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Syrian refugees in Egypt: Escaping war, meeting hardship

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Syrian refugees in Egypt: Escaping war, meeting hardship

Scarce housing and unemployment are two major problems Syrian refugee families face in Egypt. Ahram Online investigates how those who fled the Assad nightmare cope and who is attempting to provide some support.

According to the UN refugees agency, not less than a quarter of a million Syrians have fled the country since the start of the revolution in March 2011, increasing month after month, creating a major crisis.

While the focus has been on the suffering of Syrian refugees in Jordan and Turkey as well in Lebanon, in Egypt a growing community of Syrian refugees increased rapidly in a country that seems to be safer than others in terms of ethnic and geographic conditions.

In the satellite city of 6th of October, located on the outskirts of the Giza governorate, Ahram Online took a closer look the Syrian refugee community, their status, and spoke to its members about the challenges they face.

Tough experience

Laying in a bed all day long, Bassel, 22, lives with his mother in their small apartment. Bassel was shot by El-Assad regime snipers in Homs, at the ill-fated Bab El-Saab, while he was in a car thinking it would be much safer than walking.

He was shot in the back and was paralysed. He came to Cairo in mid-July 2012 along with his elderly mother and uncle who have been looking after him ever since.

"I got injured in February 2012. It was a very hard time, especially when I was being transferred from a field hospital to a hospital in the city by the help of the FSA (the Free Syrian Army)," Bassel told Ahram Online, recounting the story of his injury, adding that he had to lie to security forces on the way to Damascus Airport claiming that he had been paralysed in a car accident two years earlier.

"We had to bribe security after they knew I came from Homs," he said.

"I have to undergo a treatment period of three to six months, to see if there is any advancement that may allow me to have an operation in Germany," said Bassel with hope in his eyes.

Bassel is being looked after by Syrian doctors in Egypt. He has undergone several operations and will have to undergo more, costing him and his family more than LE5000 per month so far. Bassel's uncle is trying to find a job in Egypt in order to provide for his sister and her young paralysed son.

Ahram Online also met Nour, the first baby to be born in the Syrian refugee community. The youngest member in a considerable family, the newborn has four older brothers and lives with her parents and her ill grandmother in a building rented by donations.

Nour's father is concerned with the education of his sons and was relieved to learn of the presidential decision allowing Syrians access to free public education offered to Egyptians. He was lost, however, on where to go when it comes to the required government paperwork.

His wife, Um Nour, is also concerned and says: "I want them to go to school. In Syria, before we came, they did not see the street as they were always occupied playing with Playstation and studying, but now they are playing in the street," adding that it is unfair they did not go to school last year.

"The eldest one of them is 12 years old and the youngest is five years old," Um Nour said while carrying her newborn baby surrounded with her sons in the threadbare apartment.

Nour's family, who arrived to Egypt four months ago, had at first to share the apartment with her aunt's family before they were able to move to another home. To get to Egypt the family had to bribe many on their way to Damascus from Homs, costing them dearly in their attempt to escape constant shelling.

"I need to find a job. I cannot stay like this," said Nour's father who used to work as a house painter in Homs. Finding a job is a challenge to the many Syrian refugees stranded now in a country that already suffers from high unemployment.

Nour's grandmother, an old lady in her 70s, also complained to Ahram Online that she suffers from diabetes, which is costing the family even more. Young Syrian doctors check on her from time to time, monitoring her blood sugar level and her eyesight.

Estimated numbers

Before the Syrian revolution erupted, UNHCR (UN High Commissioner on Refugees) had registered 1697 Syrians seeking asylum in Egypt. The agency estimates that the number now is nearly 10 times higher.

Estimating by the immigration records, the number of Syrians that entered Egypt since March 2011 is 95,000. No official number, however, is available.

Despite the fact that UNHCR does not share its information with third parties, including governments, many refugees refuse to register fearing they will be deported. Thus they are unable to access services allowed to those who have obtained a "yellow card" proving their refugee status, including education and health services similar to those accessed by Egyptians.

As a result, the UN agency has started working with Syrian activists in Egypt, reaching out to refugees communities. This work, however, is made difficult by the spread of the Syrian refugee population across several distant Egyptian governorates, including Cairo, Alexandria, Giza, Mansoura, Bani Soueif and even Sharm El-Sheikh.

Another body providing aid to Syrian refugees is the Humanitarian Relief Committee of the Doctors' Syndicate, which estimated in late August 2012 that around 1400 refugee families were residing in Egypt.

Role of NGOs

Besides the Humanitarian Relief Committee, two main charity NGOs in Egypt are currently working with Syrian refugees: El-Gamiyaa El-Sharyah and the Family House NGO.

El-Gamiyya El-Sharyeh, a Salafist charity organisation, is considered one the main sponsors and the biggest by far when it comes to the 1400 refugee families residing in 6th October City

The Salafist charity’s help extends to providing medical care as well as shelter.The NGO rents whole buildings in 6th October for families that need shelter. Branches of the charity all over the country are given orders to help any Syrian refugee who asks for help.

Just like El-Gamiyaa El-Sharyeh, the Family House organisation helps refugees through donations directed to housing, furniture, education and even work.

Syrian activists in Egypt

Members of the Syrian community in Egypt are doing their best when it comes to helping their compatriots facing tough conditions.

"We do not want our own people to be humiliated," Um Farouk, a Syrian activist who preferred to remain anonymous, told Ahram Online. "They have been through a lot of hardships already on their way from Syria to Cairo, searching for good shelter in dignity," she added.

Um Farouk is trying to find a legal way to establish a secular NGO in Egypt to accept donations from Egyptians and Syrians. She is very active online helping refugees as well offline through Egyptian and Syrian friends. "Not all the people in Egypt want to donate to Islamist charities. They would prefer something secular that is open to everybody," she said, in reference to El-Gamiyaa El-Sharyeh and the Islamist Family House NGOs.

Syrian-Egyptian activist Rasha Maati has already founded a small NGO in 6th October along with some of her friends in Egypt. The NGO, "Egypt and Syria Together Till Victory," is officially recognised by the Ministry of Social Solidarity. She hopes that the new NGO through its Facebook page will attract people who want to help Syrian refugees but do not know how.

The NGO aims to solve housing and unemployment problems facing refugee families. The housing problem in particular has gotten worse as more and more families began to flock to Cairo, while rents are also increasing in Egypt.

Meanwhile, Syrian doctors in Egypt formed a partnership with the renowed "Tahrir Doctors" group to provide medical aid, including medicine and medical treatment. The Syrian doctors are building towards opening a 24/7 clinic to help refugees in 6th October

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