Syrian refugees tell their stories
BY MAURICE CHAMMAH
Cairo: By necessity, the work proceeds in secret. A small group of activists and refugees are collecting and distributing goods to Egypt’s growing population of Syrian refugees, who have escaped increasing violence as the Free Syrian Army battles Bashar Al-Assad’s government.
“We can no longer shoulder the amount of people coming in,” they say in a statement that circulates online. “There are approximately 2,000 Syrians in Egypt that have fled the violence and the number is slowly but steadily growing.”
An activist who goes by the email handle Damascus Rebel visited a handful of the Syrian refugees, who are scattered throughout Cairo and Sixth of October City. Some are families, others single men who fled the Syrian army when they were sent abroad for training. Some needed clothes, others needed rugs, ovens and children’s toys. Damascus Rebel circulated a list of items on Twitter and email lists and then coordinated a massive collection of goods, bringing vans from Zamalek and elsewhere in central Cairo to a main warehouse outside the city.
It’s secretive work, because the initiative could be shut down by Egyptian security if they’re caught. They advertise on various websites and Cairo Scholars, a well-known expatriate email list. From Egyptians and expatriates alike, they’ve received beds, closets, mattresses, tables, chairs, clothes, lamps, light bulbs, cups, plates, kitchen utensils and cleaning supplies. “We are not a charity or an organization,” they say. “We are simply the Syrian community banding together to help our brothers and sisters fleeing from monstrosities back home.”
Nobody knows exactly how many Syrian refugees reside in Egypt. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that 26,000 have arrived in Lebanon and roughly 2,500, registered and unregistered, are in Jordan. They are also coordinating distribution of food and other materials to these refugees. In March, the UN issued an appeal for $84 million to help Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. Egypt was not mentioned in any of their materials.
They used to hold rallies at the Arab League headquarters, and 200 protesters stormed Cairo’s Syrian Embassy several months ago, but since then the refugee population has grown quieter but larger, trying to evade official detection.
Yet others are trying to increase awareness of the Syrian refugee situation in a grassroots fashion. A young ex-lawyer named Shadi Al-Shhadeh has been organizing a collection drive as well. He’s looking for stories, compiling the personal accounts of Syrians who have witnessed violence and putting them up at the Syrian Voices blog. He is also working on stories about the violence in Syria for Turkish radio.
Based in Istanbul, Al-Shhadeh edits and translates, while enlisting volunteers in Egypt to record the stories and then transcribe them. “This blog was made for people who do not use the internet or who are not so familiar [with] the new media,” says Al-Shhadeh, “I just felt that these people must be also heard everywhere.”
I met one of Al-Shhadeh’s witnesses, a clothing seller from Deraa who fled to Dubai to escape the violence and then couldn’t get a visa to stay, which is why he is in Egypt. Al-Shhadeh had coordinated to have an American friend record his testimony. As we sat in a small, dusty apartment in Mounira, he clipped on a small microphone and spoke without notes.
“Other nations don’t help us. The United Nations doesn’t help us,” he said, not knowing who the audience of this recording will eventually be. “The European Union doesn’t help us. The United States doesn’t help us. Nobody helps us. “
Al-Shhadeh collects these stories because he feels that the more the international media hears about the atrocities in Syria, the more likely other governments will intervene. “I think everybody should help us,” said the man into the tape recorder, his voice growing louder. “If you want to sleep well at night, you have to help us.”
After the recording session, I asked the man if he planned to be in Egypt for a long time. “No,” he said. “I expect the revolution to be over quickly, and I’ll go back to Syria.”
Unlike the organizers of the donation collection, Al-Shhadeh was happy to share his name for this story. “I don’t mind if you use my real name,” he told me, “because fear is what allowed Al-Assad, the father and the son, to keep screwing us for over 42 years.”