“I was forced to leave my hometown in Syria after my house was destroyed because of the war. We had to stay in a basement in a mosque with many other families, and there were no job opportunities while prices were getting more and more expensive. I fled for the safety of my four children,” said Fadia, a Syrian refugee who has been living in Egypt for more than eight years.
“Shortly after we came to Egypt, my husband became seriously ill, and my two elder sons had to drop out of school when they were just 10 and 11 years old to be able to work to provide food for the table. I tried to work a full-time job, but I couldn’t because I had a back problem. All I could do was help my son by giving him a room in the flat we are renting to start a small project. He now makes Syrian sweets and sells them. I help him as much as I can,” Fadia said.
She said it was because of the kindness of her Egyptian neighbours that she and her family had managed to make ends meet and buy medicine for her husband. They make just enough money to pay their rent and eat, but they don’t have the luxury of buying new clothes or anything else, for example.
“Egyptians are very kind people, and we are happy to live among them. We feel that we are at home here. The only thing that hurts is that we are unable to see our relatives who went to other countries. What was most painful to me was that my mother died in Syria, and I was unable to say good-bye to her. What compensates me a little is that my Egyptian neighbours have made me feel like a member of their family.”
“I came to Egypt in 2015 because it was very difficult to find a job in Khartoum in Sudan. My husband was a photographer, while I was a housewife. I love my country and did not imagine that I would ever leave it, but due to some security circumstances my husband faced we had to leave without him. When the money I had was running out, I decided to work as a cook in other people’s homes. I was given some support by an international organisation, but that stopped for reasons I don’t understand,” said Amira, a Sudanese refugee and the mother of five children.
“The main problem I face is that I live with my children alone and have no support from a male breadwinner, so the burden lies on me to support my children and be a mother and father at the same time. With some help from kind people here and patience I have managed to overcome my difficulties,” she added.
Fadia and Amira are just two of the approximately six million refugees living in Egypt, not all of them registered. According to a UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) report, Egypt hosts more than 265,000 registered asylum-seekers and refugees from 65 countries. Under the supervision of the government, refugees in Egypt are assisted by UNHCR and national and international NGOs. These services include education, healthcare, food, and vocational training to help the refugees obtain employment in the informal or private sector.
Over the years, the map of the refugees living in Egypt has also changed, as have their activities. In the past, they would live in certain places, most Sudanese refugees living in Faisal Street in Giza or in Abdine in Cairo, for example, and their businesses being in the Downtown area. Most Iraqi and Syrian refugees would live and work in 6 October city in the past, though this has also changed. They now live in many cities and have businesses in many districts. Some Syrian refugees own perfume companies or restaurant chains, for instance.
There are many Facebook communities on social media initiated by Syrian or Sudanese refugees living in Egypt to provide services to assist other refugees or to post advertisements of job opportunities. It is because Egyptian law gives refugees equal rights to Egyptian citizens that the refugees consider Egypt to be their home as part of a tradition of hospitality that goes back to biblical times. The refugees are also given free healthcare and education for their children.
Egyptians have warmly welcomed the refugees coming to Egypt and the cultures they bring with them. Many Egyptians from different backgrounds have become obsessed with Syrian cuisine, now part of many Egyptian meals like the Syrian shawerma (pieces of meat or chicken wrapped in bread) and konafa bel-gebna, a type of dessert served with cheese usually served with cream.
According to a report issued by the Cabinet Information and Decision Support Centre (IDSC), Egypt has been a safe haven for many fleeing their countries because of conflicts or famines since Biblical times. In more modern history, Egypt has also hosted those fleeing their countries of origin because of persecution or because their lives were threatened. People fled to Egypt after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917, the Armenian massacres in Turkey during World War I, and both the first and the second world wars. Egypt hosted 25,000 Croats fleeing their country in 1944.
After the Iraq War in 2003, the number of Iraqi refugees coming to Egypt increased. A year after the Syrian Revolution in 2011 that soon turned into a civil war, the number of Syrian refugees coming to Egypt also increased. Unlike in most countries, refugees and asylum-seekers in Egypt do not live in refugee camps, but are treated as Egyptian citizens, particularly because they are from other Arab countries.
“We are very happy to have our brothers and sisters from neighbouring countries in our country. I really don’t like to use the word ‘refugees’,” commented Sanaa Mohamed, a Cairo resident.
“One of my mother’s friends came with her family from Palestine many years ago, and I now consider her to be my aunt. I went to school with her children, who are like sisters and brothers to me. Now my children go to school with Syrian children, whom they also consider to be their brothers and sisters,” Mohamed said, adding that in Egypt there is no concept of refugees living in isolation from the rest of society.
Sabaa Ahmed is a Yemeni fashion designer who has had the opportunity to be a student at Noqoush (Imprints), a centre offering refugees practical training programmes in Cairo.
“I came to Egypt to study with my husband who was a PhD student, but because of the war in Yemen we had to stay in Egypt. Back home, I had worked in the field of cosmetics but was not able to fulfil my dream of starting my own company. I searched online for an academy that would provide professional training in the field of fashion and found Noqoush. My friends encouraged me to join, and so I did,” Ahmed said, adding that she has learned enormously from Noqoush.
“When I was a child, I would always draw a dress I liked and would constantly change details in it to suit me. As a result, I decided to go into fashion designing. I am now able to make the designs I make in material,” Ahmed said. “I would like to have my own brand soon.”
She is currently designing clothes for family members and friends.
“I have been living in Egypt since 2005. I graduated from the Faculty of Arts, Geography Department, at Cairo University, but I have always wanted to be a chef. For this reason, I registered at Noqoush, where I have learnt a lot from the courses,” said Moussa Elias, a chef and student at Noqoush from Sudan.
“I think it is very important to have another type of specialised training and not just be satisfied with a university degree to get a good job. It is because of the courses at Noqoush that I now have a job,” he added, saying that after finishing the courses he had taken his time to find a job in a private restaurant.
Elias said he had faced some difficulties at first, since he came from another country and had no idea about Egyptian cuisine, but he had managed to overcome them. “My advice to young people is that they should not only depend on their university grades, but they should also look for a training course in another profession to get a good job. Always follow your passion,” he said.
Both Mohamed and Elias are students in the refugee programme at Noqoush, a NGO that is giving Egyptians as well as refugees opportunities to get professional training in fields like sewing, culinary arts, and other skills.
Abeer Mohamed is an interior designer and the founder of Noqoush. “As a child, I had a passion for handicrafts and wanted to pass my knowledge on to others. In 2013, we founded Noqoush as a way of teaching jewellery making and fashion designing. After a while we taught other handicrafts as well,” she said.
One of the aims is to provide refugees with practical training programmes so that they will be able to find jobs and adapt to Egyptian society. They co-operate with UNHCR, which sends them refugees who want training courses, and their certificates are accredited by the City of Angels Institute. The courses are open to anyone who has a passion for a craft, whatever the age group or educational background.
“We have been working with many NGOs that are concerned with refugees, like Save the Children, Care Egypt, and Catholic Relief Services. We have been training refugees since 2017, and now 40 per cent of our students are refugees,” Mohamed said, adding that they are mostly from Yemen, Syria, and South Africa.
Mohamed said that a main problem they face while dealing with refugees is the language barrier, but this is largely taken care of by organisations that send translators with the students. Another problem is that most students are women who have children to take care of and therefore face challenges in attending regularly. A third is that Noqoush may be far away for many students, especially refugees, but this problem may be overcome by providing them with suitable transportation.
“In my opinion, the main needs of a refugee student are in advanced training. They need more funding and marketing for their projects from the organisations they deal with,” Mohamed
said. “We are trying to integrate the refugees more into Egyptian society through seminars and to provide more jobs for them. We need to make sure that the labour law integrates them into the labour market through the aforementioned methods.”
Another refugee in Egypt is Abbas Amin, now 31, the Yemeni manager of a perfume store established by refugees in Giza.
“I came to Egypt two years ago after seeking asylum in the US, which I did not get. After some years of waiting, I decided to work in Egypt in a perfume shop. It took me many months to get the gist of working there and learning Egyptian Arabic, but at the end of nine months I was promoted from assistant manager to manager,” Amin said, adding that he was originally a pharmacy graduate but could not find a job in his field of expertise.
Amin fled his hometown to escape the war in Yemen and sought refuge in Egypt. One of the difficulties he faced was to adapt to the new society he was living in, but he was assisted by Egyptian friends who also gave him emotional and practical support. “My Egyptian friends helped me learn the Egyptian accent as well,” he said.
One piece of advice Amin has for young people in the same circumstances, being displaced from their hometowns, not being able to see members of their family, or working in a field that they not specialised in, is simply to try to “love the work you are doing and excel in it.”
Many articles and reports about refugees anywhere in the world contain mostly tragic news, giving this priority, said Ayat Al-Habbal, a reporter working for the Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper, who has tried to reverse this through her creative coverage of the real-life success stories of refugees living in Egypt on her Facebook site Transitrefugee.
Transitrefugee is an independent journalistic project that documents the different cultures of asylum-seekers and refugees in Egypt. It tries to reverse preconceived notions like refugees being people who come to take job opportunities from Egyptian young people.
“I have been working as a journalist since 2007 and witnessed the changes that occurred in Egypt, the biggest of which started in 2011. Since then, there has been a large number of refugees streaming into Egypt, so I decided to cover this issue with the aim of documenting developments over the last 10 years,” Al-Habbal said.
The idea is to trace how the refugees are able to adapt to the society they are living in. “Egypt to the refugees is a sort of transit station because it does not have a political asylum system but gives each refugee an ID and residence permit until they can go to the country in which they will reside permanently where they will be given a refugee card or even a new nationality. This is how the idea sparked,” she added.
After participating in a training course in France named Safir Lab under the supervision of the French embassy in Cairo, al-Habbal returned to Egypt and started to implement her idea by first designing a Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram page for the magazine on which she posted reports about refugees in Egypt and their activities.
“The main idea of the project is that it is a website documenting how refugees live in Egypt and how they try to adapt and convey their culture to the society they live in,” she said.
This is represented in various journalistic pieces like articles, photo-captions, and other information for refugees. If there is a story about healthcare or educational services for refugees, Al-Habbal posts it.
“I pay all the expenses of the site. I take the videos using my own mobile phone, and a friend does the editing of the videos. Then I write the description for each post. It is now an essential section of Al-Masry Al-Youm,” she said, adding that she is also assisted by her friends like graphic designer Abdel-Moneim Abu Taleb and photographer Ayman Aref.
Al-Habbal has obtained scholarships from different places, including the International Centre for Journalists in the US, during which she produced her film Al-Sanad (Support), which is about how a group of female refugees including Maysoun, a Sudanese refugee who is also in charge of a refugee educational centre in Cairo and managed to adapt to life in their new home in Egypt. The film shows the refugees organising coffee mornings for female refugees, a type of gathering that can help them to overcome their problems.
She has a different approach to the mainstream writers of refugee stories, about which she has reservations. “I try to keep away from sad or tragic stories. I still cover human interest stories, but in an efficient way. There are some people working for international institutions that give priority to focusing only on violations. They convince refugees that this is how they will be given political asylum in the country they want,” she said, adding that there were evident dangers in this approach.
Refugee stories are covered on a seasonal basis in the mainstream Western media, and it is often not interested in the full range of their experience. Al-Habbal tries to change this in her coverage and look at the effects of events in Egypt on refugees. “In my opinion, good coverage of refugee stories means covering the stories in a way that raises people’s awareness and abolishes preconceived notions,” she said.
She points to a main problem during her own coverage. “There is one more problem with dealing with the issues of the refugees themselves, namely the problem of trust. That is, for a refugee to trust you he or she needs time. You must never make him feel that you are a person who wants to benefit from him in some way. For instance, you will need to build trust before photographing or even interviewing refugees,” she said.
They need people to feel the difficulties they have been through before, she added.
Journalists intending to write stories about refugees should never “just go with the aim of taking photographs or writing a story. You should be acquainted with them. You should treat them as friends, remembering they are human beings.”
Al-Habbal also posts infographs from international NGOs, the UNHCR, and government institutions on her site. One example shows how Syrian refugees have participated in the Egyptian economy posted in Arabic and English.
According to an infograph published on Transitrefugee, in 2018 there were 818 companies run by Syrians living in Egypt and 30,000 Syrian investors in businesses like restaurants, coffee shops, and clothing stores worth $69.93 million.
According to IDSC statistics, Egypt issued 16,468 work permits to foreigners including refugees who have equal rights to work in the informal sector.
“My target audience are the refugees and those living with them, especially young people,” Al-Habbal said. She wrote an article and then produced a documentary about Rico (Reyad Joseph), for example, a young man from South Sudan who had managed to form a basketball team and a football team composed of refugees from his country, uniting the tribes through them.
She produced another film about him called Al-Bahth an Ghazala (Searching for Ghazala), which was screened at the 2019 Cairo International Film Festival. The story influenced Al-Habbal a lot because Rico had come to Egypt at the age of 11 after overcoming many difficulties and had then been able to fulfil his dream of setting up a football academy. He is now an active member of organisations supporting refugees.
“My main aim is to focus on such success stories and to make them known to as many people as possible,” Al-Habbal said, adding that she has produced six films in total, all of them inviting viewers to look at refugees in different ways. The films have been on coffee gatherings, sports, and even the Syrian Arada dance.
“According to UNHCR statistics, there are over 184,000 unregistered asylum-seekers in Egypt today who are currently on waiting lists. They need better quality healthcare and education, as well as legal support from UNHCR,” Al-Habbal said.
Meanwhile, she will continue working on her Facebook page. “I would like to be able to reach more segments of the refugees and to cover their stories in more ways. I would also like to cooperate with organisations that help and train refugees,” she concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly