Syrian refugees in Egypt have their success stories
CAIRO - “When you apply for a job ten years from now do not be surprised to discover that most employers are Syrians,” an Egyptian activist wrote on his Facebook page.
While writing the note perhaps he did not seem to be fully aware that Syrians are already taking the Egyptian market by storm.
Hundreds of thousands of Syrians flocked to Egypt in the past four years, fleeing death and destruction at home. In this country of more than 80 million, some of the refugees are not standing idle and waiting for aid from humanitarian organisations or charity from Egyptian donors. They are doing business, with more than a few of them major successes.
Rakan Abul-Kheir, a 52-year-old Syrian, arrived in Egypt three and a half years ago after his cars were stolen by Syrian police and his house in Homs destroyed by barrel bombs dropped by regime fighter jets.
“I saw death with my bare eyes,” Abul-Kheir said. “I had to leave and start from scratch somewhere else.”
He opened a clothes shop in 6th October, a sprawling new residential area in south-western Cairo and then a second store where he sells Syrian food such as salty olives, olive oil, spices, coffee, sweets and cheese.
Unlike most countries harbouring Syrian refugees, Egypt did not confine them in camps at the border. They were, instead, allowed to live in Egyptian cities and open businesses quickly, despite the malaise generated by the fact that they were taking away from the Egyptians part of their subsidised commodities and enjoying free services, including education and health care.
Out of the estimated 300,000 Syrian refugees in Egypt, 134,329 received aid from the United Nations, according to the UN refugee agency in Cairo.
“Egypt is a country that has its own problems and the Syrians who have come here do not want to place additional burdens on the government,” said Tayseer al-Naggar, the head of the Syrian Refugees Union, one of many refugee associations formed in Egypt in the past four years.
“By their very nature, Syrians like to work and create their own business model,” Naggar explained.
Abul-Kheir is a vivid example of an entrepreneur refugee.
He sells all types of ready-made wear at lower prices than most Egyptian markets. Some of the items, which he imports from China and Turkey, are upgraded by Syrian housewives living in the same neighbourhood with ornaments and patterns, thus increasing their value.
Abul-Kheir employs 65 Egyptians and Syrians in his two shops and delegates some of the work to Syrian women in the neighbourhood.
“Egypt is a huge market where business success is almost certain for anybody who wants to work hard,” he said.
Not far away from Abul-Kheir’s clothes shop, the successes of other Syrian refugees turned business owners are evident. Syrian restaurants and shops seem to be winning the day, eclipsing their Egyptian competitors.
A Syrian restaurant that serves shawarma — a Levantine specialty of grilled meat, rice, chicken — and pizza, is becoming more popular than an Egyptian one that serves almost the same food just a few metres away.
“It is true that we sell the same thing but we put extra effort in order to make our food more delicious, attractive and satisfactory,” the owner of the Syrian shop said. “I am sure Egyptian shops do not apply the standards we apply here.”
There is no credible data about the amount of capital transferred to Egypt from Syria following the eruption of the civil war but some Syrian business leaders say their countrymen brought tens of billions of dollars with them in the last four years. Abul-Kheir had $2 million in his possession when he relocated to Egypt.
Salah Gouda, the head of local think-tank the Economic Research Centre, expressed hopes that more Syrian businessmen like Abul-Kheir would move to Egypt.
He said Syria’s top businessmen have turned to Turkey and Jordan rather than to Egypt in the aftermath of the war.
“They should have come here,” Gouda said, blaming what he described as “government red tape” for the loss of “huge” Syrian investments.
He suggested the creation of more partnerships between Syrian and Egyptian businessmen, arguing that such joint ventures would benefit Egypt, given the Syrians’ vast expertise in a number of industries, including textiles.
This is not to say that the Syrians’ presence in Egypt is all about business and financial profits. It has been about suffering as well, especially when it comes to the tens of thousands of refugees who did not have capital to start businesses.
Two years ago, Syrians started to fall from grace with most Egyptians when refugees openly expressed backing for ousted Islamist president Muhammad Morsi, who was removed from office in July 2013 following protests against his government and the Muslim Brotherhood.
This had negative effects on apolitical Syrians, who became the target of hate campaigns that called for their repatriation.
In recent months, more than 9,000 Syrian refugees who were registered with the UN refugee office received yet another blow when the agency removed their names from its aid lists. Syrians registered with the agency received 200 Egyptian pounds (roughly $26) in aid every month; a little amount, but still vital in the absence of any other type of support.
Naggar warned that the UN measure left many refugees in the cold.
“Deprived of UN aid, these people are in bad need for support from other agencies, be they local or international,” Naggar said.