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Tuesday, 11 May 2021

'A visit to Syria' in Egypt's 6th of October City

Ahram Online visits one of the best known 'Syrian streets' in 6th of October City — a district on the outskirts of the capital that is home to many thousands of Syrian refugees

Zeinab El-Gundy , Sunday 20 Mar 2016
Syrian street in October
The famous Syrian street in October city (Photo: Zeinab El-Gundy)

It was more than telling that when asked about directions to reach to "Syrian Street" in the heart of 6th of October City area, a young Syrian gave directions in a perfect Syrian accent.

"You will find Syrian Street in front of Al-Hosary Mosque," he said. It is not a coincidence, as Al-Hosary Mosque and its charity association have been helping Syrian refugees in Egypt for five years now.

"Syrian Street" starts from a building in front of the mosque that is known in the area as "Al-Amerikya" (The American) occupying a whole block.

This is not the only "Little Damascus" in October City, which embraces thousands of Syrians, but it is one of the most famous.

On the ground floor of Al-Amerikya building, which includes residential and administrative apartments, dozens of restaurants, from international fast food chains, famous Egyptian fuul and falafel outlets, and Syrian restaurants and cafes stretch all the way.

Located beside 6th of October University, those restaurants do not suffer any lack of customers from young students who are looking for affordable food.

Behind the building is a narrow street that leads you to "Syrian Street": a passageway between a complex of buildings full of Syrian shops and restaurants.

Longtime Egyptian residents of October City told Ahram Online that many of those shops were formerly owned by Iraqi refugees who settled in October City for a couple of years following the US invasion of Iraq, before returning to their country.

The word "Sham", which usually refers to Damascus for Syrians and the Levant for Arabs, in general is a common fixture in the names of the shops, regardless of what they sell.

Shops at the Syrian street in October
Shops at the Syrian street in October

You will find large and famous Syrian restaurants selling shawerma and barbeque chicken as well as Syrian dessert shops selling grilled cheese konafa and Syrian ice cream. There are also Syrian mobile phone accessories shops, a barbershop, and a Syrian spices shop selling imported Syrian and Turkish spices via Turkey.

There is also a small Syrian grocery where Syrian residents of October City come to buy Syrian cheese and other Syrian products that cannot be found in usual Egyptian groceries, along with pickles and spices that are currently made in factories in Egypt. "Made in Egypt by Syrian hands" is what you read on the products.

Syrian grocery
A Syrian grocery at the street in October city (Photo: Zeinab El-Gundy)

In the passageway, chairs and tables are placed for a couple of cafes, some owned by Egyptians that seem oddly out of place.

"There are about four Egyptian cafes here, in addition to our shop in the street," 25-year-old Mohamed, an Egyptian cashier working in a konafa dessert shop in the street, told Ahram Online. Mohamed said his Syrian neighbours, from shopkeepers to workers, were very nice with them.

That konafa dessert shop did not seem out of place, selling the famous Levant cheese Nabulsia konafa.

An Egyptian worker in at the Egyptian-owned Konafa shop in the Syrian street, October city (Photo:Zeinab El-Gundy)

Making good

Abu Salah, a Syrian businessman in his 50s, came from Syria three years ago with his wife and children. He and another Syrian partner owns one of the largest Syrian restaurants on the block.

"I used to live in Al-Tall, which is a Damascus suburb. I had to leave with my family and came here as the violence evolved rapidly and it was not safe anymore," Abu Salah told Ahram Online while sitting outside his successful business watching customers.

Al-Tall is located in Rif Dimashq governorate where for months fierce battles took place between Syrian regime forces and Syrian opposition forces before the truce.

Abu Salah used to work in the restaurants business back home.

"The main problem in Egypt when it comes to business is red tape to start a business or have a license for a business like a food restaurant," he told Ahram Online.

Things so far look good for Abu Salah and his partner. Their restaurant chain is expanding as they opened another branch in Mokatam in Cairo, following in the steps of other Syrian-owned restaurants.

In the middle of the passageway is a large banner made by Abu Salah and his partner, thanking Egypt.

Syrian billboard thanking government
The banner of Abu Salah and his partner thanking the Egyptian people and government (Photo: Zeinab El-Gundy)

"On behalf of the Syrian community in the Arab Republic of Egypt, we gratefully thank Egypt as a land, people and government for the great reception, treatment and residence," reads the banner, wishing Egypt success and peace.

Besides that banner, a large announcement notes the opening of a Syrian-owned mobile phone accessories shop, and for that occasion two Syrian singers will hold a concert in the passageway.

The Syrian food business has been booming for four years in Egypt, and not only in October City or in Cairo. From small catering services to fuul and falafel and shawerma restaurants with affordable prices, it is a whole industry of its own now.

Abu Salah and his partner employ both Syrians and Egyptians. Their chefs and some of the cashiers are Syrians, including very young Syrian teenagers, while his waiters and the rest of their cashiers are Egyptian.

Syrian chef
A Syrian chef in front of Shawarma skewer at the Syrian street in October (Photo:Zeinab El-Gundy)

Demanding Syrian chiefs with expertise in Syrian cuisine already is a common ad in Syrian community Facebook pages in Egypt.

"Syrians came and settled down in October City district because they found apartments at all budgets. Same thing for schools and education in the area," Abu Salah told Ahram Online.

Finding refuge

Rents in October City, a district outside Giza governorate, can indeed match all budgets. Starting from EGP 800 to EGP 1,600 on average, and from economic working class residence in Maskan Othman area to upper middle class residence in Sheikh Zayed area, Syrians fleeing the war back home found various options to choose from.

According to real estate experts in Egypt, Syrians who came to Egypt gave a kiss of life to the real estate market, not only in October City but in other areas like New Cairo, when the Egyptian real estate market was suffering from the economic and political woes in the country in the past five years.

When it comes to visa and residence permits, Abu Salah, as a business owner in Egypt, has an official residence permit, according to Egyptian laws. Foreign students can receive a study visas and residence permits as well.

In late 2014, an Egyptian decision was issued to treat Syrian university students like Egyptian niversity students when it comes to state-owned universities and that opened a new door for young Syrians in Egypt in summer 2013.

Despite settling down in Egypt, Abu Salah says that economic conditions in Egypt were hard for many other Syrians who decided to leave the country to Europe.

Officially, the number of Syrian refugees registered with the UNHCR in Egypt is 118,512 to January 2016, making them the biggest refugee community in the country.

Syrian chefs
Two Syrian young men working a Syrian Fol and Falafel restaurant in the Syrian street, October city (Photo: Zeinab El-Gundy)

According to UNHCR statistics, 51 percent of Syrian refugees in Egypt are male, mostly between the ages of 18-59.

Unofficially, the number could reach half a million, according to the speculation of some, as some refugees do not register with the UN refugees agency, in order to have more freedom of movement.

In Syrian Street, Ahram Online met with Hajj Abdel Karim while he grilled cheese konafa outside the dessert shop he works in. Still working while in his late 50s, Abdel Karim came with his family from Aleppo where he used to work in dessert making.

"Aleppo is totally destroyed now; everything is destroyed — even the old antiquities are destroyed," he told Ahram Online in agony, while turning the cheese konafa on charcoal for his Egyptian customers.

Abdel Karim has four children, including a son and daughter in their 20s, who left to Germany.

"I wish I can go there with my wife and the rest of my children. They say life is good there," he said, despite assuring at the same time that people are good in general in Egypt.

While chopping a hot shawerma skewer and trying to fulfill orders, 35-year-old Mohamed from Damascus told Ahram Online that he came from Egypt four years ago with his mother and father, settling in October City.

"Our extended family is still in Damascus … either detained or killed," he said with a bitter laugh.

Before coming to Egypt, Mohamed, who has only a secondary school certificate, used to work in a restaurant in Damascus. So working in restaurants as a chef was not a strange prospect.

Many of Syrians working in the Syrian Street do not have work permits. But unlike in other countries, such as Turkey or Jordan, they are not deported if caught.

"Many Syrians, especially young people, left Egypt and headed to Germany and Canada, as well the United States," Mohamed told Ahram Online while preparing sandwiches in the restaurant.

Other horizons

In summer 2015, Germany became the favoured destination of refugees — especially Syrian refugees — after the bold decision of the German government to host more than one million refugees.

The Canadian government also announced that it was going to resettle 25,000 refugees by the end of 2015.

Mohamed did not say if he wants to join those young men, but he believes things are good for him and his parents who live in October City.

"People are kind in Egypt in general," he told Ahram Online, while answering the request of a Syrian lady and her son to increase the garlic sauce in their sandwiches.

In the same street, a conversation is heard between a 40-year-old Syrian spices shop owner and a Syrian lady in her 60s who has been living in Egypt for decades, talking about traveling to Europe.

"Trust me, I lived in Europe and I have lived here (Egypt) for decades. You've got your business working fine and people are good. Then no need to travel there," she told him.

"Exactly. I am settled here. Already I do not trust how they (Europeans) suddenly welcome us," the man said, adding there was something fishy about the whole thing.

Syrians appear at home in this "Little Damascus" in Egypt. Despite political promises, returning home to Syria, it appears, won't happen anytime soon.

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