Sunday,24 March, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1418, (15 - 21 November 2018)
Sunday,24 March, 2019
Issue 1418, (15 - 21 November 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Egypt as a second home

What are living conditions like for the Syrian community in Egypt, asks Doaa El-Bey 

Syrian refugees in the region
Syrian refugees in the region

“Generally speaking, Syrian people living in Egypt have one dream — to return to their country soon. But until then they are trying to live as part of this society, work for it, enjoy its privileges and accept its shortcomings. They live here as if it were their country,” said Hoda, a Syrian housewife who has lived in Egypt for the last six years.

Thousands of Syrians are now living in Egypt, mostly in relatively new communities like 6 October city and Rehab, the Haram area, Nasr City and Obour. There are also small numbers in other governorates like Alexandria, Kafr Al-Sheikh, Mansoura, Suez, Port Said and Ismailia.

In areas heavily populated with Syrians, it has become a common sight to see Syrian shops selling famous Syrian delicacies and Syrian food. Perhaps one of the most famous is Halab (Aleppo) Street in 6 October city — a name it has acquired because of the Syrian shops on both sides of the street. 

Numerous Syrian restaurants offering delicious Syrian food have also opened in other places in Egypt. “In the past, when I fancied a Syrian shawerma or a falafel sandwich, I had to travel. Now, my fancies are easier to find,” said Marwa, an Egyptian who is a big fan of Syrian food. 

Many Syrians flocked to Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Egypt after the eruption of the country’s civil war in 2011. According to the UN refugee agency the UNHCR, there are 130,300 registered Syrians in Egypt, or 43,763 households. 

Egypt is part of the Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan (3RP), a coordination effort between countries neighbouring Syria such as Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq and UN agencies and NGOs including UNHCR and other partners. Egypt is the only non-neighbouring state in the plan. 

Most Syrians now abroad suffered from the horrors of war before deciding to leave for a safer place. Integrating into the new society is not only an important matter for them, but is also a therapeutic factor that helps them to regain the sense of security, according to Fadya Farag, who helps Syrian families to settle into their new homes.

“Educated and open-minded families have no problem settling in. But it is more difficult with the less privileged. Some families are so scared that they just want a roof over their heads and a life away from people. Fortunately, most of them give up their fears gradually and start to mix with society,” she said. 

Marwa believes that society should accept them and help them to integrate. “There are people, a tiny minority from my experience, who have a problem accepting newcomers. They argue that the Egyptian economy cannot bear further burdens from refugees, notably in terms of social services, medical treatment, education, jobs and shelter,” she said.

Perhaps the most challenging problem that faces Syrian families is finding shelter and a job. When many Syrians came to Egypt, rent was relatively cheap. However, because of high demand for accommodation, rents in areas like Sheikh Zayed or 6 October city have started to increase, posing a real challenge to Syrian families especially those on low incomes.

“I pay LE1,100 of my husband’s salary of LE2,300 on rent. The rest of the money is hardly enough for food and basic needs,” said Um Omar, a Syrian housewife living in 6 October city. She came to Egypt illegally via Sudan over a year ago. Her husband joined her a few months later. Her husband now works in a plastics factory. Um Omar works from home wrapping sweets to help make ends meet.

 

EMPLOYMENT ISSUES: Finding a job to meet life’s basic needs is a challenge facing many Syrian refugees in a country that is already suffering from unemployment. 

Most Syrians living in Egypt work in trade, the clothes industry and manual work. Not everyone sticks to the type of job they used to do back home, according to Syrian worker Abu Wagih.

“I used to be a carpenter, but now I work in a clothes factory. It was not easy to find a job that suits my background, and I do not have the luxury of waiting until I find one. I need to pay the rent and feed my children,” he said.

It was probably easier for Hossam to stick to his original job. He is a wholesale merchant who used to have a clothes factory making the kind of traditional Syrian coats that many Syrian women prefer to wear.

“Working in wholesale trade here in Egypt is not easy because of the low demand in comparison to home. I thought that renting a shop would boost my business, but the rising prices are not working in my favour. Consumers are not willing to buy clothes because of the prices,” he said.

In 2011, the government decided to allow Syrians access to state schools, a step that meant sending children to school a straightforward matter. However, the already crammed schools and the bureaucracy have presented problems for some Syrians. In addition, the decision only applies to those who have valid residence papers. 

Others say that children have difficulty coping with the school system in Egypt. This prompted Hoda to enrol her children in a Syrian learning centre in 2016-2017, though she could not afford to do so last year.

The learning centres that have opened their doors over the last three or four years offer a Syrian curriculum as well as assistance with the Egyptian curriculum for students. They are also a source of jobs for Syrian teachers. But students need to sit for exams in Egyptian schools to guarantee that they will be granted residence in Egypt.

Um Omar was left with no option apart from sending her children to a Syrian learning centre. “I do not have a legal residence here because I entered the country illegally via Sudan. Egyptian schools are closed as a result. I cannot afford the fees of the private centres, but fortunately a kind Syrian family pays them for me,” she said.

Egypt used to have straightforward residence procedures. Any family with children enrolled in school could get residence, but renewing it has become more difficult and time-consuming, according to many Syrian families. 

“Perhaps the increasing number of people applying for or renewing residence contributed to making the procedures more challenging and taking longer than before. They also ask for a lot of documents,” said Um Ammar, who has three children in school. She came to Egypt more than four years ago.

Hoda, who also has three children in school, said the renewal of residence should take place every two years, especially for those who have been staying for more than four years and abide by the law. Perhaps the most challenging matter facing many Syrians is receiving medical treatment, however, according to Syrian mother Um Islam. 

The government has taken the decision that Syrians should be treated in public hospitals in Egypt like Egyptians. Egypt, with the help of the UNHCR and NGOs, has mainstreamed healthcare for Syrian refugees, but the increasing number of refugees together with the conditions in some Egyptian hospitals have presented obstacles.

“Egyptians and Syrians face the same obstacles when they have medical problems, especially if they require admission to hospital. Besides, hospitals prefer to deal with Syrians as expatriates and charge them non-Egyptian rates that are usually double or triple the Egyptian rates,” Um Islam said.

Meanwhile, the number of Syrian refugees is increasing, though more slowly than before, and integrating them into society is not an option but a must. 

 “I took my Egyptian neighbour to the Damascus Club, a private social club on the outskirts of 6 October city. We attended a moulid [religious festival] that I used to attend in Syria. I felt that this was a real piece of home,” she said.

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