The Grievances of Egypt’s Sister State: Syrian Refugees in Egypt

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2011, the year of the Arab Spring, caused the region to witness its fair share of both sorrows and victories. Syria was one of many countries to witness a revolution, however, its revolution quickly turned into a bloody civil war that drove 4.8 million Syrians to flee the destruction and bloodshed, 126,668 of whom made their way to Egypt, according to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). While Syrian refugees were seemingly quick to make a living among Egyptians, matters were not as simple as one might think, maybe not even simple at all.

Syrian refugees work many different minimum wage jobs in Egypt, such as waiters, chefs, cashiers, and factory workers. Ms. Christine Beshay, Assistant Public Information and Communication Officer at the UNHCR, noted, “Refugees and asylum-seekers in Egypt face various challenges, including limited opportunities to meet basic needs and livelihoods.” Syrian waiter Ziad K agreed, noting that it was very hard for him to open his own business when he came to Egypt as he spent all his money trying to get his wife and children out of Syria. “Egypt has many jobs to be filled, however, the salaries are quite depressing and considerably low; they cannot meet our living standards and needs,” he said.

Credits: Jihad Abaza

There are countless economic obstacles that Syrian refugees face; as Beshay notes, “Many refugees face economic challenges, and with funding on the decline, it has an impact on their situation and on the assistance they receive.” Aliaa S, a Syrian clothing factory worker, emphasized another issue. “Prices went up to around triple what they used to be because of the flotation of the Egyptian pound, and now it is even more difficult to run the business,” she noted sadly.

Economic challenges are just part of the many hardships Syrian refugees face in Egypt. Legal issues have left them vulnerable and in need of support, especially in regards to residencies and deportation. According to Beshay, refugees face challenges when it comes to dealing with bureaucratic procedures for obtaining or renewing residencies. As a result, many Syrian refugees choose to live in secrecy to avoid deportation. Samah E, a clothing factory owner, was quick to voice her concerns for the Syrian refugee workers currently working for her. “Not all our workers could get their residencies and not all of them have job permits, so we fear that they might be sent back to Syria,” she said worryingly.

Credits: Jihad Abaza

Abla K, a trade and export company owner, held the same view as Beshay. “Some Syrians were less fortunate than others. We have limited job opportunities as we are treated by many countries as refugees, so we don’t have the same rights as citizens,” she noted. Some Syrian refugees had less luck finding jobs, settling for selling pastries on the street as a result.

One would often wonder where they got such determination. Abdel Nasser Mohamed, who lived in Syria until the age of nine and now lives in Egypt, reveals, “Unlike Egyptian society, there is no such thing as a degrading job for a Syrian; you are taught at a young age to depend on yourself and do whatever it takes to be able to provide for your family.”

Credits: Jihad Abaza

Moreover, Beshay noted that Syrian refugees face additional challenges, including language barriers and difficulty accessing secondary and tertiary care, adding that these are merely the struggles that registered Syrian refugees face. She emphasized the importance of Syrian refugees registering in the country upon their arrival in order to have access to full protection and assistance.

The events in Syria have not changed, however, the military forces are reclaiming many areas from Syrian rebels and so many Syrians have decided to head back home. On the other hand, Egypt continues to see flourishing Syrian communities and businesses. With great determination this new diaspora has largely achieved economic success by integrating into the Egyptian labor market, despite their displacement and their everlasting memories of war.

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