Syrians find troubled homes in Egypt
Haifa Koraida Shehada’s eyebrows are painted on. Six years ago she lost all of her hair, which never grew back, after a barrel bomb fell on her apartment complex in the outskirts of Damascus.
They arrived five months ago from Sudan after paying smugglers $200 per head to drive them to Egypt. The trip from Syria took five days, says the 32-year-old mother of two.
“The only available route for us was Egypt. We can’t go to Turkey or Lebanon but we can come to Egypt,” she told reporters at a centre in the outskirts of Cairo earlier last week.
Last year, Jordan sealed its border with Syria. Turkey won’t let Syrians cross, and the Lebanese army is arresting people along the border.
On top of a humanitarian funding shortage to help the millions displaced inside the war-torn country, relatively few are being resettled into Europe, while Syria’s pariah president, Bashar al-Assad, consolidates control.
The only option for Haifa and her family, she says, was to fly to Sudan – a visa-free country.
Haifa had brought her 12-year-old daughter, Batul, to the Syrian al Gad Relief Foundation in Obour city, some 35 km north-west of Cairo. Like many of the children being helped by the EU-funded foundation, Batul suffers from intense anxiety.
One of the aid workers at the foundation says they have received over 2,000 Syrian families, arriving from Sudan, in the past three years.
“We are getting more families all the time,” she noted.
New Syrian arrivals to Egypt have spiked to 11,350 so far this year, up until August – compared to only 3,400 for the whole of 2015.
Syria al Gad Relief provides some of the people with free medicine. It also offers programmes on education, and aims, among other things, to integrate refugees into the host community.
Despite the similarities in culture and language, Haifa and her family are finding it difficult to fit in.
“I tell my family not to come to Egypt,” she says.
The EU sponsors a number of similar programmes run by NGOs, including safe spaces for battered women in Maadi, outside Cairo, and a refugee community centre near the port city of Alexandria.
Life is hard given a near total collapse of the Egyptian economy, triggered in part by harsh structural reforms imposed early last year by the Washington-based International Monetary Fund.
The Egyptian pound has dropped in value by over 120 percent since November. The price of food has since more than doubled.
Government subsidies for fuel and gas are also being removed as part of a broader scheme to liberalise a shattered economy under the repressive rule of Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Even the buildings surrounding Tahrir square in Cairo, where massive protests helped topple the regime in 2011, appear to be crumbling amid the dust, dirt and grime of a city overcrowded by 20 million people and counting.
Egypt’s shaky stability
The EU wants a stable Egypt given the chaos in neighbouring Libya. It also sees Egypt, despite its waning influence, as a broker in the Middle East peace process.
But the EU’s ambassador in Cairo, Ivan Surkos, in an emailed statement, said for Egypt “to achieve stability, it is essential to establish a modern and democratic state that delivers benefits equitably to all people.”
That effort comes with some €1.3 billion in EU money in government grants. Egypt’s vast offshore natural gas fields also present the potential for an energy network to Europe.
As for the country’s 92 million people, including the 123,000 registered Syrians hosted there, a “modern and democratic state” are distant dreams.
President el-Sisi’s authoritarianism and disdain for human rights is common currency. Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch, in a report, accused Egypt’s regular police and national security officers of routinely torturing political detainees.
Female genital mutilation and Syrian girls
Poverty has increased and, with it, so has violence against women and girls.
Reports are now emerging of young Syrian refugee girls in Egypt having their genitals mutilated – a widespread practice among Egyptians – by Syrian parents.
Cases of what is also known as “female genital mutilation” (or FGM) began to surface months ago.
“Syrian refugees started adapting the culture, [and] they started accepting things we are trying to abandon,” Aleksandar Bodiroza, who heads the United Nations Population Fund, told reporters in Cairo.
Though outlawed in Egypt, the vast majority of married Egyptian women have been cut. Often relatives hold down the girl while a midwife or doctor removes or cuts the labia and clitoris.
The tradition is not limited to Muslims. Christian communities in Egypt are also known to force the procedure onto their daughters – some as young as 8 years old or less.
“It is very specific for Egypt – you don’t have it in the Gulf, you don’t have it in Jordan, you don’t have it in Palestine, you don’t have it in Syria. We were caught by surprise,” said Bodiroza.
Zaid M. Yaish, who also works at the UN fund, said poverty and desire to marry off daughters are among the likely factors that contribute to the abuse.
“I noticed that Syrians are starting to adapt this FGM – this is a surprise to me. I mean, in Syria, there was never FGM before and that is due to the social pressure,” he said.
Nobody knows yet how prevalent FGM is among Syrians in Egypt, or if the reported cases are isolated.
But like almost all Egyptians, Syrians and other refugees are facing crushing unemployment. While Syrians have access to health and education, they require work permits.
Public services are dire and the financial woes, felt by all, are particularly harsh among those who have fled war only to survive on threadbare diets and wages, if any, which are even lower than Egyptian standards.
“The price of meat went from 40 pounds to over 160 pounds per kilo. Everything is increasing, we can’t keep up,” said Maher El-leilani, a refugee in his late 50s from Homs in Syria, who now lives on the outskirts of Alexandria.
The EU is attempting to alleviate the inflation by injecting some €2 million into a broader cash-assistance programme, distributed by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).
Syrian families can get anywhere between 600 to 2,800 Egyptian pounds per month. Six-hundred Egyptian pounds, as of this month, is roughly equivalent to €28. Last October, the same amount would have equated to around €62.
“We have seen a deteriorating situation, an increasing vulnerability, with more people becoming more vulnerable when compared to six months ago,” said Aldo Biondi, an expert on Egypt from the European Commission’s humanitarian aid department.
“More and more families are falling under poverty, so they knock at the UNHCR,” he added.
By Nikolaj Nielsen