When I joined the organization, UNHCR’s role was to interview asylum seekers on behalf of the Egyptian government. We were to determine whether they should be classified as “refugees” – or not.
The majority were Somalis and Sudanese, but we really had nationalities from all corners of the globe, including the odd Syrian. There were so few of the latter group that when one showed up, news would spread like wildfire in the corridors of the UNHCR building. We would then quickly try to snatch up each case – working with a rare nationality represented an exciting change, and a challenge that each of us wanted to take on.
And this is how I came to interview Salem, a Syrian asylum seeker, in what became one of the longest interviews I’ve had in my career. After two interviews totaling eight hours, Salem was finally recognized as a refugee under UNHCR’s mandate. Given his profile, it was not only risky for him to remain in Egypt, but also not something the authorities were comfortable with. He was swiftly resettled very far away.
Coming back to Egypt now, I couldn’t help but reflect on how times have changed. In less than 13 years, what had been an “exotic” and “rare” nationality for an asylum seeker has become the norm. What was just one exceptional case at UNHCR’s Cairo office became more than 50,000 in Egypt alone, and an additional 1.4 million spread across the region.
I found myself thinking of Salem, trying to imagine what he must be thinking now, to see that so many have followed in his footsteps. Had he ever thought in his wildest dreams that the day would come for this to happen? I wondered if Egypt’s attitude to refugees in general, and Syrians in particular, had also changed.
I was keen to find out – not only because the Middle East has profoundly changed since then, and with it the relations between the two countries, but also because Egyptians have been dealing with the aftermath of their own revolution.
And change it did. Contrary to expectations, Egypt has maintained an open door policy to Syrians fleeing the conflict. An estimated 150,000 Syrians are in Egypt, and only one-third are registered with UNHCR.
Every time I meet a refugee family, I ask one question: “Why Egypt?” Recently I met two couples who had come straight from Syria, transiting a couple of nights in Lebanon – physically closer to their homeland. It turns out the decision is logical. Like any community around the world during a war, Syrians are connected and talk to each other. Jordan and Lebanon are overflowing with refugees and have a higher cost of living. Rent can be up to two-thirds cheaper in Egyptian cities like 6th of October, Demietta and Alexandria.
That said, no explanation is complete without throwing in the human factor. Word on the streets of Syria says Egyptians had been sympathetic to the plight of refugees, and have been treating them well.
But as the number of refugees grows, the picture isn’t always rosy. Syrian refugees’ challenges include paying rent, sending their kids to school and finding work. But the Egyptian media, and hence public interest, seem to be fixated on only one issue that has eclipsed all of their needs: early marriages between refugees and Egyptians. Many fear they’re slowly being stigmatized.
Egypt’s “obsession with this issue is terrible,” said Nahla, who fled from Damascus less than a month before we spoke, and whom I met in Tadamun, a community center run by Syrian volunteers to help Syrians, which is funded in part by UNHCR. “It stigmatizes us more, because Egyptians may think that [marriage] is the only objective Syrian women have here, and we feel that Egyptians only look through that lens.”
“So instead of integrating into the society, we feel compelled to withdraw into our shell,” echoed her Syrian friend Noha. “It isolates us. We are already doing something about it.”
The two said they’d been organizing themselves with other Syrian women and talking to the refugee women about their rights and options so that they do not feel that marrying an Egyptian is the be-all and end-all. There is no doubt in their mind that some Syrian women, including very young ones, have been getting married to Egyptians, partially as a way out of their economic misery. Some have even joined polygamist families.
“It is the former group that we are trying hard to find before it is too late,” a colleague told me. “It’s not exactly easy. Syrians have just started to feel more comfortable in approaching us for registration, so we are just about starting to get to know them and their problem. Plus if there were exploitation undertones to those marriages, they would not come forward to report it.”
Our work with Syrian refugees is just beginning in Egypt. And while this country’s generosity is cause for respite, it cannot be taken for granted. Syrians and their Egyptian hosts will need to be helped to keep solidarity alive.
Note: All names of refugees have been changed to protect their identity. The views expressed in this article are my own, and do not necessarily represent the position of UNHCR.