Syrian refugees see their future in Egypt
CAIRO - Stability in parts of Syria following the government’s success in recapturing territories from the armed opposition is tempting some Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan to return home.
However, in Egypt, the opinion of many Syrian refugees is: “There is no going back.”
“Why should we?” asked Abu Hussein Ismail, a Syrian restaurant owner in his mid-40s. “We have already settled down and are building a future in this country.”
Like millions of Syrians, Ismail fled violence at home after anti-regime protests degenerated into war in 2011. About 230,000 Syrians are registered with the UN refugee agency in Egypt but unofficial estimates put their number at more than double that.
In Egypt, Syrian refugees do not live in isolated camps but are integrated into society. Many have established businesses and partnerships. Some Syrians had enough money when they arrived in Egypt to start their own business. They are mostly involved in street food projects but others established textile factories and trade companies.
“The Syrians are very smart and skilled and have succeeded in making themselves very popular in the market,” said economist Manal al-Ashri. “They even outrivalled their Egyptian peers in some economic activities.”
The Egyptian government estimates investments Syrians have injected into the economy since the start of the Syrian civil war at $500 million-$1.5 billion. Economists say the real figure could be much higher.
Syrians established colonies in Cairo, the cities on its outskirts and in the Nile Delta. One such large area was set up in 6th of October city, a sprawling conglomeration on the north-western outskirts of Cairo. There Syrians own homes, shops, workshops and restaurants and have built a strong reputation in the food and clothing industries. Most of the shops are named after Syrian cities, such as Damascus, Aleppo and Homs.
Ismail said he had $100,000 when he arrived from Aleppo. He opened a restaurant and worked behind the counter with his five brothers. Three years later, ten people, including chefs, waiters and delivery boys, work at the restaurant, known for Syrian beef and chicken shawarma.
“The market is very good and people are very friendly here,” Ismail said. “My children and other family members are growing accustomed to living in Egypt and want to stay for good.”
People like Ismail pose fierce competition to Egyptians, sometimes beating them out of business. In reaction, the Egyptian government imposed regulations limiting Syrians’ entry, including high fees on entry visas. Residents from Syria must renew their residency permits every six months and families with children enrolled in school once a year.
Those residents, however, benefit from the social and education systems. They study in the same public schools and universities as Egyptians and get free medical treatment in government hospitals.
“One of the reasons the Syrians do not want to return home is that some of them have built their economic empires in a country that is growing accustomed to their presence,” said Arkan Abulkheir, the self-styled head of the Syrian community in Egypt.
Abulkheir opened a small clothes factory that employs dozens of Syrian women, who use sewing machines to manufacture beautifully embroidered traditional Egyptian jellabiyas. The products are displayed in a shop he owns in Cairo.
“Egypt is a haven for many Syrians,” Abulkheir said.
However, it is not glowing prosperity for all. Some refugees suffer tough economic conditions and are merely surviving and others beg on the streets.
The most vulnerable refugees may want to return to Syria but they dread reprisals from the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Men under a certain age say they fear they would be conscripted into the army as soon as they enter Syria.
“You have people who were sentenced to prison in absentia, which means that they will go to jail if they return,” said Galal Abdel Ghani, a 25-year-old Syrian from Homs.
“Our homes were destroyed and along with it our past. It is better to think of the future that we can have here.”