, many Egyptians treat us badly, because they associate us with the Islamist groups entangled in Egyptian affairs.” "Egyptian authorities require Palestinians coming to Egypt from any country to coordinate with the state security or the intelligence agency, and often such coordination requires a lot of money or a top-notch official to facilitate the process. You may stay detained at the airport until the Rafah border point is open again, only to be deported to Palestine.” He explains, "It's a matter of luck. The border point might open in a week, a month, or even two! You could return to the country you came from and arrange the date of your trip to be on the day Rafah is opened again so that you might leave the airport to Rafah directly!" "In the past, Palestinians had the right to live in Egypt, the same as Egyptians themselves, and there was a strong belief in the justice of the Palestinian cause. However, because of the political circumstances, the accusations leveled at some Palestinian organizations to be interfering in Egyptian affairs, and the biased media, the situation has changed. The majority of Palestinians here try to hide their identity to avoid trouble.” Mohammed A., a young Palestinian man who was recently deported after being arrested at one of the checkpoints in Cairo, says, "I was out with a couple of my Egyptian friends at around one in the morning when we were stopped at a checkpoint and asked for identification. When the police saw my Palestinian passport, they told me to stand aside and had my friends leave. They took me to a police station and I was detained there for three weeks until Rafah was open and I was deported to Gaza." "Now I am banned from entering Egypt because they accuse me of having resided there illegally, although I had arrived only two months earlier. The funny thing is that they asked me for my residency, even though they refuse to grant us papers, except on very complicated terms. Even the employees at the Passports, Emigration & Nationality Administration treat us as if they have a personal issue with us." "The Palestinian people have always considered Egyptians to be their closest kin. Our culture as Palestinians is heavily influenced by the Egyptian culture. The school curriculum taught in Gaza was the Egyptian curriculum until the beginning of the millennium. This means that there are generations of Palestinian children who grew up embracing Egyptian history. Not to mention the large number of Palestinian families sharing blood ties with Egyptian relatives."

Anti-Black Racism "I have never understood why Egyptians treat dark-skinned Africans as inferiors, especially when it comes to refugees from Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia and other countries. It is baffling." "A large number of Egyptian and non-Egyptian men believe that an African woman is easy to get and that she could not reject anyone. The rate of sexual harassment African women face in Egypt is insane, maybe even higher than the harassment Egyptian women have to endure." "The majority of Africans live within their own communities," says Ashul Duftardar, who was born to a Sudanese father and an Egyptian mother and has lived in Egypt for more than 20 years. Ajak Luka from South Sudan who spends his time travelling back and forth to Egypt where his family lives, says: "Most of the Sudanese refugees stay in Egypt temporarily, while preparing their papers for immigration to Europe. Africans face many problems here, especially because of their skin color, or their different lifestyle and culture. Nevertheless, you can always find advantages and disadvantages to living in any country."
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