Arab expats in Egypt: Residents by fate or choice

Dina Ezzat , Friday 12 May 2023

The stories of Arab expatriates living in Egypt are as diverse as their origins and current plans.

photo: AFP


It was hours before Hagar was set to leave her family’s house in Khartoum to go back to Cairo where she had been living and working for over eight years.

However, suddenly things turned upside down with the start of the armed conflict between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in the centre of the Sudanese capital. Hagar had to rush out of Khartoum to the north of Sudan with her family members.

Once in the safety and comfort of the house of relatives in Al-Welaya Ashamalia (Northern State), Hagar had to think of heading back to Cairo. But with flights suspended, she had no choice but to get on one of the buses transferring people out of the armed conflict.

As a result of a career in development work, Hagar had crossed paths many times with people forced into displacement for one reason or another. And while not being personally forced into displacement, beyond the one that took her family from one governorate to another in Sudan, she hated to be perceived as a refugee.

“I felt bad about how I felt. Nobody ever chooses to be a refugee, but once put into a situation of forced displacement one becomes aware of what it means to not know where to go or what to do next,” she said.

On the bus that took her from a meeting point in the Northern State on a six-hour drive to the Sudanese side of the Argeen Borders Crossing and during the two-hour inspection at the border and the subsequent 12-hour-ride on an Egyptian bus to the heart of Cairo, Hagar could not help thinking that in reality she too had had to leave the city she was born and brought up in as she pursued “a career that could be pursued in a place not so far away from family.”

Eventually, Hagar made it to Downtown Cairo, where she got off the bus to find an independent ride to her apartment in the east of Cairo. Received by Layla and other Sudanese friends living in the city, Hagar arrived with serious questions and no answers to the curious question of “being at home”.

In a sense, Layla said, Egypt is home, “maybe because of fate but also because of choice.” Born in Cairo in the early 1970s to a Sudanese family that had just come to Egypt to allow her father to pursue postgraduate studies, Layla always knew that she was Sudanese even though she had never lived in Sudan.

This identity was something she shared with many Sudanese friends and schoolmates as a child and teenager when she was living in Kuwait, where her father went in pursuit of a rewarding job, “just like many Egyptians and other Arabs were doing at the time.”

In Kuwait, Layla said, she knew that the country “was not home”. However, she added, she did not feel that this was a peculiar situation for her and other Sudanese. “The simple fact of the matter is that at the time in Kuwait there was an overwhelming majority of non-Kuwaitis living and working in the country,” she recalled. This meant that almost everyone was a “wafed” (expatriate).

Shortly after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Layla’s father decided that it was time “to go home”. Sudan was home for himself, and Egypt was home for his family. He went to work in Khartoum, while the rest of the family went to live in what he believed was the “more stable” city of Cairo where Layla joined the Engineering Faculty at Cairo University.

It was then that she felt that she “was in a minority of expats”. It was hard “because while I continued to see myself as Sudanese, and while we continued to observe many Sudanese traditions at home, I did not feel that I was out of place in Egypt,” she said. It took a bit of an effort for Layla to cross “the border” of being Sudanese to becoming a “Sudanese who was born in Egypt and who comes across just like an Egyptian.”

As both Hagar and Layla would admit, the socio-economic background of an expatriate in Egypt makes a lot of difference when it comes to integration. Those, like Layla, who live in a nice apartment building in the west of Cairo, or, like Hagar, who live in a compound in the east, are not perceived in the same light as those economically challenged Sudanese who live in economically challenged parts of the capital or elsewhere in the country, especially as the Sudanese can be among the most disadvantaged of all refugees.

According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), there are four million Sudanese living in Egypt today. Of these, less than 200,000 are official refugees from Sudan and South Sudan that became independent over a decade ago.

Since the SAF-RSF conflict started in Sudan, some 60,000 Sudanese have found their way to Egypt. This figure is expected to increase significantly in the coming weeks, especially if diplomacy fails to bring the two warring factions to end the conflict.

Some of those forced to leave their homes behind might end up on the lists of the UN refugee agency the UNHCR as the seekers of refugee status, even if they have entered on the visitor visas that the Egyptian authorities have been handing out at the border to those who pass security clearance. Others might have other means or the support of a family living in Egypt to live comfortably or at least decently pending a possible return to Sudan.

But at least some will need help pending the tough hunt for a job in a country whose economy is far from being in the best place, Hagar said. She added that in addition to financial help, “which many in the Sudanese community and several Egyptian charities are already involved in,” many will need “orientation” on how to behave without prompting sensitivities about the recent influx of Sudanese.

Hoda, an Egyptian who is contributing to some of the charities, argues for the need for the involvement of Egyptians in the accommodation of the “newcomers from Sudan” as a buffer against any sense of hostility from either side. It is very important, she said, to be sensitive to the sentiments of those who have had to escape Sudan, or for that matter any other country, under stressful conditions.

“They are vulnerable by definition, unlike those who come to work or study,” she said.


INTEGRATION: Ahd and Venus, two women from Yemen and Libya, found their way to Cairo and Alexandria through family ties in Egypt that many Yemenis and Libyans had during the heyday of pan-Arabism under the rule of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser or under former president Anwar Al-Sadat when Egypt was a safe destination for the families of the political opposition in both countries.

Ahd’s in-laws had been living in Egypt since the 1960s, and it was in Egypt that her husband studied and graduated. It was thus to Egypt that he decided to take Ahd and the children when the security situation in Yemen started to deteriorate in the wake of the failure of the protests to establish a democratic regime in Yemen in 2014.

With such an established presence in Egypt and with a family that subscribes to the economically privileged segment of the Yemeni community in Cairo, the family of Ahd had “an easy way” forward, she said. Overall, there is a base for “Yemenis who have been coming to Egypt, even before the sharp security deterioration of the past decade in Yemen, in pursuit of better education or better healthcare.

“It is true that not everyone who comes here stays here, as many end up going to a third destination. But with such a stable flow of Yemenis coming to and living in Egypt for close to 60 years, there are many Yemeni-operated facilities, including some Yemeni schools and even Yemeni charities that are funded by the better-off within the community to help those in need,” she said.

The successful businesses that many Yemeni residents have launched in Egypt, particularly restaurants and spice businesses, have secured many Yemenis job opportunities, big and small, she added. This has also helped with social acceptance, given that the Yemeni presence in the country is not associated with economic dependence.

For Ahd, however, the Egypt she is living in as a legal and financially well-off Yemeni resident is different from the Egypt her in-laws knew. Today, “there are a lot of limitations, especially in terms of visas for visiting friends, the renewal of resident visas, the opening of bank accounts for male children and so on,” she said.

She attributes these “restrictions” to the security situation “across the region”. One way or another, Egypt “remains a much better place for residence than many other Arab countries,” she added.

But when it comes to “integration it is a totally different story,” Ahd said, adding that those who are more comfortable have easier inroads into Egyptian society and that of other Arab expatriates in the country. Otherwise, Yemenis, like other expatriates on the disadvantaged side of life, tend to cling together in the same neighbourhoods and the same segments of the labour market.

According to Venus, who moved with her family to escape the Gaddafi regime in Libya, first to London and then to Egypt, the issue of integration is a two-way issue. She has hardly any recollection of the place she still “feels should be called home” — in other words, Libya, prior to a late 1980s family visit.

Despite her long years living in Egypt that have included a one-year marriage with an Egyptian citizen and a son that has Egyptian nationality, her circle of “mostly Egyptian friends” both in Alexandria where she lived first and now in Cairo, and her almost impeccable Egyptian accent, Venus has neither applied for Egyptian citizenship nor is willing to do so.

For her, this would almost amount to “treason” towards a home country whose only mistake was to suffer from the rule of a dictator.

According to IOM figures, Libyans and Yemenis now account for one million people in Egypt. Very small numbers of them are registered as refugees or asylum-seekers.