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.
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.”
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.
But Dessalegne, who was himself once a refugee from Ethiopia, expressed frustration with the demands of the demonstrators that Wednesday in front of his office. “These are unrealistic demands. We don’t pay refugee salaries. People have to take initiative. No one has said the refugee life is easy,” he said, noting that life is quite hard for many Egyptians too. “We can’t do everything for everyone.”
And he maintained that the protesters’ other demand, the resumption of the status interviews, would have little real effect on the lives of the refugees.
Refugees everywhere face the difficulty of convincing those who could help them that their stories are real, that they’re fleeing not in search of greener pastures but because they’re in physical danger back home. Advocates here say it is sometimes difficult to corroborate the refugees’ tales of hardship in Sudan. They say that stories seen as successful in winning resettlement in the U.S., for example, might be repeated by other refugees. But with practice, they say, detecting fabricated stories grows easy.
The U.N. refugee agency sets the threshold highest for the outcome most prized by the asylum seekers: the chance for resettlement abroad, mostly to Canada, the U.S., or Australia. Of the 21,000 refugees the U.N. counted here last year—from Sudan and elsewhere—only 4,000 won this privilege. For now, the Sudanese refugees have been afforded “local protection” by UNHCR, which means that regardless of their status, there is no chance they’ll be deported unless they commit a crime. The moratorium on new interviews, said Dessalegne, was a result of the cease-fire between Sudan’s southern rebels and the government in Khartoum. He said the suspension had nothing to do with financial resources in his office.
The change is also thought to be the result of a new treaty between Sudan and Egypt, referred to as the “Four Freedoms” agreement, which gives Sudanese and Egyptian citizens the right to work, own property, and live in the two countries, as well as move between them. The aim of that treaty, as of the efforts of the U.N. office here, is self-sufficiency and integration for the refugees.
“I think [self-sufficiency] is a message the U.N. is trying to get across,” said Perveen Ali, the program director of AMERA, a Cairo refugee legal aid organization. “It’s an interesting dilemma. Refugees don’t have economic, social, and cultural rights. If you want them to integrate, society needs to accept them.” Ali said she had heard of refugees wishing that Cairo had refugee camps, so at least they might count on food.
Adam and Nourredine, the friends from Darfur, would agree to be interviewed only in the safety of the courtyard of a Cairo church. They preferred not to use their last names. Adam was especially hard to convince, and at one point disappeared for several hours before returning with Nourredine. “It’s hard to talk about these things,” he admitted. “I didn’t want to relive the sadness.” Cairo, they both said, felt secure, despite the fact that the two have had trouble finding work; when they did, the days stretched for 12 hours. Or they would find and sell scrap metal, which fetches about 16 cents a kilo. The two said they hadn’t yet been interviewed by the UNHCR office, and would have to wait until after the suspension ends in December.
As they sat at the church, they ran into another friend from Darfur, also a classmate from primary school, and the three spent a few happy moments catching up. “People like America in Darfur,” said Nourredine. Ronald Reagan, he noted, was held in especially high esteem, because of his administration’s aid to the region during a drought in 1984. Nourredine said the local millet is called “Ash Reagan,” and said that most people in Darfur would be sad to learn that the former president died recently.
In a reduced telling of the knotty conflict in Darfur, Adam is an “African,” from one of the Fur tribes in that region, and Nourredine is an “Arab.” While the roots of conflict in Darfur are seen to be economic and political, there is an ethnic dimension, with the many indigenous tribes from the region of western Sudan and Chad pitted against other Sudanese who, for a variety of reasons, identify as Arab. In Egypt, Sudan’s ethnic conflict has a parallel, and those who consider themselves African fear that U.N. officials, especially those who are Arab, aren’t sympathetic to their claims of being targeted based on their ethnicity.
A U.N. spokesperson called the charge “nonsense,” and said the interview process contains a series of checks and balances, including an appeal system, that guarantees fairness. The spokesperson added that accusations of discrimination are looked into.
Both Adam and Nourredine, though, reject the classifications of “African” and “Arab,” calling them impossible in a mixed city like Nyala. “There’s no difference between us,” said Adam. Nourredine said that Arab or not, he demonstrated against the conflict in Darfur, and that activism is the reason he now lives in Cairo. He said he has no regrets.
“I demonstrated because it is wrong,” he said.
On a humid day in late August, not long after the violence at the demonstration, two dozen Sudanese refugees sat in the Mata’am Sudan, a café on the second floor of a dilapidated building off a town square in the neighborhood of El-Hay El-Asher. Some talked about their new lives in Cairo. Others watched television. It was mid afternoon, and no one there had worked for more than a few days that month. They had come from all over Sudan. Some had fled armed conflict in the south and in Darfur. Some had just come to Egypt looking for work.
One man talked about the taunts he received from Egyptians. “We get hassled when we go downtown,” he said. “They call us ‘black monkey’ or ‘slave.’ It feels terrible, but I don’t reply.”
Yaqoub Ismail sat at the back of the café, underneath a rumpled poster of a bodybuilder, a blue Alanis Morissette T-shirt hanging on his tall, thin frame. He looked impatient with the unending tales of woe. “The way to learn about this situation is to visit these families in their homes,” he said, and offered that a trip to the neighborhood called Kilo Arba wa Nuss—which means Kilometer Four and a Half—might provide such a glimpse.
Arba wa Nuss is one of the many Cairo environs that have sprung up informally to act as a kind of sponge, soaking up the human tide. The poor neighborhood is a loose collection of half-constructed, unpainted red-brick buildings, linked by dirt roads strewn with garbage. Ismail led the way to a one-story building in the middle of this squalor that housed a school for Sudanese refugees and, though no one admits it, a church. After 20 minutes of tense negotiation with locals, someone arranged a heavily chaperoned visit to the single-room apartment where a woman named Anjima lives with her four kids. The chaperones kept answering questions for her, but Anjima did say that she had left her husband in Sudan, and that he had no idea he had a son, David, Anjima’s youngest. She complained that the local kids harassed her children and, like all her Sudanese neighbors, said there was barely enough money to live on, though she did receive help from a local NGO.
Then a Sudanese neighbor appeared at Anjima’s window, started yelling at her visitors, and told her to stop talking to them. The entourage lost interest after that, and Kamilo Dau opened up his home, on the top floor of a better cared-for building. Many of the lower floors had been painted and had solid doors. Dau and his wife had two rooms, and the landlord had offered them the use of an unfinished patio across the hall for storage.
Dau left Sudan on the cusp of his mandatory army service, sick at the thought he would have to fight in Sudan’s south, where his family still lived. “Fight? Fight whom? Fight [people] with the same color?” he asked. The UNHCR office rejected his request for refugee status, and he was supposed to hear the results of his appeal on the day of the demonstration. He said his wife had also been harassed by Egyptians in the neighborhood.
“The verbal harassment seems to be normal. I’ve heard about this so many times,” said Father Claudio Lurati, a pastor at the Sacred Heart Church in Cairo. Sacred Heart has a large Sudanese congregation and a school that caters to the refugees. The church also manages the school in Arba wa Nuss. “The Sudanese are black. This seems to make some difference here.” On the other side, he said, the refugees act in ways that Egyptians consider inappropriate. “Getting drunk and walking in the street really disturbs people. Also, some of the women sometimes dress a bit loosely.”
Lurati said the drinking was becoming such a problem that he moved services at the church for the Sudanese from Saturday night to Sunday morning, to keep the neighbors from complaining. His church provides a bag of food to 350 Sudanese families every two weeks. “There’s some work. The women can find work,” the priest said, echoing the familiar mantra here of self-reliance. “If they try hard, their life will be better.” Besides, he added, returning to Sudan means going back to nothing.
“It means admitting to failure.”
The hallway of death
Yaqoub Ismail badly wants to thank the nurse who helped him escape Sudan.
“I think her name was Mona,” he said, a week after the visit to Arba wa Nuss, as he sipped mango juice in the Wadi El Nile café, across the street from the Egyptian Museum.
Ismail is 24 and speaks heavily accented but almost perfect English. The son of a catechist, Ismail studied for a few years at seminary, intending to become a priest. In 2000, he was assigned to a parish in the Nuba Mountains, near a camp for refugees displaced by the war in the south. It was Christmas when Sudanese authorities arrested him, claiming that the presents he was delivering to the refugees were aid to the rebels and that he had used his Kodak camera to photograph military installations.
“They also thought I was converting Muslims,” he said, insisting that he wasn’t. “I didn’t have time for that.” Officials processed the film from the Kodak, and found nothing, but it didn’t matter. Now they just wanted names.
Ismail was detained for a month, he said, and beaten many times. “They used to call it ‘the airplane,’ he recalled. “My hands and feet were tied with ropes, behind me. Then they hung me from the ceiling.” At the end of the month, he wound up in a hospital. A guard was posted outside his door.
“I spent three or four days there, and I started to feel better. There was a lady, she was my nurse. She was very beautiful. She came and asked who I was. Was the man outside my door a relative? I wanted to be frank with her, but I feared everyone.” The nurse brought him milk, and after Ismail had recovered some strength, she told the guard she needed to take her patient to the lab for tests. They spoke there for half an hour, and she agreed to help. She showed him a staircase that led to the doctors’ cafeteria, where he could make his escape.
Late one night, when his guard went on a break, she turned out the lights on the staircase, and Ismail left. He went to Khartoum and stayed with a friend, who found him a passport. In April 2001, he hopped a steamer to the Egyptian city of Aswan. Since escaping, Ismail has worked in Alexandria as a shepherd and a farmer, and on the salt flats of a town called Damietta. The last two months have been hard, and work has been scarce, but he takes this in stride, accepting it as part of his lot.
“I’m not proud to be refugee. It’s not a social status one should be proud of. We need to know what it means, and we need to endure it.” Besides, he said, he feels safe in Cairo.
“It’s as if I was in the hallway of death, and then I came out.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 7, 2004