Moataz, a 41-year-old Sudanese asylum seeker from Darfur, has called Egypt home for the last year, but it has not always been a welcoming one.
He worked in north Darfur for several years, until he started to have problems with the Sudanese government, who believed he was cooperating with local rebel groups. “I had to resign and come to Khartoum. I knew I was being followed,” he says.
He was then forced to flee Khartoum after delivering a speech at a women’s rights conference, in which he argued that girls should not be circumcised.
“While I was speaking at the conference, they came and took my kids. They took my two girls and circumcised them.
"They brought a letter, and they had doctors' uniforms. They said they came from the ministry of health. They had put my photo on a document, saying that I had agreed to do that,” Moataz says. “When they brought them back they gave my wife a message: Tell your husband he shouldn’t talk about these things.”
His daughters were two and six when they were forcibly circumcised. After the incident, he fled with his family to Egypt and claimed asylum.
Egypt has long hosted sizeable numbers of refugees and asylum seekers fleeing persecution, with large numbers from sub-Saharan Africa, particularly Sudan. However, when Moataz arrived with his family last year, the makeup of Egypt’s refugee population had started to change dramatically, as the Syrian crisis worsened.
In May of 2012, there were 44,177 refugees and asylum seekers officially registered with the United Nation's refugee agency (UNHCR) in Egypt. One year later, that number had jumped to 103,562, of which just over half were Syrian. Estimates suggest there may be tens of thousands more Syrians in Egypt who have not registered with the UN.
For African refugees like Moataz, the warm welcome he sees being awarded to the Syrians contrasts with his everyday experiences of discrimination and hostility.
“My kids were recently kept out of kindergarten for twenty days, just because they had flu. Of course, they thought, because you are African, this must be a dangerous kind of disease. But it was just the flu,” he tells Ahram Online.
“Everywhere you go, you hear ‘shokolata’; or people say ‘we are disgusted by you.’ They increase the prices if they see you are a refugee. If you try to get your change back after taking a cab, they get angry,” Moataz says. “Or if you want your deposit back after renting a flat, they won’t give it to you. So you go to the police to complain, to open a case, and they tell you, ‘we are not even able to protect ourselves. You should forget about it.’
“But Syrians, they give them everything they need. They accommodate them, without taking any money. The [Egyptian] government too.”
‘They don’t need UNHCR’
Mohamed Derrar Wakil, 33, a Syrian who fled his homeland but has chosen not to seek official refugee status, agrees that Syrians have received a warm welcome.
“I swear to God, Egyptians are a wonderful people. They are really generous and honourable,” he tells Ahram Online.
“So many Syrians here survive because Egyptians support them. In an office, for example, instead of all going to drink coffee, they collect some money together and give it to Syrian families who need it. And we know that Egypt is not a rich country. It has its own problems; people can’t find work, neither Syrians nor Egyptians. But still they are generous.”
Syrians are also treated differently at an official level.
Egypt is a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention, but has reservations about a number of its articles, effectively denying refugees in Egypt access to government healthcare and to education for their children. Syrians, however, are entitled to access both public schools and public hospitals, according to a decision by President Mohamed Morsi in 2012.
Mohamed Dayri, the regional representative of UNHCR in Egypt, says that Syrians have benefited from the generosity of civil society, individual Egyptians and the government.
“Some have been offered free apartments by Egyptian charities like Resala, Masr El-Khayr, Beyt Al-Aailah... The Egyptian doctors’ syndicate has also been very generous about providing healthcare. Others have offered financial stipends.”
The generosity of Egyptian civil society and individuals, and the official privileges granted to Syrians, mean that some have not even sought to register their refugee status with UNHCR. This is normally essential for refugees, who must be registered to access the limited services available to them.
“Egypt is visa-free [for Syrians]; the residency permits have now been extended to last for six months. They have access to public healthcare and schools for free... They don’t need UNHCR to access any of these,” Dayri says.
Derrar warns, however, that despite these initiatives, many newcomers are still struggling to survive.
“They say there is a lot of money to help us. Where is it? We need housing. Rents in [Cairo's] 6 October City [where many Syrians live] are going up. Last year they were LE1,000. Now it’s LE2,000 or LE2,500 for an unfurnished flat. Who can afford that?”
Derrar estimates that around 70 percent of Syrians in Egypt are poor, and in danger of becoming destitute. As the Egyptian economic situation worsens, Egyptians have less money to give and “Syrians will be on the streets."
Dayri also agrees that Syrians are in need of the resources allocated to them, and dismisses the idea that their treatment is unfair.
“The Syrian crisis has been labeled the worst humanitarian crisis of the century by our high commissioner. It’s an emergency situation. Syrians are fleeing a civil war,” he says.
A new Egypt for refugees, too
Dayri sees the compassion shown by Egyptians for Syrian refugees as a way forward for improving life for refugees of all backgrounds in Egypt.
“Egyptians are sympathetic to Syrians, and I have a hope that this situation may lead to a better understanding of all refugees. I have a hope that the open door policy will continue for others; that the generosity NGOs show for Syrians will be extended to others.”
Civil society initiatives like the Sina Network, founded earlier this year by a young group of activists, could also point the way ahead.
The network, which aims to support refugees and to build connections between Egyptians and refugees of different backgrounds, held a public debate in Cairo at the end of March.
“We had an expert who spoke about the problems facing refugees, and we invited refugees as well as Egyptians to attend,” says Emad, one of the founders.
Moataz, who attended the debate, believes the outcome was positive.
“At first, the Egyptians were a bit defensive when we started comparing our stories of problems to the response to the Syrians. They didn’t want to believe that there was that level of discrimination. But after they heard our stories, many apologised.”
Emad agrees. “Many Egyptians were amazed by the stories of the refugees. They really couldn’t believe that these things were happening in Egypt.”
UNHCR chief Dayri believes that the political will to push for change could be there, once Egypt’s transition is back on a stable path.
“We had a meeting with the human rights committee of the People’s Assembly [prior to its dissolution in 2012]. They wanted to work with us on the refugee protection agenda. It was a very open and positive meeting.
“We should praise Egypt for its support for Syrians – both the [Egyptian] people and the government. And we can build on this... There is a vibrant civil society now, ready to work with us. The voices of human rights activists are being heard; we can talk to them in a more transparent manner,” he argues.
“Of course, Egypt has its own challenges and we have to be realistic. I don’t want to paint a rosy picture, but there is hope.”
Moataz's name has been changed to protect his identity.