Syrian Refugees in Egypt: Stories of Life, Death, Abuse and All That’s In Between

Syrian Refugees in Egypt: Stories of Life, Death, Abuse and All That’s In Between

Syria women and children wait to get a visa stamp to enter Lebanon. Credit: Jamal Saidi/ Reuters
Syria women and children wait to get a visa stamp to enter Lebanon. Credit: Jamal Saidi/ Reuters

The ongoing war in Syria has caused the worst refugee crisis since World War II, and neighboring countries have been struggling to deal with the fall-out for years. The official number of Syrian refugees currently residing in Egypt according to the UN is 127.681, but as many go unregistered, the real number is likely to be higher.

With the growing flux of Syrians crossing the Mediterranean Sea in hopes of reaching Europe, Egyptian Streets spoke with several Syrian refugees about their reasons to leave Egypt, as well as why they choose to stay.

A Life Threatened by Syrian War and Egyptian Bureaucracy

Originally hailing from Damascus, 25-year-old Thair Orfahli started law school at the University of Beirut in 2009. At first, he commuted to his classes, recalling how “it was the easiest and most common commute ever.” But in July 2012, he moved to Beirut permanently seeing as how travelling between the two cities had become too dangerous. However, due to the massive influx of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, he chose to move to Egypt a few months later to complete his law degree, graduating from the University of Alexandria late 2014.

“I had a nice life in Egypt,” Orfahli writes via email. “I had friends, and in my spare time I worked at an NGO that helped Syrian refugees. I was trying to get on with my life.” Eager to start work as a lawyer, he started applying for jobs, but soon found that he needed a work permit from the lawyer’s syndicate in Damascus in order to be allowed to work in law in Egypt. “They basically wanted me to travel back to Damascus in the midst of war for a piece of paper!”

However, one day Orfahli’s passport got stolen, and the Syrian embassy refused to issue him a new one unless he traveled back to Syria and enrolled in the army. On the other hand, staying in Egypt without a valid ID was a great risk that he might be detained and ultimately deported. “I had no other choice than to flee.”

Last May, he paid a smuggler $US 2000 to take a boat from Alexandria to Europe. His first attempt to board the boat failed and he was imprisoned for several days by the Egyptian coast guard. “All my friends pleaded with me not to try again,” Orfahli writes. “Word on the street was thousands of people had already drowned attempting to reach European shores.”

Nevertheless, he tried again and crammed himself on a small boat with 233 other people. “I’ve never been so afraid. Many of us became sick, especially the children.”

“It was very cold at night, and we had run out of food and water. The waves were three metres high. Our boat had been tied together with other boats that had come in from Libya and they were pulled apart and crashed back together by the waves.” After ten days at sea, they were picked up by the Italian coast guard.

Orfahli has traveled on to Germany and has applied for asylum there. He hopes to relocate to England where his mother – who he hasn’t seen in four years –  lives.

The Many Faces of Death on Land and at Sea

Mostafa al-Atraq, the brother of Noureddin al-Atraq, finished his studies at the university of Aleppo just before the war started in 2011. A graduate of the Faculty of Medicine, he was on a work placement at the University Hospital when the war came to Aleppo in early 2012. “He went from treating broken legs to patching up people that had their legs completely blown off by car bombs,” Noureddin tells Egyptian Streets.

Following the death of their father and youngest brother when a barrel bomb destroyed their house, the two brothers, along with their mother and sister, decided to flee to Turkey. After a few months in Turkey, they moved to Egypt. “We heard good things about Egypt from other Syrians. We would be allowed to work, enroll in university and have a decent chance at living, unlike in Turkey.”

The family moved into a small apartment in the satellite city of 6th of October, and the two brothers found work in one of the many Syrian restaurants in the area. Because of his experience at the hospital, Mostafa became the unofficial neighborhood doctor.

However, Mostafa felt he was wasting his education making falafel sandwiches and trying to cure sick people with no more than over-the-counter medication and home remedies. Having heard they were short on medical personnel in Europe, he wanted to try his luck there, so like many other Syrian refugees, he boarded a boat in January 2015.

“We all told him it was dangerous,” Noureddin says. “We pleaded with him to at least wait for summer when conditions at sea are better, but he was afraid his savings would have run out by then.”

It wasn’t until a couple of months before Mostafa’s family received any news about him. They got a phone call from a Syrian acquaintance whose cousin had arrived in Greece on the same boat as Mostafa. “He told us my brother had drowned off the coast of Greece. There had been a storm and the boat he was on had sunk. The coast guard took hours to get them out of the water because of bad weather conditions, and by then, most of the people on board had drowned.”

Mostafa was 26 years old.

Noureddin’s mother refuses to believe her son is dead. “It is hard to believe somebody is really gone when you haven’t been able to say goodbye,” Noureddin explains. “When I get a phone call from an unknown number, I sometimes hope it is Mostafa and that this was all a bad dream.”

Noureddin feels his life in Egypt is slowly slipping through his fingers. “I don’t really have a future to look forward to here; I have nothing to build towards. I can’t grow in my job because the manager is Egyptian and he will never let a Syrian run his business,” Nouredinn sighs. “He says we can’t be trusted with money and thinks we will steal from him.”

“I don’t want to stay in Egypt. It’s not my country; I don’t belong here, I belong in Syria,” he continues. He describes his predicament as “the burden we have to bear for being Syrian.” After what happened to his brother, he doesn’t want to risk fleeing to Europe “unless I can take a plane,” he half jokes. “I can’t put my mother through the loss of another child, I’m the only son she has left.”

Swallowing the Bitter Abuse for a Chance at Living

Mohammed Abdulrahman sought refuge in Egypt from the unrest in Homs in the summer of 2011. “One day there was a protest outside the restaurant I was managing, and things got very ugly. The wounded and dying were brought into the restaurant and that was about as involved as I wanted to get with the revolution. The next day, I left.”

Today, Abdulrahman runs a Syrian restaurant in 6th of October and manages to make a decent enough living to provide for his wife and young son. He employs around ten fellow Syrians, and over time, has seen ‘dozens’ of his employees risk the journey to Europe. Some have made it, some haven’t and some, they simply never hear from again. He says he has “never seriously considered” leaving Egypt.

“If I had nothing to look forward to, I’d leave and try my luck somewhere else too.” However, that’s not quite the case for him. “Life here is not that bad that I would risk my wife and son’s lives to provide them with better opportunities.”

Moving to Egypt as a single man, Abdulrahman met his wife in the Syrian community of 6th of October, got married early 2013 and delivered their son within a year.

Even though he manages to get by, life in Egypt hasn’t been easy for Abdulrahman. The space he rents for his restaurant is heavily overpriced because “the owner knows no one else will rent to a Syrian anymore.”

Over time, Abdulrahman’s restaurant has become pretty popular, but that has drawn unwanted attention from the authorities. “I had all my paperwork in order before I opened up my shop. I was lucky to come to Egypt before most Syrians did. A Syrian coming in for a business licence was a bit of a novelty back then, so people were pretty helpful,” Abdulrahman remembers. But somewhere by the end of 2013, he got a visit from a man claiming to be a tax collector.

“Sure, I thought it was a bit suspicious that the guy came to the restaurant to collect the money since I usually go pay my taxes at an office. But I didn’t want to make a fuss. I also noticed the amount was much higher than the usual, but still I figured I’d better comply. Everybody has to pay taxes, right? But when I told my Egyptian neighbor about it, he told me I was being ripped off and that the taxman was in fact a police officer collecting bribes. There is nothing I can do about it though if I don’t want to get shut down,” Abdulrahman shrugs.

After asking around, Abdulrahman learned that most Syrian business owners were ‘taxed’ this way. In addition, he often sees quite a few policemen coming in for a free meal. “They get their hair cut for free at the Syrian barber, take some free herbs and cheese at the Syrian grocery store and then pick up some free lunch or dinner from us.”

What worries Abdulrahman more than being extorted is how Egypt’s attitude towards Syrians has changed. “Egyptians were really friendly to me when I first came here, but after president Morsi was ousted, people’s attitudes changed. They basically closed the borders for us and getting work or study visas became really hard.”

But he insists he doesn’t want to complain. “I am alive, I have a beautiful family, a job I like, the weather is nice and I have a roof over my head and good food on the table. I count my blessings every day.”

Abdulrahman’s brother has safely made it to Sweden with their sister. “Maybe we can go visit after this whole mess is over,” Abdulrahman hopes.

Between life, death, despair and hope, thousands of stories of other Syrian refugees in Egypt remain untold.

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Ester Meerman is an independent journalist who has been reporting from Egypt since January 2011.

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