Syrians in Egypt: A haven despite the hardships

Gihan Shahine, Tuesday 17 May 2016

The Syrian community in Egypt has grown in size and need, testifying to the Syrian refugees’ new lives of challenges, strong wills and often amazing success, writes Gihan Shahine

Syria women and children wait to get a visa stamp
Syria women and children wait to get a visa stamp to enter Lebanon town during their arrival at the Lebanese Masna'a border point in eastern Bekaa, January 22, 2013 (Reuters)

It was 8pm. Silence reigned in our area of Nasr City outside Cairo when a 50-something woman speaking a non-Egyptian dialect broke the silence and knocked on our door. “I need a job,” she said.

The fair-skinned, black-clad, heavily wrinkled woman turned out to be a Syrian refugee seeking assistance. “I lost my husband and two of my children in the war in Syria and came to Egypt as a refugee,” she said in a submissive tone. “I swear to God I have not had any food in my home for two weeks now, and I need a job, any job, just to survive.”

The woman’s call for help, albeit poignant, stood in contrast to its immediate surroundings. Right across the street in the upscale Sefarat district of Nasr City, many other Syrians seem to be turning over new leaves in their lives, for example by opening successful businesses in the form of food and clothes shops and supermarkets. Even those with limited funds can be seen all over Cairo, in clubs, at mosques and even standing at traffic lights, selling home-made delicacies that seem to be selling like hot cakes.

Right next to a Syrian women’s clothing shop stands a Syrian supermarket and a shawerma shop. In between, a small mosque has laid a table at its entrance where all kinds of Syrian delicacies are offered for sale. The street buzzes with Syrian boys marketing Syrian delicacies that their mothers have made at home.

“Please take this last dish. It’s delicious – you’ll not regret it,” a Syrian boy pleaded. “I’ve been selling biscuits since this morning, and my feet are hurting. I can’t go back home to my mother unless I sell all the biscuits.”

The boy’s innocent face blushes when I offer him financial assistance. “We’re not begging, madam,” he says proudly, pushing the delicacies inside my car. “My mother would beat me if I took money for nothing. We are working to help make ends meet and to send money to my dad who is still trapped back home in Syria.”

The woman at our door shrugs at our suggestion that she should follow suit. “Home-cooking needs funds. I don’t have the money to survive, let alone run a business,” she said, waving her hands in despair.

The contrast reflects the varied life of the Syrian population in Egypt. There are those with funds who have been able to start successful small- and medium-sized businesses and those who have trouble making ends meet and are vulnerable due to the loss of a breadwinner or a disability.

The vulnerable, many observers insist, may now be growing in number due to Egypt’s present economic constraints and the inflation that has been taking its toll on many Egyptians and not only on Syrian refugees.

Syrian refugee Moazez Masri and his family
Syrian refugee Moazez Masri, 50-years-old, originally from Homs serves dinner for her family in their rented apartment in Beit Al Alia neighborhood in the 6th of October City outside of Cairo, Egypt, Monday, May 27, 2013 (Photo: UNHCR)

SYRIANS IN FIGURES: The ongoing war in Syria that erupted almost five years ago has caused a refugee crisis that commentators see as perhaps the worst since World War II. The number of refugees fleeing Syria surpassed four and a half million by February 2016, and neighbouring countries have been struggling to deal with the influx of refugees.

Egypt has been one of the host countries for the refugees. The UN estimates that the official number of Syrian refugees in Egypt has, however, recently dropped from 140,000 registered by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in January 2015 to 117,000 in December 2015. It stood at 119,665, including 41,752 households, by the end of March 2016.

But since not all Syrians are registered with the UNHCR, experts at the UN and other organisations speculate that the actual number of Syrians in Egypt could be much higher, perhaps to the tune of an additional 40,000 to 50,000.

Feras Al-Hajj, a human rights activist at the Syrian Coalition that handles legal issues for Syrian refugees in Egypt, speculates, however, that the number of Syrians in Egypt has dropped to 30,000 in 2016 and to 250,000 people living in different governorates. He says that those registered have also fallen to 107,000 currently living in different parts of Egypt.

Some observers would explain the drop in the number of registered Syrian refugees to the fact that Egypt has been serving as a stepping stone for those heading to Europe and a transit country for those braving the Mediterranean to attempt illegal immigration to the European continent. Over 2,800 people reportedly drowned last year as they took the potentially deadly journey from Egypt to Europe via Libya, opting for perhaps a more prosperous life on the continent.

But many would also agree with Al-Hajj that economic and political constraints in Egypt following two revolutions have made the lives of many Syrians tougher. The political upheaval following the 30 June Revolution and the ouster of former Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi resulted in security issues that forced the authorities to put restrictions on entry visas and residence papers, blocking many Syrians from entering the country.

Egypt has been undertaking a war on terror, and the unstable conditions in neighbouring countries have made approval from the security services a prerequisite for any Syrian hoping to obtain an entry visa or residence permit. Previously, such Syrians did not have to get visas or residence papers to come to Egypt.

Many commentators, including Molhem Al-Khazm, a Syrian volunteer with NGO Syria Al-Ghad (Syria Tomorrow), also say that the wave of social and political turmoil in Egypt following Morsi’s ouster brought hostility towards resident Syrians in particular. Many Syrians were wrongly demonised in the local media and sometimes even attacked by the public as it was thought that they supported the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

Although the public wave of hostility soon abated when the Syrians reiterated their apolitical positions on Egypt’s political issues, security issues have remained a major concern. “Entry visas and residence permits are now difficult to obtain,” Al-Khazm said. “Only two per cent of applications have been accepted since 2013.”

Almost all the Syrians who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly said they understood Egypt’s security concerns and even expressed their gratitude for being provided with free education and healthcare.

“But we call upon the authorities to revisit the restrictions in a way that would allow vulnerable cases into the country, those with disabilities, those who need medical treatment, children, women and the elderly,” Al-Khazm said. “There are many cases where wives are living with their children here in Egypt, while their breadwinner is still in Syria. Facilitating legal papers would curb illegal immigration and help reunite families.”

According to Al-Hajj, many of those who had already come to Egypt before the visa restrictions were imposed are now also having a hard time renewing their residency papers.

“They just do not know where to go,” Al-Hajj said. “They cannot go back to war-torn Syria. The West will not accept the growing number of refugees, and braving the Mediterranean by making illegal attempts at immigration to Europe can be deadly.”

Al-Hajj told the Weekly that such restrictions had also opened the door to illegal ways of getting visas. Some desperate Syrians have been victims of fraud, having had to pay for visas that turned out to be fakes and ending up in detention or being deported, he said.

“Those who have difficulty surviving in Egypt sometimes also resort to illegal immigration to Europe and in many cases face either drowning or detention,” he added.

Al-Hajj argues that relieving the restrictions on the legal entry and residency papers of Syrians in Egypt would perhaps help maintain security in Egypt. “It would help curb the illegal influx of Syrian refugees via the Sudanese border, and there would be a legal record for every Syrian living in Egypt,” he said.

Syrians work in 6 October City
Syrians work at an eastern sweets restaurant in an area called 6 October City in Giza, Egypt, March 19, 2016 (Reuters)

SOLACE IN EGYPT: Initially, Syrian refugees arriving in Egypt were warmly welcomed. Strong historical ties and a keen sense of fraternity between the two nations created a sense of solidarity between Syrians and Egyptians.

Syrians were not required to have entry visas or residency papers to stay in Egypt when the Syrian conflict started, and they are still treated like Egyptian nationals when it comes to free access to public education and healthcare. Unlike in many other countries where refugees have been placed in refugee camps where services and security are lacking, the Syrians were mainstreamed into Egyptian society, living in its heart and sharing almost every aspect of life, from residency to schools, hospitals and marketplaces.

“We felt as if we were in our own country,” one Syrian refugee told the Weekly. “We are so close in everything, including language, culture and religion. That offered us real solace, as we wanted our children to be brought up in more or less the same culture as we were raised in.”

That warmth soon turned the first trickles of Syrian refugees into an influx, and several new Egyptian aid organisations sprang up to offer assistance to the new entrants. Many Syrians who could afford to come to Egypt already belonged to the middle and upper strata of society back in Syria, and thus they had the opportunity to start new businesses and, indeed, start a new life in their new country.

According to unofficial estimates, which the Weekly obtained from humanitarian organisations, about 15,000 Syrian business owners, representing almost 30 per cent of the total in Syria, have come to Egypt since 2011, with the value of their investments ranging between $400 million and $500 million.

Al-Hajj says the number of Syrian businessmen currently registered with the Egyptian Board of Investment is 6,000, and there are 15,000 businesses registered with the same board, with the value of their investments ranging between $3 billion and $4 billion.

He insists, however, that the true size of the Syrian investment in Egypt is actually much larger since bureaucratic obstacles have hobbled the registration of many Syrian businesses, leaving many working under Egyptian names.

The confident tone of Syrian engineer and businessman Ahmed Kalsh bespeaks an inner will and obvious success. It also says a lot about the new life that perhaps takes comfort from the relatively lavish ambience of the upscale satellite city of Al-Rehab where he resides with his family.

Kalsh, the owner of two textiles factories in the Syrian industrial city of Aleppo, came to Egypt in 2012 with his family. He left home heartbroken at the state of Syria’s famous textiles industry when factories were systematically looted, sabotaged and turned into battle fields. Infrastructure was ruined beyond repair, and the families of businessmen were the targets of violence and kidnapping.

“Initially, we came to Egypt for a brief stay, but then we realised we had to start a new life here,” Kalsh said.

Kalsh is not the only Syrian businessman starting all over again with a new textiles business in Cairo. “Syrians are known for their hard work, good business skills, and special expertise in the textiles and food industries,” he said.

The Syrians who came to Egypt with funds, according to Kalsh, have mostly started small- and medium-sized businesses. These usually depend on heavy employment and thus provide job opportunities for Syrians and Egyptians alike. Regulations governing foreign investment also require that at least half of those employed in Syrian enterprises should be Egyptian.

Syrian businesses in Egypt have thus not only helped with Egypt’s unemployment problems, but they have also pumped much-needed hard currency into the market, boosted exports, reduced textiles imports from countries like China and Turkey, and brought new expertise into the country, according to Kalsh.

“The message is that the Syrians are trying to be more of a benefit than a burden on Egypt,” Kalsh said. “With the exception of the elderly and the disabled, of course, there is no single Syrian who is not working, even working hard and for long hours.”

Even the ordinary observer can hardly ignore the number of Syrian businesses sprouting up all over Cairo, as well as in Alexandria and other governorates. The 6 October governorate is famous for hosting the largest community of Syrians in Egypt, to the extent that some of its streets could easily be mistaken for those in Damascus in both ambience and lifestyle.

Syrian businesses are now appearing in other districts around Cairo and Alexandria. This includes Nasr City, Madinaty and Al-Rehab. One can also hardly ignore the number of textiles factories dotting the industrial districts of 10th of Ramadan City, Obour and Gesr Al-Suez near Heliopolis.

Not that it has all been plain sailing for many Syrian businessmen. Many bureaucratic obstacles have been put in the way of registering Syrian businesses, resulting in the fact that many have to be run as part of Egyptian enterprises. There are also restrictions on opening bank accounts for Syrians, and Egypt’s restrictions on entry visas have blocked importing Syrian workers with special expertise in the field of textiles.

“We have our own international market where we export our products and which requires a certain quality and certain criteria that workers in Egypt have not been trained to produce,” Kalsh explained. “The inability to bring our own workers over has put us at risk of losing our clients in Europe.”

But Syrian businessmen have largely overcome this problem, and they have worked hard to train Egyptian workers according to their own criteria. “Today, I can safely say that the textiles industry has greatly improved in Egypt over the past few years,” said Kalsh.

That said, the Syrians are still hoping that the government will facilitate Syrian investments in Egypt to help the Syrians become more economically independent. “Every day we announce new openings for Syrians on our employment website. We have no such thing as unemployment,” Kalsh said, adding, “Those who beg were used to begging back in Syria.”

Syrians work in 6 October City
Syrians work at a Syrian restaurant in an area called 6 October City in Giza, Egypt, March 19, 2016 (Reuters)

TOUGH TIMES FOR OTHERS: But there is another side to the coin. Those who work in factories and shops may not be making more than LE1,000 to LE1,500 a month, which can hardly cover the expensive rents and high cost of life in Egypt, especially for big families. In the meantime, there are also many who have lost breadwinners, have been left with a disability, or have had breadwinners trapped in conflict-ridden Syria and not allowed to enter the country.

“Life is becoming tougher every day, so much so that sometimes I think of braving the Mediterranean to reach Europe,” Sawsan, a Syrian mother of four children, said in despair. “My brother-in-law does not agree, and he says we would drown. I really do not know what to do.”

Sawsan’s husband has been detained in Syria. “We lost everything in Syria. Our home was destroyed, my mother died, my husband was detained, and my daughter was hurt,” Sawsan said. She fled the war with her four children and brother-in-law, and all of them now live in a small apartment in the popular district of Khalil Hamada in Alexandria. She works to help ends meet, and her children are all enrolled in public schools.

Though a registered refugee, Sawsan says that delays in receiving food assistance has been making life even tougher. “We have not received UN food cards for several months,” she said, adding that many of her neighbours have not received them either. “We need the cards badly. We need to eat.”

Rana Al-Faseeh, 38, is also registered with the UNHCR. Her husband works in a factory, and her four kids are enrolled in public schools. She does not have a problem receiving the food cards, but, with four kids and expensive rent, she feels equally distressed.

“We are tired, tired, tired,” Al-Faseeh said. “My husband works for only LE50 a day, and all we get from the UNHCR is a LE1,200 food card. But for a family of six and with expensive rent to pay, we can hardly make ends meet.”

Al-Faseeh tried to run a food project from home, but a damaged disc in her neck made her unable to pursue the project. “We pay rent of LE700 a month for an ill-furnished small flat in a very poor district of Alexandria, and my daughter needs treatment for a gunshot wound she received in one eye,” Al-Faseeh said.

“We lost all our savings and our home back in Syria, and I feel bad seeking help from charity organisations. My kids are psychologically disturbed and having problems coping with the Egyptian dialect and the different educational curriculum. However, we do thank God that we are better off than many others.”

Al-Faseeh is not the only one suffering. The international NGO Refugees International (RI) came to Egypt in April 2014 in order to investigate the situation of Syrian refugees who had arrived since the conflict in their country began.

“By the end of that year, their numbers and needs were great enough for Egypt to join the UNHCR’s regional appeal for humanitarian aid to Syrians,” RI’s report said. But in spite of requests for assistance on their behalf, it found that the refugees had attracted “little attention and few resources” to meet their needs.

Egypt has since imposed a clampdown on NGOs, especially those receiving foreign funds, for fear of the money finding its way to terrorist groups, and this has impacted negatively on the Syrian community in Egypt. “Funding shortfalls, combined with a number of restrictions that Egypt has imposed on local and international NGOs, mean that Syrians struggle with the daily demands of life, such as paying rent, buying food, and receiving medical care,” said the RI report.

A more recent study by the UNHCR, in September 2015, published by the website Middle East Eye, also shows that although the Syrian community living in Egypt is usually viewed as better off than those living elsewhere in the Middle East, the majority of the refugees, or up to 90 per cent, are “now classed as highly and severely vulnerable” by the UN.

The UNHCR estimates that Syrians living in Egypt need a minimum of some LE592 per person per month to meet basic needs. Syrian refugees classed as “severely vulnerable” only have access to between zero to 50 per cent of that, however. “Highly vulnerable” refugees have access to between 51 and 99 per cent of the UNHCR’s target minimum needed to “live a dignified life,” according to the UNHCR report.

“This means that close to 90 per cent of the Syrians surveyed are effectively living on or below the poverty line,” Middle East Eye wrote.

Some media reports claim that some desperate Syrian refugees in vulnerable situations find the early marriage of their female family members as the only way out of the poverty trap. Some also resort to engaging their children in labour that is not appropriate for their age. Al-Hajj says that bureaucratic measures at the UNHCR, already battling to satisfy the needs of a sizable refugee crisis, also stand in the way of registering all Syrian refugees in Egypt, meaning that many do not receive any assistance.

“Only 107,000 out of an average total of 250,000 to 300,000 were registered in 2016, and only 30 per cent of those registered receive assistance in the form of a food ration card, the value of is which is LE320 per person,” Al-Hajj said.

Kurdish Syrian woman walks with her child past the ruins of the town of Kobane
A Kurdish Syrian woman walks with her child past the ruins of the town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, on March 25, 2015 (AFP)

ASSISTANCE FOR REFUGEES: Cash assistance is also provided by the UNHCR in Egypt. It assists the most vulnerable groups who would face undue hardship without social assistance, including the elderly living alone, families supported by unmarried women, persons with disabilities, and large families.

But Syrians are not the only refugees in Egypt, and the country has hosted many other refugees, mostly from Iraq and Africa, over the past two decades. The government, the UN assistance programme and international and local NGOs have all been struggling to keep up with the needs of these refugees.

“The Syrians’ ability to find support is complicated by the fact that they have joined a sizeable refugee community already in Egypt,” the IR report said. “The UNHCR and a limited number of partners now must respond to a refugee population that has more than doubled in a short period of time.”

Al-Hajj laments that the bureaucratic measures needed for a refugee to get registered take too long. “Registration, if it happens at all, takes an average of nine months to a year while cases are studied, leaving those who have lost their breadwinner, or have disabilities, or need medical care in seriously vulnerable conditions,” Al-Hajj explained.

Other NGOs in Egypt attempt to help, but this is often “too little when compared to the size of the problem,” Al-Hajj says, adding that even those who are lucky enough to be registered can suffer delays in food cards and assistance. “Assistance may be delayed for nine months after a refugee’s arrival and is sometimes ill-managed and distributed.”

He continued, “In many cases, delays cause refugees to receive the food card every 45 days, meaning that they end up receiving it nine months a year. In the meantime, those who are severely in need are not those actually receiving the cards.”

According to Al-Hajj, such “mismanagement and ill-distribution of funds” is caused by the fact that the UN does not distribute financial assistance directly to the refugees, but via NGOs which also distribute funds to other African refugees. “The absence of a direct link between the UN and the refugees, as well as of a system that guarantees transparency, has resulted in the fact that those most vulnerable are sometimes marginalised and ignored,” Al-Hajj said.

But the UNHCR has been heavily burdened over the past five years. Marwa Hashem, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR in Cairo, was blunt in an interview with Al-Monitor when she said, “The UNHCR cannot help [the refugees] for long periods of time.” She continued, “It has been about five years since the Syrian Revolution broke out,” adding that the “issue has become very disturbing in the light of the challenges facing relief organisations across the world and the huge increase in the number of refugees.”

Everybody seems to agree that more international attention must be directed towards these marginalised populations. “Egypt already has functioning systems in place for helping refugees,” Refugee International said in its report. “But those systems require additional support from donors, the national government, and Egyptians themselves if they are to meet the basic needs of people who have fled there.”

Naela Gabr, chair of the National Coordinating Committee for Combatting and Preventing Illegal Immigration (NCCPIM), argues, however, that “Egypt is not a rich country” and has been hosting 300,000 refugees despite its economic constraints. “We are trying to help,” she told Middle East Eye. “But we are not rich, and we don’t have the facilities to host them.”

Despite the challenges facing the refugees, the consensus among officials in both the Egyptian government and the UN remains that Syrians living in Egypt are in a far better financial situation than those living in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

Cherine Hassan, at the UNHCR registration and family unit office in Cairo, told International Business Times recently, “Despite the concerns of refugees about their living conditions, Egypt has been very welcoming to Syrian refugees.

“They have their own schools, they are running businesses, and [the fact that they are] being requested to obtain residency permits during their [stay] in Egypt to legalise their situation doesn’t mean that they are not welcomed,” she said. “It is a security precaution, given the unstable security situations in the surrounding countries.”

Syrian refugee in Greece
In this Sunday, Oct. 4, 2015 file photo, a Syrian refugee child sleeps in his father's arms while waiting at a resting point to board a bus, after arriving on a dinghy from the Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos (AP)

This story was first published at Al-Ahram Weekly

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