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Al-Arousa Tea, Molokhia, and Coffee with Ammo Maher: Meet Portugal’s Egyptian Migrants

Al-Arousa Tea, Molokhia, and Coffee with Ammo Maher: Meet Portugal’s Egyptian Migrants

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Life Homeless Diversity Arab Migrants

Wednesday 27 March 202407:25 am
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شاي العروسة والعيش وعم ماهر... مهاجرون مصريون في البرتغال


I’ve only been in the magical land of Portugal for a few weeks now, but I have already had to open a Portuguese bank account.

I headed to one of the most famous banks in the heart of the capital, Lisbon, and there I met Pedro, a young man with dark skin in his mid-twenties, an employee at the bank, charged with opening accounts. Upon opening up my green passport and seeing my nationality, a bright smile spread across his face, and he asked me, in astonishment, “You're Egyptian?” with a smile, I answered, “Yes, from Cairo.”

The young Pedro shared, “I know Cairo, the city of Al Ahly Football Club, my favorite team!”

He continued, his excitement palpable, “Al Ahly has been my favorite African team since I saw Flavio Amado in its red jersey more than sixteen years ago. As a child, I dreamed of playing for this club, but circumstances didn’t allow it, so here I am now, an immigrant in the land of Portugal, but I still carry this dream in my heart.”

After the October War of 1973, the late President Anwar Sadat fully supported Angola in its movement for liberation from Portuguese colonialism. In the mid-1970s, Egypt established diplomatic, economic, and cultural relations with Portugal, and contributed to the freedom of Angola.

Ammo Maher is the most famous cigarette seller among the Egyptian community in Lisbon, and many of his customers are now friends. He arrived in Portugal in the mid-80s, while hopping from one European country to the next. He wound up in Portugal, humbled by the locals’ warm embrace.

I left the bank with plenty of time on my hands, and so I headed to Ammo Maher’s, as the seventy-year old Egyptian is fondly known among his fellow Egyptians in Portugal. Ammo Maher is the most famous cigarette seller in the community, and many of his customers are now friends. He arrived in Portugal in the mid-1980s, as an adventurous young man, while hopping from one European country to the next. Ultimately, he wound up in Portugal, humbled by the locals’ warm embrace.

“I sell cigarettes to Egyptians and Arabs and invite them for a cup of coffee, which perhaps equals my profit from the pack of cigarettes. My goal though is not profit, as I retired ten years ago and no longer need to work for my stability or for that of my children, who are nearing forty, and have their own successful businesses.”

Ammo Maher told me that he maintains this ritual in order to meet new people and offer support. His table is always filled with new faces and whichever café he sits at, he is the liveliest man in the room.

It is safe to say that Ammo Maher is among the oldest Egyptians currently residing in Portugal. He came here by chance in 1985 to renew his Egyptian passport, after incurring difficulties doing so in Spain, where he was residing at that time. Soon after, he learned that the Egyptian Ambassador to Portugal at that time was a fellow “comrade” of the army, as the Egyptians put it. At the embassy, he and the ambassador exchanged memories of their military service, as both fought in the June 1967 war, the Attrition Wars and the October 1973 war.

During that meeting, he was convinced to leave Spain and remain in Portugal, changing the course of Ammo Maher’s life and tying him to Lisbon for almost 40 years.

Ammo Maher’s second marriage was to a Portuguese woman. Together they had two children, who know only a few Arabic words and very little about Egypt. They know a bit about Ancient Egypt, because their father’s first project in Portugal was making frames and papyrus adorned with drawings of the Pharaohs, some of which are still hanging on the walls of the Egyptian to this day.


A job opportunity in Lisbon

“For a long time, I've dreamed of traveling and doing something different,” shared Ahmed, while explaining his decision to leave Egypt for Portugal, his third stop in Europe, after Italy and France. He came to Lisbon in search of security, stability, and work, even if work starts at 11pm and ends at dawn. His nocturnal routine initially led me to believe he was working in nightlife! But in this city crowded with immigrants, connections are required for employment, and so, using whatever connections he had, he has found work as a garbage collector.

“I don't pick up garbage or anything. See how clean and tidy my clothes are; It's as if I'm a doctor,” Ahmed justified his work conditions, for fear of belittlement. I was keen to understand how “connections” helped him obtain this job. According to Ahmed, municipal workers who work for 4 hours at night benefit from special conditions and circumstances. Firstly, they work reduced hours (compared to those who work during the day), secondly, they work while the rest of the city is asleep, and finally, because it is a clean profession. We get out of the car, head to the garbage bins for collection, place them by the collection machine on the back of the truck, and the truck does the rest. We repeat this process at the other designated points, and when it's 2 am, our shift ends. It's an easy job with a good salary, so it has plenty of demand and few vacancies.

Ahmed graduated from an industrial school in Egypt, and entered Europe for the first time five years ago. He is now waiting for his son to obtain Portuguese citizenship, and hopes to return to Egypt soon to settle down. It seems that he has a plan and dreams tied to what he will achieve in Portugal.

Ahmed doesn't like to recall his first months of exile; He was homeless at times, or working undeclared. In Italy, he slept through rainstorms on the street, and in Paris, he stayed in a car repair workshop for 40 days. He was trying to save on housing expenses by sleeping inside the shop.

Ahmed doesn't like to recall his first months of exile; He was homeless at times, or working undeclared. In Italy, he slept through rainstorms on the street, and in Paris, he stayed in a car repair workshop for 40 days. He did not see the light during that time. He was trying to save on housing expenses by sleeping inside the shop. Eventually, he reached Portugal where he found what he was looking for and began to build his small family.

Next to Ahmed’s neighborhood, there is a small grocery store considered a destination for Egyptians searching for the famous Arousa tea from Egypt or some molokhia and brown bread. It is run by an Egyptian vendor who came to Portugal several years ago. The store was born out of his longing for Egyptian produce in Portugal. After years of work, it has become an important destination for Arabs in the area. Here, you can find black honey or sugar cane molasses, as well as frozen vegetables used in Arab dishes, most notably molokhia and Egyptian and Syrian-style falafel.

“I sit in the store and feel like I haven't left Egypt,” says the owner, who came to Portugal with his daughter and wife for a fresh start and better opportunities several years ago. Delivering comfort, nostalgia and delight to expat Egyptians brings him great joy. He is currently preparing to expand his small business to sell a wider range of products.


A tent for living in parks of Lisbon

Mahmoud arrived in Portugal about 11 months ago with his wife and 6-year-old daughter. He had been working in Saudi Arabia as a schoolteacher for more than five years until his job was localized. He returned to Egypt in search of a new opportunity, but he wasn’t welcome there.

“I returned to Egypt after finding no more options in Saudi Arabia. I used to earn 6,000 Riyals ($1,600 USD), and my living conditions were comfortable. I was living a happy life with my wife and daughter. Perhaps due to the fact that I’ve been away from Egypt for years now, I was unable to adapt to life there. So, my wife and I decided to leave again,” explained Mahmoud.

Their journey took them to Europe, after obtaining their Schengen visa. They gathered the necessary funds, and everything appeared to be in order until a few days before the trip. Their apartment in Egypt was robbed, and the thief likely knew that there was money and gold in the apartment. Overnight, the young family was left with only 500 euros, and a 10-day reservation at a hotel in the Portuguese capital. Mahmoud tried to convince his wife to stay in Egypt while he traveled alone to search for an opportunity.

His wife refused and insisted on braving the odds together. After arriving in Portugal, Mahmoud was unable to find a job, and every day set him back further financially. The end of their hotel reservation was approaching, which led them to buy a 50 Euro plastic tent to live in. It was there that he met a young Pakistani man who connected him with a Portuguese journalist working at a human rights organization. Mahmoud was promised that he would never sleep on the street again.

Unable to find employment, and with no savings left, Mahmoud was forced to buy a tent for him, his wife and young daughter to live in. At the Lisbon park he had set up his tent in, he was introduced to a Portuguese journalist working at a human rights organization. Mahmoud was promised that he would never sleep on the street again.

The Portuguese journalist was able to open doors for Mahmoud and his family that he previously thought impossible. She sent his file to a human rights organization that supports immigrants, and the organization provided them with proper housing, meals, clothes, and medicine. It also enrolled Mahmoud’s daughter in school and worked alongside the family to make their status in Portugal legal. They even received monthly aid until both Mahmoud and his wife found work.

Many Egyptian migrants are forced to embark on journeys and take huge risks in order to live a decent life. When will life in our homeland truly become decent?


* The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Raseef22


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