Syrian refugees changed Egypt’s work culture, customer relations

Most of the projects set up by Syrian refugees in Egypt are in restaurants, perfume-making and manufacturing and selling clothes.
Sunday 23/09/2018
A Syrian man work at a Syrian restaurant in 6 October City in Giza. (Reuters)
Traditional delicacies. A Syrian man work at a Syrian restaurant in 6 October City in Giza. (Reuters)

Egypt is capable of absorbing many of the cultural mores of foreigners who settle there. The number and variety of refugees who have flocked to Egypt has made it impossible for Egyptian authorities to set up reception camps for them so they simply melted in the Egyptian pot. Syrian refugees in particular, however, left clear marks on the work ethic and habits of the Egyptian society.

Several waves of Syrian refugees have hit Egyptian shores. As they mingled and settled in Egyptian cities, their influence on the art of hospitality, bargaining and customer treatment became obvious in daily transactions in Egypt. They revived and transformed for the better long-neglected work traditions in business and public administration.

Most of the projects set up by Syrian refugees in Egypt are in restaurants, perfume-making and manufacturing and selling clothes. Specialised artisans have gone into plumbing, carpentry, watch repair, hair care and electric and electronic repair. Egyptian professionals in those fields have felt the heat of the competition created by the Syrian refugees and have bent over backward to keep customers.

Elyas Nader and his extended family fled the Syrian city of Tartus three years ago and settled in Cairo. He and his brothers found no difficulty in opening shawarma restaurants that quickly developed a large base of faithful customers.

Nader said there were many reasons Syrian refugees favoured Egypt as a migration destination. Syrians and Egyptians have much in common in terms of social traditions and behaviour. Many of the cultures of the Middle East have been interwoven through a long history of interactions. The Egyptians, then, were not shocked by the behaviour of Syrian refugees and the latter were not surprised by Egyptian traditions.

There are also the relatively affordable living conditions in Egypt, compared to neighbouring countries. Despite the economic crisis in the country, many goods and services are cheaper than in Jordan, Turkey or Lebanon. A small family can live decently in Egypt on $1,000 a month.

People have noted that Egyptian consumers were the main beneficiaries of changes brought about by the Syrian competition. Customer satisfaction is reigning in Cairo. The Syrian competition was instrumental in reviving work ethic, such as driving for perfection, diligence, respect for deadlines and appointments, accepting small gains, paying attention to details in product presentation or in services provided, creativity and artistry and attending to customer questions and concerns.

Imed Mahmud, an accountant for a food company in the city of 6th of October, south-west of Cairo, said most of the workers and employees in the industrial zone prefer to eat in Syrian restaurants. Indeed, there are dozens of Syrian fast-food restaurants in the industrial zone and their customers have grown accustomed to the excellent service and treatment they get, something they say they had never experienced before.

To attract customers, Syrian restaurants strive to offer delicious and decent meals for affordable prices. That reflects the value of the owners being satisfied with modest profits.

“For a mere 8 Egyptian pounds — half of one US dollar — you can get a really satisfying and delicious sandwich at these restaurants,” said Mahmud. “The Syrians are genuinely interested in answering their customers’ inquiries and in knowing their feedback regarding the food. It’s quite common for the manager of the establishment to ask you whether you liked your food or not and do it with a smile that makes you feel valued as a patron.”

The same intelligent marketing strategies are applied in perfume stores operated by Syrian refugees. Store employees never seem to tire of answering the same questions from customers.

Atef Ismael, a school teacher in al-Muqattam south of Cairo, pointed out the smart marketing strategy of offering free samples to passing customers. “They really take the time to describe the characteristics of each perfume and its origin and the best times for wearing it,” Ismael said.

“They also make enticing offers like ‘Buy two products and get the third one free,’ or ‘Buy for a certain amount and get a free gift for your wife or children.’ Despite the simplicity of these offers, local perfume stores don’t make them. The Syrians are smart and very skilled at enticing customers.”

Many Egyptian perfume stores have started imitating the marketing strategies introduced by the Syrians.

A look at Egypt’s trade history and traditions shows many of the traditions in Egypt were introduced by the various waves of Syrian migrants throughout history. What is happening today in Egypt is a revival of those traditions.

Economic historian Ashraf al-Leithi said Saydanawi, a founder of the modern clothing trade in Egypt, was a migrant from the Levant. He arrived in Egypt about 80 years ago and had introduced the custom of displaying clothes in shop windows. That tradition had been non-existent in Egypt.

Mohamad Kamal, a print shop owner in Giza near Cairo, said: “Syrian designers are the best at what they do. They are punctual and quite creative in designing advertising posters and banners.” He said competition created by the Syrians in the advertising business is pushing other professionals to hone their skills.

With the beginning of the European colonisation of the Middle East during the mid-19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, waves of Levantine refugees and immigrants fled to Egypt. Among them were many people of culture, artists and traders. They coloured the hosting society with their culture and traditions.

Data released from the Cairo office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees state there are about 127,000 registered Syrian refugees in Egypt. Egyptian official sources place the real number of Syrian refugees in Egypt at four times that number.