Egypt's Little Syria

[caption id="attachment_55244432" align="alignnone" width="620"]A Syrian baker in Sixth of October City. (Sophie Anmuth) A Syrian baker in Sixth of October City. (Sophie Anmuth)[/caption]More often than not, in the streets and shops of Cairo’s Sixth of October City, one can hear the Syrian accent. Two streets in the area have even come to be known as the “Syrian streets.” These corridors, which were almost empty only a few months ago, are now packed with Syrian shops, restaurants, hookah (water pipe) coffee shops, hairdressers and even a bakery explicitly called “Bread of the Syrian Revolution.” A few of the men who work in this bakery are from the destroyed city of Homs. Some Syrians who live here say jokingly: “Soon, Egyptians will have to ask for a Syrian visa to get into this part of town!”

Syrian schools open frequently in the city. Syrian workers are everywhere, and Syrian products—mainly clothes and food—keep Egyptians happy, as they have a reputation for high quality compared to the Egyptian equivalents.

Every day two thousand new Syrians come to the headquarters of Tadamon alone. Tadamon is a network of civil society organizations in Cairo working for the welfare of refugees. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have estimated the total number of Syrian refugees currently residing in Sixth of October City at 100,000 people.

Little Damascus

According to the UNHCR, most of the Syrian refugees in Egypt come from Damascus or the Damascus countryside (nearly 65 percent) and from Homs (14 percent)—these figures seem to hold true for the Sixth of October City.

“[Most of] the Syrian refugees in Egypt are relatively well-off, as they were able to buy a plane ticket in the first place,” says the Sixth of October branch of the Syria ALgad relief foundation, a joint Egyptian–Syrian charity that helps Syrian refugees.

On many a Friday in the city, a small anti-Bashar Al-Assad demonstration is held in front of the main Al-Hosary mosque. Every time a leading figure in the region makes a speech about Syria, the coffee shops in the Syrian alleys interrupt their broadcast of a football match to show it. Their Syrian customers puff gloomily and meditatively on their hookahs. A young boy staggers around the tables outside selling plastic bracelets. Green, white and black with red stars, they have the symbol of the Syrian revolution—but are made in China. This does not prevent the child from saying, seemingly convinced, that the bracelets come via boats from Syria where they are manufactured by revolutionaries.

“We liked the idea of opening a shop here. All our neighbors are Syrian—we feel that we’re a bit at home,” says a shop owner. “Most of the clients are Syrians, but of course we also have Egyptians. They actually quite enjoy having Syrian food! We ask each other: ‘Where are you from?’ Often they’re from the same city as us, Damascus or Homs, but we have never met before.”

Two young men working in a mobile phone shop explain that though they were friends in Damascus, they had lost contact due to the war. It took their move to Sixth of October City in Egypt to finally meet again. One of them had first escaped military service, as, he says, he “could not bear the idea of shooting at Syrian people. I have a cousin who has not been that lucky—he’s still stuck in Bashar’s army as there is no way to evade.” After he escaped the army he joined his family, who had already fled Syria for Egypt. He is in the country under a false name.

Many young men have been sent to Egypt alone, while their families have stayed in Syria, either because parents were afraid their sons would be conscripted into the army, or because they were afraid they would be arrested for their activity, real or suspected, in support of the rebellion. There are also bereaved families, like the one of a child who explains proudly how he lived through ten days in the month of Ramadan last year without food or drink, and how he had lost his father, who led three Syrian rebel brigades.Syria ALgad in Sixth of October City organizes workshops and invites psychologists to treat the children; many of them are traumatized and need full rehabilitation in order to re-enter society. Some of the young men say they cannot wait to go back and fight in Syria—but the way back through Lebanon, the easiest route, is now closed.

Some of the Syrian refugees feel safe, while others fear that members of the Syrian secret service might be operating in Egypt, sending back information that could have repercussions for their family members in Syria. Some even say that certain activists have already been abducted in Egypt.

The community still has a very strong link with Syria. Skype is used for family calls, and for political meetings. A husband and father says the telephone line between Egypt and Syria only seems to work one day a week, so he uses Skype to connect with his family in Damascus. Indeed, Syrian activists in Egypt are constantly working with people on the ground in Syria, and hold regular Skype meetings with them. Lina Al-Wafai, a longtime Syrian opposition activist, says she was sent from Syria three months ago to head the Egypt-based Syrian Citizenship Current. This Syrian leftist movement is part of the Syrian Coalition and its Egyptian office is in the Sixth of October City. They regularly coordinate with people back in Syria, though she says people talk more about politics in coffee shops than in the group’s offices.

“Egyptian family”

Before Moaz Al-Khatib went on to lead the Syrian Coalition—when he was just one of the refugees in Sixth of October City—he commended the Egyptian generosity. In his Friday speech for Eid Al-Adha last October, he remarked upon the fact that some Egyptians had offered rooms or homes for free to Syrian refugees.

“We came here because our family opened its doors for us,” says a man who fled Syria four months ago. “We are not put into camps like in Lebanon or Jordan; we live side by side, and they help us. As soon as they hear I’m Syrian, they ask if I need anything and they invite me for tea.”

He is now an English teacher in a Syrian school in Sixth of October City. In Syria he had been working in an import–export company. Many Syrian refugees say they acknowledge the economic situation is also quite difficult in Egypt. Many graduates find it difficult to get work appropriate to their skills, so they do as the Egyptians do, and accept whatever job they can find. A grocery-shop manager in one of the Syrian streets says he owned a jewelry shop in Syria; a man who worked in agricultural planning is now a baker.

Syrians used to be able to enter Egypt without a visa, due to the historical proximity and links between the two countries. Most Syrian refugees now say they are in Egypt on a tourist visa. This is easy to obtain but it does not give them refugee status—though most of them do not seek it. Egypt does not generally grant refugees access to healthcare or free education. However, residency permits for Syrians have been extended to six months and they have been given access to free healthcare and schooling.

Egyptians relish Syrian shawarma, amd the products from newly-opened Syrian food and clothing factories in the country. Small Egyptian children run to eat the “bread of the Syrian revolution” when it is all warm, golden and fluffy, straight out of the oven. But despite that, relations between Syrians and Egyptians are not always so warm.

Grievances raised against Syrians have soared, in a similar fashion to the reported experiences of Palestinians living in Egypt. The Middle East loves conspiracy theories, and Palestinians have often been distressed by the image projected upon them by some Egyptians: that they are stirring up instability in Egypt by following the orders of Hamas. Nowadays, some Egyptian media outlets accuse Syrians and Palestinians living in Egypt of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. Egyptian vice-president Mohamed El-Baradei even felt it necessary to call upon the Egyptian media to show some restraint and stop slandering Syrian refugees.

On a less political level, Egyptians bemoan the prices of flats in Sixth of October City, which sky-rocketed after the arrival of some very wealthy Syrian families. The city had already seen a wave of Iraqi refugees, who contributed to the development of the then half-deserted city. (Most of the buildings in the city are only ten or twenty years old.)

Many unemployed Egyptians envy the Syrian refugees who find jobs easily due to, as they say, their hard-working reputation. The reality is they accept lower wages than the Egyptians because they are more desperate. As an Egyptian waiter in a Sixth of October coffee shop said resentfully: “My boss recently hired two Syrians for the wages of one Egyptian worker. He opened a second area for his coffee shop. . . . In his defense, he helps them. . . . I, however, I have to train them; they had no idea how to deal with a coffee shop. It’s more work for me. But what can they do? They’re here. They’re actually Palestinians from Yarmouk camp; it has been attacked recently.” The Palestinian waiters say they fled Yarmouk, a Damascus suburb, to avoid the mandatory army conscription.

Palestinian refugees from Syria have a slightly different refugee status, and are not entitled to free healthcare and education. According to Syria-l-Ghad, there may be 200 Palestinian–Syrian families living in the Sixth of October City.

Some may imagine that it would be difficult for Alawite refugees to live in Egypt, as many Egyptians have a notorious dislike of Shi'ites. However, most Alawite refugees refute this assumption. As one man says, the only question they get asked is “'Are you with or against Bashar?' The expected answer is 'against,' and if you say so, everyone is happy and nobody asks you: ‘What’s your religion?’.”

Much media attention has been given to the issue of Syrian brides being advertised as cheaper and prettier alternatives to Egyptian brides. Leaflets have been handed out after Friday prayers, say residents of Sixth of October City. However, most of the Syrian community say they have not noticed specific harassment against the female members of their families, and Syria-l-Ghad does not think there have been a large number of mixed Syrian–Egyptian marriages. Nonetheless, a banner has been hung next to the Al-Hosary mosque that says Syrian female refugees are not for sale and anyone who tries to lure Egyptian would-be grooms into thinking otherwise are simply crooks.

Another fly in the ointment is how Syrian refugees will deal with their documents. The Egyptian government recently severed ties with the Syrian regime and therefore closed the Syrian embassy in Cairo. Syrian refugees officially registered in Egypt with UNHCR now number more than 60,000. This would total 140,000 people according to government estimations—but these official numbers seem conservative. There has been a sharp increase in the number of Syrians arriving in Egypt over the past few months, says Syria-l-Ghad. They say around six planes filled with Syrian refugees land in Egypt each day. The organization believe this is because of heightened fighting in Syria, and because the school year is over.