Fleeing Syrians find few opportunities in cash-strapped Egypt

Reem Gehad , Thursday 4 Apr 2013

Egypt has become home to a growing number of Syrian refugees who are struggling to find work and support their families in an already-difficult economic climate

Syrian refugees in Egypt
Syrian refugees in Egypt (Photo: AP)

A young man in his twenties stands at a stall selling Syrian textiles in a temporary market in Faisal Street, Giza, folding sheets and table-covers as a few customers ask about prices then leave.

Constantly haunted by the fear of being identified by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s watchmen, Syrians in Cairo repeatedly refrain from speaking to journalists, or – if partially reassured – refuse to disclose their full identity.

"I was imprisoned by Assad's forces, and when I came out they went after me again, so I left," the young man said.

He arrived in Egypt last October and it took him until February to find a job.

"I had about $3,000 with me when I first came to Egypt," he said. "I rented an apartment for three months in the Madinet Nasr district for LE2,500 (roughly $360). The owner also took another LE2,500 as a deposit, and with my own expenses, after three months, my money was gone."

"I left the apartment and I'm currently staying with a Syrian family. A friend of mine then helped me get my job with an Egyptian merchant who works with Syrian fabrics," he said.

The number of Syrians in Egypt is estimated to have exceeded one and a half million people, according to the Egypt-based Fard Foundation and the Committee for Syrian Refugee Affairs in Egypt.

Along with well-off Syrian professionals and businessmen, craftsmen, administrative employees and traders have also left their lives and homes in the conflict-wracked country. They were faced with the difficulties of starting new lives in Egypt, a country bogged down with its own political and economic crises.

Many Syrians find it difficult to find jobs with salaries proportionate to their expenses, especially as apartment rents are high in Cairo.

"My original work is carpentry," another young man who arrived with his family said. "But because manual labour is very cheap in Egypt, I couldn't work as a carpenter and eventually found a job with a Syrian textile merchant here."

He came with his wife, one-year-old son and his parents five months ago from Halab city, which has experienced considerable conflict during the ongoing turmoil. It took him about three months to find his job, which earns him LE2,500 monthly, and he pays about LE1,000 in rent for an apartment on Faisal Street where he lives with his family.

The Fard Foundation works with Syrian refugees in Egypt, particularly those who settled in 6 October City on the outskirts of Cairo. It offers them help finding residence, employment, legal help and medical care, along with providing other services.

"Syrians who had their own businesses usually try to reopen similar ones in Cairo," said Fard Foundation head Um Abdallah, who is half Syrian herself. "But those who do not have a skill or a craft are the ones who suffer the most."

This is especially the case when Egypt's unemployment rate stood at 13 percent in 2012.

Um Abdallah says that, for example, Egypt's Nile Delta city of Damietta has a large Syrian population that mainly came from the city of Saqba in the Damascus countryside. Like Damietta, Saqba is well known for its furniture industry and thus the majority of its residents opted for the Nile Delta city.

However, Um Abdallah said that some Syrians face tensions with their Egyptian peers when working in non-Syrian businesses.

"Syrians are known to be very hard working and so this creates competition between them and their Egyptian rivals, who try to put them out of work," she said. "So usually, they prefer to work with fellow Syrians."

Syrian trade

Many Syrians work at Syrian markets or 'exhibitions,' as they are called in Arabic, which are set up for a limited period of time and move from one place to another. They are usually divided into partitions for different merchants, and often specialise in textiles – a niche that Syrian tradesmen have become known for over the years.

Ahmed El-Homsi, a middle-aged man from the countryside near Damascus, sells traditional dresses and women's clothing at the Faisal market.

His wife and two daughters live in Alexandria, where house rents are cheaper. He is staying in an apartment shared with a number of Syrian men in Cairo.

"When I came to Egypt, I brought a supply of my goods left over from my original store in Syria," he said.

Products come in through the Suez Canal city of Port Said and merchants receive them there before bringing them to Cairo.

"However, now it is extremely difficult to get more products out of Syria. If this supply runs out, I will have nothing more to sell," he said.

His assistant, a young man, sat nearby speaking of the difficulties affecting his trade because he was not able to register himself with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

"It is easier for families, especially those with children who go to school, to register as refugees and have an official right to stay," he said. "I came alone."

This in turn affects his ability to open a bank account in Cairo and use it for his business.

"I have to go in person to receive or deliver money around Cairo or even to Port Said," he said. "I am not allowed to use the bank."

El-Homsi and his assistant said they are looking at southern Europe, particularly Spain, as a new market from which they might import goods if Syria becomes impossible.

In Al-Ghouriya, a part of the historical Cairo district of Al-Azhar, several shops have been opened recently by Syrian traders to sell tablecloths, bed-covers, towels and other textiles.

"We opened our branch here in Cairo about four years ago," a Syrian shop owner in Al-Ghouriya said. "But after the situation in Syria escalated, several shops opened beside us here."

"It's all the better for us; we have become well-known and people come to see the Syrian shops," he added.

"However, we are having problems getting goods out of Syria," he said.  "We are not using the Damascus airport anymore; we usually use the seaport of Latakia, but this is also becoming more expensive and less secure. We thank God when goods arrive safely."

"We are importing more goods from Turkey at the moment, but the majority still comes from Syria," he added. "Some people, depending on the capital they have, transfer their factories to Cairo – but not everyone is able to."

Syrians usually opt for businesses that are unique to them in order to succeed. Known to have one of the best cuisines in the Arab world, many have set up food businesses.

At El-Hossari Mosque in 6 October City, many Syrian vendors and shops have opened, offering patrons traditional pastries and desserts like baklavas, kunafeh and maamoul.

"Syrians would usually prefer any job to unemployment, and many are good at setting up small businesses," Um Abdallah said.

Struggling to create opportunities

Many Syrians, who do not have enough capital to start their own businesses or have a specific craft, resort to alternatives. One example is Abo Omar and his family who have been living in Alexandria for over a year.

Abo Omar, a 48-year-old man from Idlib in Syria, arrived in Egypt with his two wives and ten children in February of last year.

"We were actually travelling to Libya," he recounts. "We stopped in Saloum [on the Egypt-Libya border] because the borders were closed at the time."

There were about 100 Syrian families faced with the same situation in Saloum, according to Abo Omar.

"We stayed like this for about two weeks. The Salafist Call organisation provided us with places to live and came twice a week with supplies for the families," he said. "They later suggested that I should stay in Egypt, and I did."

Abo Omar used to be a lorry and bus driver back in Syria.

"I worked for a tourism company for 25 years. I was given a certificate which I brought with me to Egypt to show potential employers," he said.

"I went to many companies; they all told me my experience was excellent and promised to contact me, but they never did."

When asked why, Abo Omar answered: "A good lorry here costs about LE300,000 to LE400,000 and, you know, they would be afraid that a Syrian man might steal it and sell it."

Abo Omar then tried working on a microbus in Alexandria on the Asafra-Mansheya route, where he worked 12-hour shifts starting at 3am. However, because he suffers from back-pain, he stopped shortly after.

He then took a course with his eldest son, Omar, in mobile-phone repairs, and they are both currently working in a mobile-phone shop owned by an Egyptian man.

However, he also started his own business, engaging the women in his family.

They started a Syrian food business in Alexandria under the name 'We are producers, not refugees.'

The ladies in Abo Omar's family cook Syrian dishes, which are then delivered to customers.

"Everyone in my family works in the project – from buying material, cooking, finances and delivering," Abo Omar said.

"We make about four or five orders a day," Um Omar, his first wife, said. "But on other days, we don't make any orders at all."

Their eldest daughter, who used to take part in anti-Assad demonstrations back in Syria, and who asked not to disclose her name, said: "I go to school every morning, even though I already finished my education in Idlib; but they did not accept my certificate here, and when I come back home, I work in the kitchen until midnight with the others."

"Most customers like to buy traditional Syrian dishes, such as keibba, sheish barak and stuffed vine-leaves," Um Omar said.

Businessmen flee to Egypt

Many Syrian businessmen who have arrived in Egypt are expected to invest in their host country's economy.

"Several factory owners have dismantled their factories in Syria and shipped the equipment to Turkey, and then to Egypt, where they set them up again," Um Abdallah said.

Turkish news agency Anadolu reported last December that the top-ten Syrian businesses had all "fled to Egypt."

Syrian activist Khalil El-Egeili said that many of these businessmen prefer to invest in the stock market or deposit their money in Egyptian banks, according to Anadolu.

The news agency also reported that total Syrian investment in Egypt is currently estimated at between $400 million and $500 million.

As the violence persists in Syria, the number of Syrians in Egypt is expected to swell further. As they continue to arrive, they are faced with the difficulties of setting up new lives and new homes in a country struggling to provide for its own teeming population.

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