Escape From Sudan

In Egypt, Africans fleeing a genocide find protection, and little else

 CAIRO, EGYPT—Two old friends in Sudan fled for their lives this spring, separately, each powerless to aid the other's migration north to Egypt, where they both sought refuge.

Adam left first, escaping Nyala, in southern Darfur, last April. Before he left, he said, he witnessed members of the government-supported Arab militias, called the Janjaweed, surround a village of Sudanese north of Nyala on their horses and set fire to the residents' straw huts, razing the place. Then he learned that Janjaweed fighters had killed his 31-year-old sister in the town of Kutum, in northern Darfur. Adam told his mother it was time for the family to go, so she gave him a gold necklace, currency for his journey. As his relatives headed west, for the refugee camps across the border in Chad, Adam sold his gold and bought a passport and his passage to Egypt.

Nourredine, Adam's friend since primary school, left Khartoum after his protesting of the conflict in Darfur caught the attention of Sudanese authorities. They had detained him twice, suspecting he was aiding rebels in Darfur, where he is from. After his second spell in prison without food and water, he said, friends in the student union at his university helped him secure a passport and an exit visa. He reached Cairo in June.

Anjima, a Sudanese refugee, lives in a one-room apartment in the Cairo neighborhood of Arba wa Nuss. She says local kids harass her four children.
photo: Kareem Fahim
Anjima, a Sudanese refugee, lives in a one-room apartment in the Cairo neighborhood of Arba wa Nuss. She says local kids harass her four children.

Adam and Nourredine, both 27 and now roommates, have joined the thousands of African refugees propelled by wars, economic misery, and politics to Cairo, a teeming metropolis with room for no more. Here, the Africans—the vast majority Sudanese, but many also from Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia—cling desperately to an existence with the rest of the sizable Egyptian underclass, their group distinct as a pitiful subset that carries the burden of race on top of an already hefty freight. The refugees find work in the "gray market," as housekeepers, construction workers, and nannies, or sell cigarettes and chintzy timepieces by the side of the road.

The United States has been slow to react to the trouble in Sudan, but last week U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told the Senate that what was happening there amounted to genocide. In a sign that the situation can no longer be ignored by the broader world, Sudanese refugees in August rioted outside the Cairo offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), demanding financial assistance, intervention in Darfur, and an end to the six-month moratorium on status interviews imposed last June only on refugees from Sudan. The violence that day shocked local authorities and Sudanese community leaders, who blamed manipulation by local opportunists, or perhaps government agents from Sudan.

It's still not clear what transpired, and some claim the demonstrators started the fray, throwing rocks in anger at the riot police and the U.N. building; others say Egyptian authorities may have reacted too quickly to the tension, firing tear gas into the crowd and bringing on the rock throwing. And while everyone seems to agree that the events almost certainly set back the cause of the refugees, there is an understanding here that a genuine frustration smoldered underneath the fighting.

For now, the asylum seekers are no longer allowed to approach the U.N. offices, and instead they stand or sit under trees, penned in the lawn of a nearby square where they make their daily claims when the U.N. officials appear. The square and a street leading to the U.N. office are surrounded by a cordon of government security. Last week, Osman Saad, a young Sudanese man who wore a green-striped shirt, jeans, and open-toed sandals, approached this reporter on the lawn, asking for help proofreading an application a friend had filled out for him.

It was a request to be repatriated to Sudan. "I can no longer afford my daily bread," the friend had written, in a slanted but legible blue scrawl. "If I stay I will die here."

The agency

There are officially over 15,000 Sudanese refugees in Egypt, making them by far the largest African refugee population in the country. That figure doesn't include asylum seekers who have been refused refugee status by the U.N., called "closed files," or those too afraid to approach the offices. Unofficially, the number is thought to be at least double that figure, and probably much higher. There are also thought to be several million Sudanese who have simply settled in Egypt.

Legally, registered refugees can work here, and are entitled to some modest financial assistance. Asylum seekers with closed files can't work, but in reality, the prohibition makes little difference. Unemployment in Egypt unofficially hovers in the high teens, and refugees stand at the end of the line for what few jobs are available. There is little access for the refugees to medical care and education, and nonprofit organizations and churches are forced to fill in the gaps.

"Refugees have the right to work," said Damtew Dessalegne, a senior official in UNHCR's Cairo office. "Whether they are able to find work is something else. But the vast majority of refugees do find work in Egypt." Dessalegne admits that because of various bureaucratic complexities, most of these jobs are found in the black market. And he said that education for the refugees remains a problem, principally because of the lack of room for them in Egyptian schools.

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