Egypt’s Syrian refugees live on the edge
BY NADA MOSELHY
Cairo Wessam El-Sonbolly, a Syrian mother of four and a grandmother, sat impatiently in the big hall in the Islamic Compound of 6th of October City waiting for her name to be called out. She was there to issue a “yellow card” to legalize her stay in Egypt and put an end to the haunting fear of deportation that has gripped her for the past two months.
Almost 18 months into the Syrian revolution, El-Sonbolly, like many Syrians who fled their homeland to escape President Bashar El-Assad’s brutal military crackdown on dissent, seeking asylum in neighboring countries and leaving behind the lives they had always known.
El-Sonbolly says that she and her family came to Egypt in August, not knowing what fate awaited them or how they were going to survive.
“My elder son tried to escape to Saudi Arabia at first but he couldn’t. He came to Egypt before us then he called us and told us to come here,” said El-Sonbolly.
She described the fear they lived through in Syria before their escape, how the regime’s troops stormed their home in search of one of the revolutionaries, and how they abducted her husband for no reason.
“Everyday we heard the cracking of the machine guns and saw a hail of bullets falling on our roof. At night you can look up to the sky and see where the shells are going,” she said. “My grandchildren used to ask what are these sounds, and I would reply that this is the sound of rain.”
El-Sonbolly’s story is one of many told by Syrians who have fled the war in Syria. She and her family used to live in the old city of Homs in a big apartment where she used to run her own pastry business. Now they are living in a two bedroom apartment in 6th of October City, with no income.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says that the total number of registered Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon has reached more than of 270,000.
In a recent meeting in Cairo, the UN refugee agency said that according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Syrian refugees who fled to Egypt have exceeded 150,000, a number significantly higher than last month’s estimated of 95,000.
According to Ahmed Abu Ghazala, the UNHCR public information associate in Egypt, the number of registered Syrian refugees in Egypt is only 5,451, but is expected to reach 12,000 by the end of this year.
“They were afraid of registering. They had the wrong idea that whoever registers with the UN their names and files will be sent back to Syria, it’s a baseless rumor,” said Rasha Abo El-Maati, member of Egypt and Syria Together Till Victory, a Cairo-based independent group of Syrian and Egyptian women who give support to Syrian refugees.
Yet during a three-day event organized by the UNHCR in collaboration with the Egyptian Women’s Association and the Administration of the Islamic Compound of Sheikh Zayed, many Syrians registered their refugee status, after realizing their misconceptions about registering.
“Once they understand that this is not the case and know that staying in Egypt on a tourist visa might lead to deportation later on and that registering will prevent that, they are convinced,” said Abo El-Maati.
Hundreds of Syrian families came with their children to this three-day mobile registration, which facilitated the issuance of yellow residence cards.
“We knew that to get an appointment with the UNHCR could take up to two months. To speed up the process, we contacted the UN refugee agency and they agreed as long as we provide the space. So we secured this compound hall for free to gather the Syrians at one place with the UN agency,” El-Maati said.
Although more than a thousand Syrian refugees registered in just three days, tons of thousands have yet to register.
The UN refugee agency is now working on gathering more Syrian refugees to register their names, holding a permanent location open for registration in All Saint church in Zamalek.
A Cairo-based independent Syrian humanitarian worker known as Um Farouk and who has been focusing her efforts on the Syrian refugees file, said that many Syrians in Egypt can’t be tracked down.
“There are a lot of Syrians here but we don’t know where they are, there are a lot of people who need help, there are a lot of people here who are not registered with the UN,” Um Farouk said. “They arrive at the airport on the grounds that they know someone, who may help them or give them a place to stay. But, after they leave the airport if they don’t go and register, we lose track of them.”
But registering is the least of their problems. Syrian refugees face huge challenges starting a life here. The monthly rent of two bedroom apartment has gone up from LE600-700 ($100) to around LE1,100 ($180) because of the increased demand.
Even after a family settles down in an apartment, they still need the means to start a life here.
El-Sonbolly says that she needs to have a steady job in order to support her family.
“My husband ran his own business and due to the circumstances back home he stayed behind,” she said. “We had already spent all our savings while we were in Syria and we just had enough cash to buy the plane tickets to come here.”
El-Maati says that part of their support strategy is to help Syrians set up small businesses.
“If for example I know a person who can cook, and someone who needs a caterer, I try to get them in contact with each other.” El-Maati said.
Um Farouk agreed that such a work-at-home ventures are a good way to secure an income legally.
“At the end of the day this is what is going to get them money, this is how they are going to be able to pay the rent, this how they are going to survive the next month and this is how they are going to put food on the table,” said Um Farouk. “Anyone can work from home and sell whatever they are producing.”
While a small but regular income can help them survive day-to-day, most Syrian refugees cannot cover medical emergencies. Those with heart disease, others who require surgery or children suffering from post traumatic stress have little support.
Even students hoping to register at university face obstacles despite the fact a presidential decree waiving foreign student fees because Egyptian universities have already closed registration.
“President Morsi’s decision was too late,” said Um Farouk, adding that schools on the other hand, have extend registration until the end of October.
But even then, most of those of school age don’t have any legal papers to prove their educational status.
El-Sonbolly has a daughter who is a senior pharmacy student at university and a son in high school but no official documents to prove it.
She dreads the idea that both her children will lose a year, but El-Sonbolly is adamant about returning to Syria only after the fall of the Assad regime.
“Everybody was forced to leave, Syrians with 5 million pounds in the bank and those with five pounds. Both are refugees at the end of the day,” Um Farouk said describing the situation of the Syrian people she meets. “Syria’s clock has stood still since March 15, 2011.”