“The kids keep asking me why we left home.We were being attacked there, and we are being attacked here.”

The narrow, uneven streets of Cairo’s Ain Shams neighbourhood are home to stray dogs and cats, goats and little children supporting their families by selling tissues to strangers. No other corner of this 20 million resident metropolis portrays the ongoing poverty problem in Egypt better than the streets in the Northern District.

The northern “shaaby” areas of Cairo gained prominence during the 2011 uprising when the Muslim Brotherhood, which is headquartered in Cairo’s north, seized power in Egypt. Today, after the 2013 military coup sent the Muslim Brotherhood to the gallows and designated it a terrorist group, the surrounding neighborhoods are avoided by most of the population. Within this island of urban isolation lies the suburb Ain Shames – peopled by those who have few possessions, hardly venture to other parts of the city and struggle to make ends meet.

Since late 2011, Adnan Ahmadi and his family have rented a modest flat with three rooms in this area: one serves as a kitchen, one as a living-room and another as a bedroom for his wife, himself and their three children.

He and his family share a lot with the inhabitants of Ain Shams, but there is one difference. They are  refugees who fled to Egypt as their hometown of Aleppo in Syria was set aflame. Their heritage means poverty is not the biggest problem they face.

In Cairo, families have settled in cemeteries and garbage-collecting neighborhoods to secure a roof over their head.[Credit: A. Ramsis]

In Cairo, families have settled in cemeteries and garbage-collecting neighborhoods to secure a roof over their head. [Credit: A. Ramsis]

The discrimination of Syrians has impaired Adnan’s family more than his physical ailments and mental scars. The terror of escaping Syria while it was raining bombs, leaving his entire existence behind and the physical trauma from the escape robs him of sleep along with the anguish of being alienated and accused of being an intruder, or worse, a terrorist.

“Many people believe that Syrians are Muslim Brothers,” said Adnan, explaining why Syrian refugees are often not integrated into Egyptian society despite their similiar race and religions.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the former political party of Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi – who succeeded Hosni Mubarak as Egypt’s leader after the 2011 Revolution, but was deposed in a military coup in 2013 – once embraced Syria’s migrants, claiming that their shared faith made them brothers. This rhetoric made Adnan believe that he could find a fresh start in Egypt.

Now, in 2016, Adnan’s general lack of necessities is making his life in Ain Shams almost impossible. An income large enough to support his family and legal assistance have become luxury goods. To the kids the difference between explosions and struggling to survive in a harsh community without any help doesn’t seem as drastic as one may imagine.

“The kids keep asking me why we left home. We were being attacked there, and we are being attacked here.”

What is going wrong?

Egypt does not have a government body assigned to dealing with refugee matters. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) almost entirely regulates the documentation and resettlement of the refugees Egypt is facing at each of its borders. Although all of the 120,000 Syrian refugees living in Egypt (as of December 2015) are accounted for and under UNHCR assistance, a funding cap is preventing the integration of many of them into Egyptian society.

The Ahmadis, like many other refugees, depend on UNHCR food stamps and the goodwill of other people to survive. However funds are shrinking. Recently the allowance allowing Adnan to pick up yoghurt, bread and some cheese at the local grocery shop was cut down from 200 Egyptian pounds to 120, the equivalent of 15 dollars, per head per month.

Such bad living conditions make refugees in Egypt prone to exploitation. A minimum wage of approximately 120 dollars exists in Egypt, however, over 80% of the national workforce is denied access to it. In Cairo, families have settled in cemeteries and garbage-collecting neighborhoods to secure a roof over their head, as opposed to no roof at all.

Most detrimental to Adnan’s life, however, is his inability to earn a living wage. Even before he left Syria, this former laborer was suffering from severe back pains. Upon his arrival to Egypt in 2012, UNHCR assisted him in getting surgery in a local hospital.

However, the public health sector in Egypt – infamous for its poor service – left Adnan’s lower back with  complications. Paralysed and unable to communicate after the botched surgery, his new life in Egypt was off to a bad start.

Since then, Adnan was able to get another surgery, partially financed by the UN Refugee Agency, which restored his ability to walk and talk. He remains unable to work though and has now falled in debt because the second essential surgery was not covered by health insurance. Adnan must rely on his wife and two eldest sons to provide for the family by sewing or cleaning for neighbors.

It was while seeking employment to contribute to the family’s survival that Adnan’s eldest son, 12-year-old Sayid, suffered a trauma that left him, too, unable to work. Bullied for being different in school and on the streets, Sayid returned home one day with blood rushing from his ear. Strangers had beaten him up. His ear needed stiches.

Not every Syrian child has been able to find a place at a state school, due to many of them being overcrowded and understaffed. Discrimination against Syrians in school and society is the sad reality for the children. His wife, Maya, experiences it too and goes as far as trying not to talk to anyone to prevent her family from being the target of even more hatred.

Even in Syria the Ahmadis kept a low profile, trying to live their lives in peace: “We didn’t have much, but we didn’t need much either,” Adnan said of his life in Syria.

“I never wanted to leave, but unfortunately the day came where I could not guarantee my children to survive another day. We had to go, but there were few options.”

Discrimination against Syrians in school and society is the sad reality for the children [Credit: A. Ramsis]

Discrimination against Syrians in school and society is the sad reality for the children [Credit: A. Ramsis]

Fleeing their home in Syria

The rhetoric of former Egyptian President Morsi had made Adnan chose Egypt. In opposition to Syrian leader Assad, Morsi granted Syrians entry to Egypt with their passports. This stance was quickly abandoned as soon as the Muslim Brothers were ousted from power.

The day Morsi himself lost his power, Adnan had just arrived in Cairo and the fear of having to flee from another civil war shook him to his core. Access to health services and schools became increasingly hard for the Syrian population. But he stayed put: “I could not have done it again. I would not survive another flight.”

Adnan recalled of the day his family distributed all their belongings into two backpacks and fled their home.

“The day we escaped from Syria, the sky was on fire. We had hired a smuggler to take us to the Turkish border in a convoy. There were explosions near and far, and the car in front of us carrying a family from our village lit up in flames in front of us.”

Their car did not stop. For anything.

Once the Ahmadis arrived at the Turkish border the wait for a boat to take them to Egypt began. In three days of waiting, Adnan and his family did not have access to food and drink. When the 28-hour journey across the Mediterranean finally set off Maya remembers the children being unable to stop vomiting and crying until their boat had reached Port Said on the North Coast of Egypt.

“We were promised by the smugglers that someone would expect us in Port Said, assist us with finding homes and jobs,” Adnan said. But nobody was waiting for them.

Looking towards a brighter future

Egypt’s Coast Guard, unable to efficiently handle the influx of new refugees, or the increasing number of dead bodies washing up on shore, often arrested new arrivals – creating an administrative nightmare due to the inability to send the prisoners back.

Adnan left his family in Port Said while he tried to find shelter for them in Cairo. The country’s capital seemed to promise the best chances for finding employment. All of his savings had already been spent on the journey. After five days Adnan returned to Port Said to bring his family to their new house which, it turned out, wouldn’t be their home for long.

“I haven’t been able to pay rent many times,” Adnan confessed. His family and him were evicted twice and Adnan felt ashamed by how this chance for him to be save had ended up a “nightmare”. Another address was not in the cards.

“Of course, I wish I had had the funds to go to Europe. The Europeans are good to animals, I can only imagine how good they would be to us.”

Adnan has ongoing plans to one day leave Egypt, its harsh environment and the discrimination against his people behind.

“All I ever wanted for my family was security,” the father said, knowing that his home of Syria could no longer provide that for him. In an effort to remain peaceful, Adnan supported Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad.

“I don’t care who leads the country, I just want peace.”

To the prospect of Daesh taking control of the country and providing peace, Adnan shakes his head: “There is no such thing as peace with Daesh”!

Adnan has a small TV in his living room. Sometimes he sees pictures of his fellow countrymen arriving in Europe. Adnan dreams of going to Germany. His prayers every day are dedicated to his hopes of one day embarking on another journey – this time on a plane – where his sons “could become engineers”. For now though, he can only watch and hope.