Syrian refugees in Egypt: The long and hard road to safety

Dina Ezzat , Saturday 15 Mar 2014

For some Syrian refugees, detailed in a new EIPR series, Egypt has not provided the welcome and safety they sorely needed when fleeing civil war at home

Syrian refugees
Syrian women and children at the Egypt border wait to cross on January 22, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)

On 11 March, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) completed a seven-part series profiling Syrian refugees in Egypt.

The series is designed “to remind the world that when we talk about Syrian refugees in Egypt we are not talking about sheer numbers but about people with devastating human stories — people who had no choice but to board unsafe boats to try and find a less devastating place to live in,” said Hanan El-Badawi, author of the series.

El-Badawi says that EIPR's decision to share the human stories of these "devastated people" is "designed to prompt some sympathy.”

“The story of Syrian refugees in Egypt is not getting any attention and the stories of the Syrian refugees are not getting any sympathy. We thought we could help,” El-Badawi argued.

According to El-Badawi, “good attention has been accorded” to the EIPR series on social media. “But not much attention has been paid in the traditional media, unfortunately. The attention of the traditional medial is completely taken elsewhere,” she added.

The stories captured by El-Badawi are basically stories of people who had otherwise a good life and a positive future, no matter the undemocratic context that Syria lived in. They are the stories of people who had no choice but to run for their lives — even if at the risk of their lives.

“All the choices were — and are — bitter,” El-Badawi quotes one of those profiled as saying.

A merchant of ready-to-wear clothes, Hassan said that he had to run from Latakiyah for the life of his son, as state forces were rounding up young men. “With 60 percent of the young men there already arrested, I feared for my son.”

In Egypt, Hassan was left with no financial resources and sadly little human dignity.

Then came another harsh choice: to board the boat that could have taken him from Egypt, which failed to provide refuge, to some European capital where he was hoping, but not sure, that he would find refuge.

“It has been so humiliating. I find myself on the verge of begging on the streets. I thought it would be less humiliating for me to try and escape this situation,” El-Badawi quotes Hassan.

Unlike a cousin who successfully made it to Sweden and is about to start a new life there, Hassan failed to escape his new misery and was arrested and again humiliated, according to the account shared by EIPR.

Sweden is one of 16 Western countries that has shown willingness to settle Syrian refugees.

It is the destination that Emad, another middle-aged man who escaped Damascus and failed to find refuge with dignity in Egypt, tried but failed so far arrive to.

Emad tried and failed to find a way to Europe aboard a boat. He is determined to try again until he makes it, with his family, or dies trying.

The story of Syrian refugees in Egypt parallels the fate of the Arab Spring, hopes of which were high at the beginning, only to dip and plunge later.

Zeinab is finding it “alright” to get by in her daily life in her 6 October City apartment where she has been living for over two years with her four children and husband, who established a local fruit and vegetable business.

Acknowledging a change “in the way people deal with us, or actually look at us, during the last few months and after the rule of Mohamed Morsi,” the ousted Muslim Brotherhood president, Zeinab still enjoys the support and sympathy “of a few neighbours and friends who deal with us as human beings and not just as refugees who are portrayed by the government media as a national security threat to Egypt.”

Accusations of close association with Muslim Brotherhood rule were publicly made against Syrian refugees in the wake of the alleged involvement of some Syrians in pro-Morsi sit-ins last summer.

Recently, the media assault on Syrian refugees abated, but the negative perception lingers.

“Every time someone asks me if I am Syrian I hesitate to say yes. Then again, I think it would not help me a great deal to deny it, because I certainly do not look or talk like an Egyptian. And it would also not help me to claim that I am Palestinian, given that Palestinians, too, have suddenly become unwelcome in Egypt,” said Ziyad, an assistant at a Heliopolis patisserie.

To answer the question of his identity, Ziyad nods yes, "and at times I am pleasantly surprised to find someone who tells me they are happy to have Syrians in Egypt, and at others I get questioned on whether the store is owned by a Syrian, in a disapproving tone."

According to official assessments, the volume of Syrian refugees in Egypt is under a quarter of a million — half of which are registered with the UN.

Some arrived in Egypt in the early months of the conflict in Syria, where demonstrations started three years ago demanding change of the Bashar Al-Assad regime.

Those Syrians arrived normally aboard EgyptAir and SyrianAir flights.

However, the majority that arrived later, when the conflict turned bloody and then into open civil war, arrived in Egypt via busses, boats and other vehicles, sometimes straight from Syria and at times via another stop on the long and hard road in search of safety.

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