Friday,24 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1138, 7 - 13 March 2013
Friday,24 November, 2017
Issue 1138, 7 - 13 March 2013

Ahram Weekly

Taken under Egypt’s wing

Doaa El-Bey delves into the sometimes difficult lives of Syrian refugees in Egypt

Al-Ahram Weekly

“One of my Egyptian neighbours told me that the Syrians are like Muhajireen and the Egyptians are like Al-Ansar, and therefore it is only right that we should share things with you,” said Umm Feras, a Syrian housewife who came to Egypt seven months ago. She was referring to the support the Al-Ansar (the inhabitants of Madina) gave to the Muhajireen (immigrants from Mecca) after the Prophet Mohamed’s journey (higra) from Mecca to Madina.
“Egyptian people used to move to the new communities in search of cheaper rents. But because of the Syrians, rents in areas like Sheikh Zayed or 6 October city have doubled or even tripled,” said Soad, an Egyptian housewife living in 6 October city. These two quotations reflect radically different points of view on the way Egyptians have received the thousands of Syrians fleeing the dangers of their country to the safety of Egypt.
Generally speaking, Egyptians welcome the Syrians and sympathise with their plight, though some Egyptians are more obviously friendly and others prefer a more pragmatic approach to the crisis. The latter say that the Egyptian economy cannot bear further burdens from refugees, notably in terms of social services, medical treatment, education and shelter.
“Egyptians are very kind, generally speaking. They feel the suffering of the Syrians. The treatment that Syrians get in Egypt is far better than what they receive in other states,” Alaa, a young housewife said. She arrived in Egypt from Syria with her parents and siblings seven months ago. She had to share an apartment with them until her husband also arrived in Egypt four months ago, allowing the family to rent another apartment.

FACTS AND FIGURES: Faced with the difficult choice of dying in their homeland or abandoning their homes and fleeing the country, nearly one million Syrian citizens have preferred the latter. Most of them have fled to Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt, the latter being the only non-neighbouring state to which the Syrians have fled.
The influx of Syrian refugees into Egypt has risen noticeably over the last few months to reach some 20,000, according to the UNHCR website. However, this number only counts Syrians who are registered as refugees. Most refuse to be registered for fear of being deported.
Refugees obtain a yellow card proving their refugee status and giving them special privileges in the host country, including education and health services similar to those accessed by locals, explained Hossam Al-Dahab, a volunteer at the Bureau for Syrian Refugees (BSR), a non-official body helping the refugees. The BSR studies the cases of newcomers and offers them help if needed.
“Syrians are sometimes scared to register as refugees out of fear that they will be followed by that status when they return to Syria. One of the missions of the Bureau is to inform them that refugee status is temporary and that it does not cause them harm,” Al-Dahab told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Nasser Kamel, Egypt’s assistant foreign minister for Arab affairs, put the number of Syrian refugees in Egypt at between 100,000 and 120,000 during a speech at the donor conference held in Kuwait in January. In an article posted last month, Wikipedia estimated the number at 150,000, but there are no official figures.
Although the cost of travelling to Egypt is often far higher than that to neighbouring states, some Syrians choose to head to Egypt because of the relatively easy residence procedures. Egypt does not require entry visas, and Syrians are able to enter the country freely for three months as visitors. After that, they need to regularise their situation at the department of immigration of the Ministry of Interior.
Syrians in Egypt are also allowed to rent property, register in schools and universities, and work. With very few exceptions, Syrians in Egypt do not live in refugee camps, but instead are concentrated in new communities like 6 October city and Al-Rehab, Al-Haram area, Nasr City, and Obour. There are also small numbers in Alexandria, Kafr Al-Sheikh, Mansoura, Suez, Port Said and Ismailia.
It has become a common sight to see a Syrian family or a couple of families in supermarkets, in the shopping mall or a restaurant, or even on public transportation. Numerous Syrian restaurants offering delicious Syrian food have recently opened in various places in Egypt.
Various charity organisations offer refugees accommodation or help them through donations directed at housing, furniture, education and sometimes work. However, overall the picture is not rosy and life in Egypt is not free of problems. The increasing number of refugees is becoming a burden on the already ailing Egyptian economy, and finding a reasonably priced apartment, or places in schools and universities for the increasing numbers of newcomers, is not easy.
Such challenges are unlikely to decline given that the number of refugees is likely to increase in the coming months. The UNHCR has reported that nearly 10,000 more Syrians have recently applied for registration as refugees, meaning that some 30,000 Syrian refugees will be in need of state services, adding to the country’s already burdened budget.
“The rising number of refugees will have a catastrophic impact by June. But if the economic situation in Egypt improves in the summer, the catastrophe could be delayed to September,” Al-Dahab said, basing his remarks on the number of cases he sees.  

EVERYDAY CHALLENGES: Some families and charity organisations offer the Syrian refugees accommodation, often for free. However, many Syrians have to find their own accommodation and pay for it. Finding an affordable flat is one of the most important obstacles that faces them in their daily lives.
“Rents are on the rise. My neighbour rented her apartment a few months before me for LE400. I rented mine, which is the same size, for LE800. And a family that came a few days ago was offered a similar flat for LE1,100. How can a man with six children pay the rent and find enough money to buy milk and food for his children,” Umm Feras asked, adding that she had had to take a job selling food to make a living.
Finding a job to meet basic needs is another challenge facing many Syrian refugees in a country that already suffers from high unemployment. It has proved to be an even tougher challenge for highly qualified Syrians, as was the case with a prominent surgeon who was well-established in his home country.
“Finding a suitable job for my husband — who was a famous surgeon in Syria — was the most difficult of the challenges we faced,” his wife explained to the Weekly on condition of anonymity. “For him to start from scratch and to have to go to present himself and present a CV is almost impossible. It is for this reason that he is still without a job,” she said.
Although they have no financial problems at present and are living on their savings, the surgeon’s wife is worried that there is a possibility that they will run out of money before too long, and as a result her husband’s finding a job that meets his qualifications has become a necessity.
“My sister-in-law, also a famous doctor, was forced by her family to come to Egypt. Now that she has failed to find a suitable job, she is seriously considering returning to Syria,” she said.
Alaa, who never worked in Syria but has been forced into work to pay the rent, is also finding it difficult to find a suitable job. “The treatment meted out by Egyptian employers to their employees is not good. They also do not appreciate the fact that many Syrians are facing psychological as well as financial problems,” she said. However, she has recently managed to find a full-time job in which she is happy.
Her husband, Fayez, who was forced to leave his fruit-juice shop in Syria, has been less fortunate. He tried to rent a shop in a good area but found that prices were too high. “The rent of a small shop in a good area can be as much as LE12,000,” he said. “How can I afford that and make a profit to pay for our food and rent?” Fayez has tried to find an alternative job, but cannot find one.
 
THE CHALLENGE OF EDUCATION: The decision by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi to allow Syrians access to public schools is supposed to make joining a school a straightforward matter. But already crammed schools and bureaucracy have presented problems to some Syrians.
One Syrian woman who preferred not to mention her name said that she had three children at university and that she had found 90 per cent of Egyptians officials willing to help her. However, there were also individuals more inclined to impede the process of application, she said. Her son had managed to enter university with no problems and now attended regularly. But one of her daughters was not able to join in the first term, but had to start her studies this term. The other has not been able to go to university this year at all because the procedures took such a long time. Thus, she will have to start next year.
“However, this time is not being entirely lost as my two daughters have been able to benefit from their proficiency in English to work in a private nursery school,” she added.
Many Syrian children, especially in the primary and preparatory stages, also find it difficult to settle in Egyptian schools. Although there is no language barrier, Walaa found it difficult to like her new school and make friends because the accent of the teacher and the girls was different and the way the teacher delivered the lesson and the class was run was unfamiliar to her. “I keep telling my mum I want to go back to Syria,” she said.
The family of another child in primary school decided to withdraw her because her failure to understand the teacher and mix with the other girls was starting to have a psychological effect on her. Her parents have decided to enroll her next year instead when she has become better acquainted with Egyptian society and more capable of settling in school.
The grandchildren of Umm Fayez have not faced similar problems, but have managed to settle into their new school and make new friends. However, their school is also a private school.

IN SEARCH OF MEDICAL TREATMENT: Concerning healthcare, the Egyptian government has taken the decision that Syrians should be treated in public hospitals like Egyptians. However, the public hospitals are not always in a very good condition, and they are in any case struggling to treat Egyptian patients, often asking them to pay for materials used for their treatment and sometimes to buy medications from outside the hospital as well.
Some hospitals have also been reluctant to apply the government’s decision as they prefer to deal with Syrians as expatriates and charge them the non-Egyptian rate, which is usually double or triple the Egyptian rate.  
Bassam’s case reflects the sometimes deficient care a patient can receive, whether Egyptian or non-Egyptian. Bassam, who cannot move in bed without help, suffers from cancer. He lives with his wife, two sisters and their families, some 15 persons, in a furnished flat in 6 October city, according to his sister Hanady.
She had to go from one association to another to find someone who would pay for a much-needed operation for her brother. “I went to all the Egyptian and Syrian charity organisations, the cancer institution, the Doctors’ Syndicate, the Egyptian, Saudi, Kuwaiti and even British relief organisations in Egypt, but failed to find anybody who could help me. Given that Bassam had been in severe pain for more than two months, I had to pay for the operation from our dwindling savings,” Hanady said.
While she blamed the delay on the procrastination of the charity organisations and their failure to use aid for the best purposes, she was grateful to her Egyptian neighbours and acquaintances who guided her in the search for a place to treat her brother. “They took me from one place to another and encouraged me to be patient. They have also helped me fix up a table from which I can sell fruit and vegetables to make a living,” she said.
Hanady, who was a teacher back home, decided to sell fruit and vegetables in front of her house rather than ask for help from others. Her house and her brother’s and sister’s houses, which were in Deraa where the Syrian uprising started, were destroyed by the Syrian regime, causing the family to lose almost everything.

MARRIED LIVES: Although no accurate figures or reliable documentation is available, many observers suggest that Egyptian men marrying Syrian girls is becoming quite a phenomenon.  
The Egyptian National Council for Women’s Rights (NCWR) has condemned this phenomenon as a “crime committed against women under the guise of religion”, and it is collecting all relevant data on the issue in order to send a report to the president and prime minister.
According to the NCWR, some Egyptian men who want to marry Syrian women and some religious preachers argue that they are trying to save the women from financial difficulties by offering themselves in marriage. However, some argue that these men are in fact trying to exploit the women’s plight and marry them on the cheap.
“Why don’t they do the same thing with the Sudanese or African refugees who reside in Egypt” Umm Feras asked. Faced with the increasing demand to marry Syrian women among Egyptian men, some mosques to which refugees come for help have been forced to put up notices saying that the mosque will not broker such marriages.
The Bureau for Syrian Refugees clearly states on its website that it does not deal with these demands. Discussion in the media about the issue has raised concerns about its effect on society. Azza Korayem, a sociology professor at the National Centre for Social and Criminological Research, said that the phenomenon was unlikely to have a long-term impact, however.
“It could even have a positive impact by prompting the families of Egyptian girls to reconsider their exaggerated demands from the suitors of their daughters,” she said.

FUTURE PROSPECTS: “At the beginning of the war, those who left Syria were relatively well-off and could afford to live on their savings. However, more recently even the poor have been forced to leave for fear of their lives. They come with money to pay the rent for a month or two but no more. After that, they do not know what will happen to them,” Umm Feras said.
Given that the number of refugees is increasing and that they intend to stay for an indefinite period, helping them to settle in can be a short-term strategy. However, a longer-term one should aim at helping them to integrate into society and help them to earn their own living.
For Korayem, this would mean the collaboration of all the Arab states, which need to work together to help the Syrian refugees in the crisis. “It is likely that the Syrians will take some of the services the state offers us. However, that part is not very large and it is not likely to affect us,” she said.
Abu Mazen, the owner of a chain of restaurants in Egypt, said that the way out would be to help the Syrians find work in Egypt. “The Syrians are looking forward to the day they will return to their own country. But until then they have to live here as if this was their country,” he said.
Out of the belief that his office should teach the Syrians “how to fish rather than giving them fish,” Al-Dahab described the small-scale projects that his bureau helps Syrian refugees to start in order to provide them with a longer-term solution to their ordeal. One of these projects is making ashtrays at home, the manufacturer providing trainees with the training and materials needed. The trainees then make the ashtrays in their homes and sell them to the manufacturer.
Other projects include teaching women to sew and helping them to sell their products and opening small workshops for men to manufacture tables and other pieces of furniture and sell them. “These projects provide families with a moderate income to live on and the feeling that they are earning their own living,” Al-Dahab said.
Through the bureau’s Facebook page, Syrian refugees in Egypt can apply for jobs by sending their CVs to employers advertising suitable vacancies.

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