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For Syrian refugees: All roads lead to the sea

For Syrian refugees in Egypt, often the risk of death by drowning is worth taking, compared to their prospects if they stay

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 16 Sep 2015
Refugees wait at the closed border station between Serbia and Hungary in Horgos, Serbia, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015( AP)

“I cannot believe this keeps going on. I cannot believe we have to keep suffering so much — that the world is not shattered by our pain. But worst of all, I cannot believe those people who say they are supporting Bashar (Al-Assad) while he is massacring thousands for fear of the collapse of Syria. What is the collapse of Syria about in their thinking? Syria has long since collapsed, and so did the Syrian people,” said Ammar, a Syrian asylum seeker in Egypt.

Speaking with agony and certainty at the same time, Ammar said he thinks that that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is “a criminal.” “He is a mad criminal who has been massacring people right and left. And it is only mad to support a criminal and think that he would be able to reassemble the country that he wrecked."

Like many other Syrian asylum seekers who spoke to Ahram Online in Alexandria — where there are tens of thousands residing mostly on the eastern and western outskirts of the harbour city — Ammar is in no doubt that the “current crisis in Syria started as a civil and cross-ethnic call for democracy.”

“It was peaceful and it was like the beginnings of the now vanished Arab Spring; a pure call for democracy from peoples who had long suffered the atrocities of dictatorship. But like the other experiences of the Arab Spring, it was stifled and the dream turned into a nightmare. In our case it has been more than a nightmare; it has been doomsday and we were all taken to hell.”

Hell, Ammar said, started when Bashar began to divide the Syrians who called for his ouster. “He targeted Sunnis, to force a sectarian dimension. He then spread rumours that the Sunnis will force radical rule and would eradicate all other groups, including Christians. After that he turned a blind eye when radical militant groups were coming into Syria, so he would have the pretext of a war on terror,” he argued.

Early and late exits

It did not take Ammar long to realise that events would take a negative turn. “I would not have expected Bashar to follow Zein Al-Abeddine (Ben Ali, the ousted Tunisian president) or (Egyptian President Hosni) Mubarak. I knew he was not going to bow to pressure and I knew that he had the support of Iran and Russia,” Ammar recalled.

As the demonstrations were losing their civil nature, Ammar was already thinking about an exit. “I knew it would get bad, but not to that extent,” he said.

Alexandria seemed like an obvious destination for this man in his late 40s, his mother Egyptian, his parents separated. “I had left with my father and had not seen my mother since I came back in late 2011. She insisted that I was at risk if I stayed in Syria, and so I booked a plane ticket and came, thinking it would be a few months or a year at most, before some political solution was forced by the world on everyone in Syria,” he said.

Ammar had lived in Ghoutta, one of areas that witnessed the worst unmasked atrocities of the Syrian regime. He had since been joined by other family members, including half brothers who had been taken in by his Egyptian mother.

“And here we are. It has been five years and the crisis is getting worse by the day,” Ammar lamented.

Millions flee

In the course of the past five years, millions of Syrians had left their country in pursuit of a safe haven. Many targeted border countries (Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon) while others tried destinations further afield.

According to Ahmed El-Chazli of the Alexandria bureau of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), there are no final figures on the volume of Syrian asylum seekers in Egypt.

“It is hard to have an accurate survey, because the Syrians in Egypt are not all registered with the UNHCR and some were not even registered at ports by Egyptian authorities, as they found themselves forced into illegal entry by sea,” El-Chazli said.

According to El-Chazli, there are three types of Syrian asylum seekers in Egypt: the first are those who came in the early months of the crisis, and that arrived mostly on tourist visas and as such were registered; the second came as potential asylum seekers during the one year rule of Mohamed Morsi; the third are desperate asylum seekers who mostly came through extra-legal paths, either through the eastern or southern borders, or the Mediterranean.

Most of those who made early exits, El-Chazli said, had enough money on them to survive. But not all still have the financial security required for their extended stay.

“They came as tourists and they acted accordingly. But five years later they are practically penniless asylum seekers who are seeking small jobs to make enough money to pay their way out of Egypt on one of the unsafe boats that takes Syrians through the Mediterranean to what they hope would be greener pastures in southern Europe,” El-Chazli said.

The latecomers, the EIPR source added, are mostly arriving with very little if any money or other valuables on them.

“They come with nowhere to stay. They come to leave after having made enough money to buy their way out, either directly through the Mediterranean or first through the borders with Libya and then onto the Mediterranean,” El-Chazli explained.

Dynamics of survival

In a small and poorly painted room that is dimly lit sits Abdallah, a Syrian man in his early 40s, with his deeply silent wife, Shifa, and his sadness-wracked elderly mother.

Until late 2013, Abdallah, Shifaa and their four children lived in a house next to that where his mother and father lived in Daraa — one of the areas most devastated under brutal attacks by the Syrian regime.

“We had a good life. We were living under a brutal dictatorship, but we were living in the decency and security of our homes and we only feared the regime — not the regime and everything else. You can avoid the regime and you can compromise on freedom and democracy, but today it is much worse, because we have no freedom and really no life and maybe no future,” Abdallah said.

Unlike Ammar, who had enough money from his mother’s savings to start a small business after his own money ran out, Abdallah had nothing. As a medical doctor, he had no chance of practicing or starting a clinic in Egypt and he had to take a job as an assistant cook at one of the successful Syrian-run restaurants on the corniche of Alexandria.

“Well, it is a job and better than nothing. Otherwise, I would not have been able to rent this room. I hope I can take another job to be able to rent an independent flat until we manage to get going, with the help of the Almighty,” he said.

Abdallah’s goal is to reach Europe. “We have no chance here; we are despised because for some obscure reason we are qualified by the media as traitors, spies who abandoned their country and came here in sympathy with the Muslim Brotherhood. In Europe, we would be second class citizens, but we would not be labeled as traitors and spies. Also there I have a chance of picking up the pieces of my career,” he said.

Abdallah had already managed to save $3000 that he used to put his elder teen son “on the sea." Fadi left from Alexandria and went aboard a small boat out of Egyptian waters and then got onboard of another boat that took him to the shores of Italy, before he then made it to Germany. There he was taken in and also granted the right to be reunited with his family.

Fadi’s family, according to the laws of the host country, does not include his grandmother. For Abdallah, it is out of the question: “I would have to die first here; I cannot leave her behind — not with any family and not with anyone. She is my mother,” he said before they both wept.

Oum Abdallah appealed to her son to go: “I am about to move to the final destination (dying). I should not keep them here where it is hard for everyone. I also told him that he if he went maybe he could do something to invite me over,” she said.

Abdallah is going to take his mother with him. “We will go, together, by sea. I just have to have enough money for the escape down payment, and then what will happen will happen,” he stated with resolve.

Being so determined to leave, Abdallah decided not to register with the UNHCR. If he does register as an asylum seeker he would possibly — if proven eligible for the legal status — be granted a yellow card that would secure him some level of financial assistance, food rations and expanded healthcare beyond the primary healthcare that Egyptian authorities decided to grant through hospitals of the Ministry of Health to Syrian asylum seekers.

However, in return for this package (which according to the accounts of Syrian asylum seekers has become meager due a lack of resources) Abdallah and his family would have to agree to terms and conditions that would deny them the right to leave Egypt without legal approval.

This is not a scheme that about half of the Syrians in Egypt, according to humanitarian workers, are willing to entertain.

“They are suffering as asylum seekers. They say that if they registered with the UNHCR they would probably suffer less. But what they want is not lesser suffering; they want an end to their suffering and they believe that this end would only come through the Mediterranean. Even if they have to go through the horrors of the western desert of Egypt and the eastern desert of Libya before they make it to the sea, this is their destination,” said Heba Mansour, a volunteer who has been working to help Syrian asylum seekers staying in Cairo.

“Anyone in their shoes would want to go. They have no chance here. They are often stigmatised by the media, chased by the authorities, and have not the sufficient local or international resources to sustain their very basic needs,” Mansour said.

Mansour spent the last two years helping lawyers who provide volunteer legal assistance to Syrian asylum seekers. Herself an accountant, Mansour quit her job and decided that it was her duty to come to the help of Syrians arrested while trying to board boats on the shores of Alexandria or Damietta.

“When they are arrested, often for trying to escape to Europe, rather than trying to enter Egypt, they become very vulnerable in every respect. They have no understanding of their legal rights and more often than not have no direct access to legal assistance. In almost every case they are kept in very questionable detention conditions. Really appalling, where basic hygiene and nutrition is at best compromised,” Mansour added.

Shattered families, shattered lives, shattered dreams

There is no final figure for the number of Syrian asylum seekers in Egypt — not even by the count of Egyptian authorities, an official source admitted.

Humanitarian workers and security sources say they are anywhere between 150,000 to 250,000.

“It is actually a floating number because people come and go, but overall it is safe to say it is always in the neighbourhood of 200,000,” said a government source on condition of anonymity.

Some are living in fully dignified conditions; the majority of Syrian asylum seekers face survival ordeals, humanitarian workers and volunteers agreed.

With the help of a network of local NGOs, UNHCR is trying to provide for as many Syrian families as possible.

“It is a huge operation and there is a great deal of genuine dedication there, but at times we just break down and fall short of what we have to provide, and it becomes devastating for all of us,” said Georges Assandas of the prominent Catholic charity Caritas.

“It is so harsh to see a father crying for having his son dying before his eyes when he cannot afford emergency surgery,” Assandas said. He added: “When I see this, and it is only one of the many heartbreaking stories that I have come across in the past few years, I feel we are in a world not worth living in.”

Desperation abounds

Humanitarian workers say that often if a case of life threatening illness is reported to UNHCR, the international organisation tries to help the person find resettlement in a developed country where efficient and effective medical care can be found.

But as Mansour noted, sometimes the process is too slow and the person in question feels desperate and decides that instead of prolonging the wait he or she will just take to the sea, no matter the risk.

“It is hard to reason with someone who feels they are dying anyway,” she said.

And because the stories of escape from Syria are often associated with the loss of a family member, families of Syrian asylum seekers fear for their families more than for their lives.

“I guess this is why Rolla decided to take her three children with her when she decided that she could not sit and wait for proper cancer treatment to be offered here, or for a resettlement process to be executed promptly,” Mansour said with a sigh.

Rolla did not make it. “She died, with her three children. I will always remember the last time I saw her and the fearlessness of death she demonstrated. She just feared to live and be too ill to take of her children, or for her children to be reduced to begging on Alexandria's streets, as happened to some Syrian kids,” she lamented.

By the side streets of the San Stefano Food Court, pretty looking but emotionally devastated 11-year-old Feriha stands as living testimony for the ultimate deterioration of the lives of some asylum seekers. With her smile and oustretched hand, striking blue eyes and artificial Egyptian accent, the little Syrian girl is begging.

“Well, I have to take some money back for my mother,” she said before slipping away to the streets of a posh Alexandria neighbourhood in search of charity.

According to one humanitarian worker, the mother of the little girl is too ill to move: “I think if she still had some strength she would have taken her daughters aboard a boat and tried to reach any European country.”

According to another humanitarian worker that is also familiar with the account of the little girl, Feriha came to Alexandria with her mother and a sister who went missing while begging on the streets of Alexandria. The father was already missing in Syria.

Assandas said that the humanitarian network that is providing assistance to Syrian asylum seekers under the umbrella of the UNHCR, and with the cooperation of Egyptian authorities, is often trying to help families trace loved ones.

In some cases, say humanitarian workers, families get lucky and identify family members who disappeared in the escape process. This does not necessarily lead to reunion, which is always subject to the laws and regulations in place in specific cases.

Making the best of it

Rafa, a half-Syrian, half-Egyptian woman in her late twenties, is now denied reunion with her elder sister, Rama, who had gone to Syria.

The two women were born to a mixed Egyptian-Syrian marriage, but had been living in Damascus with their father following their parents' divorce and only came to Egypt following the escalation of hostilities in Syria.

“When things developed into a full war between the Syrian army and the radical militant groups, we knew we had to leave and come to our mother,” Rafa said.

However, economic hardship prompted Rama to pursue illegal entry to Turkey.

“She thought that maybe there she could make some money and send me something, because my mother’s resources are very limited and I was unable to find a decent sustainable job.

“I had tried a few jobs, but every time I was humiliated and abused before I was sent away, “ she said.

In a few months, Rama had found a job as a volunteer with some of the UN bodies that try to help Syrian asylum seekers in Egypt, and saved enough money to start a small project to help Syrian asylum seekers in Alexandria. She had hoped for her sister to come back, and Rama was willing to do so, but the Egyptian authorities declined her a visa.

“I think it partially has to do with the political tension between Egypt and Turkey, and the Egyptian concern that those coming from Turkey might be sympathisers of the Muslim Brotherhood,” Rafa said.

Rafa had meanwhile established Syriana — "Our Syria" — that is trying to help asylum seekers find their way around getting registered with UNHCR, getting their paperwork done through brokers who manage to give things a push in the Syrian embassy, and to possibly find jobs or finance to start small business operations.

Syriana is also helping Syrian families with education issues and problems.

“The curricula here, in fact the education system, is very different from our schools and the kids are often harassed in the schools they go, and it becomes too difficult to keep them enrolled,” said Safiyah, a Syrian mother who had arrived to the headquarters of Syriana in Alexandria to get educational assistance.

Humanitarian workers and volunteers say that education is probably one of the top difficulties that families with children seeking asylum in Egypt have to deal with. In the assessment of some, it is perhaps one of the reasons why some families feel they have to take the risk of getting onboard of one of the boats that target the shores of Europe.

But according to Rafah and Assandas, ultimately the top issue is normalisation and integration.

According to Rafah, Syrian asylum seekers don’t feel they lead normal lives, “and for a good reason.” “So we try to make things slightly better by making them get together in some social events and activities. It helps,” she said.

According to Assandas, most of the NGOs working with Syrian asylum seekers try to provide "integration opportunities," which means social integration and also business integration.

Assandas said there has been a few successful cases of joint Egyptian-Syrian enterprises, especially in the culinary business.

But integration, according to Mansour, is not always an easy process, partially because of the sense of apprehension that is prevailing in Egypt, and also because of the sentiment of most asylum seekers that their stay in Egypt is only temporary.

Economics of escape

According to El-Chazli, the resort of "taking to the sea" has evolved into a complex business.

“Before it was just about finding a boat to take them to international waters and paying for this, and then for the other boat that would take the asylum seeker to Europe — or hopefully so, because everyone knows that it is a very risky path,” he said.

Today, it is a full-fledged business with brokers, both Egyptian and Syrians, and with brokers specialising in taking asylum seekers straight from the southern borders, after they pass into Sudan, to the Mediterranean, and others working on the Libya path.

The fees range from $2000 to $4000, depending on the safety of the route and the situation of asylum seekers, with Palestinians who fled their refugee camps in Syria expected to pay more.

Some of the brokers insist on full payment in advance; others agree to a down payment to be followed by the rest if the family is sending off one member who would then work on a family reunion process.

If the Egyptian authorities stop a boat, those who were trying to escape would have to provide money to buy a plane ticket for their supposed "willful" deportation.

“In theory, if the state is deporting someone it should be providing the ticket. But because the state is not going to do this, it makes the concerned asylum seekers sign a document of willful deportation,” El-Chazli said.

The fear of getting stopped by the Egyptian authorities has become for some Syrians as devastating a scenario as being drowned, because it means that they would have to start from scratch, with some fearing ultimate deportation back to Syria.

It is enough to spur Syrians into pursuing flight via the sea.

“I escaped death when I left Syria. I lost my elderly father in the process and today I don’t have a life. I have lots of memories of a life that I had, and a devastating reality to live with. If I was to have a life again, I would have to find a way to Europe, and then maybe to Canada or even Brazil or Australia. But in Egypt, it is so harsh for Egyptians, let alone for us,” said Abdel-Rahman, a Syrian waiter a Syrian fast food restaurant.

Abdel-Rahman is working 18 hours a day to save enough money for himself, his brothers and sisters and his mother. “I am afraid we cannot make it before the end of this season, because there is only a few weeks left and I don’t have enough money yet. But I surely hope by the beginning of the next season,” he said.

Boats taking asylum seekers operate from end of April to end of October.


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