Written for Al Jazeera
Sixth of October City, Egypt – Salem, the owner of a small market in this Cairo suburb, knows all the Syrian refugees living in a neighbourhood that has come to be known as “Little Damascus”. He wears a “Free Syria” bracelet like many other Syrians in this area. “You see that guy over there? His brother went to Italy by boat two weeks ago. He arrived safely and now he wants to go too,” whispered Salem, who asked that his real name not be used in this article.
There are 128,158 Syrians registered as living in Egypt, but according to Salem, lots of them began leaving three months ago, after the overthrow of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. Last week, Salem said, around 50 people from Sixth of October City made the journey to Sicily, via the Egyptian coastal city of Alexandria. Because it is difficult for most Syrians to get a visa to European Union countries, there is no option but to travel there illegally.
According to Salem, hundreds of Syrians in Little Damascus have made arrangements to leave on smugglers’ boats in the past few months. “Almost everybody thinks about leaving Egypt. Syrians are really fed up with the situation after Morsi’s ouster,” he explained. “They don’t get any help, prices are rising and the Egyptian media is blaming Syrians for basically everything that went wrong in this country.”
Sweden is among the most popular destinations for Syrians leaving Egypt. On September 2, the Swedish Migration Board announced that Syrian asylum seekers would be granted permanent residence, a status that allows refugees to live and work under the same conditions as other Swedish residents and also permits family reunifications. Sweden has said it will grant asylum to all Syrians who apply – which has boosted the number of refugees trying to make it there.
But there is a catch: After their arrival in Sweden, the asylum centre takes refugees’ fingerprints to see whether they have already been registered in other European countries. If they are, they could be sent back, as European law dictates that refugees must register in the country in which they first arrive.
Thirty-eight-year-old Merwa, while buying groceries at Salem’s shop, said she was upset that she can no longer register her children in a private school in Sixth of October City. “When Morsi was still here, it was for free,” she complained. “We also got aid money and food from the Muslim Brotherhood organisations. Now, instead of getting help, Egyptians are hostile towards us. We feel humiliated.”
Two months ago, she said goodbye to her sons, aged 12 and 22. They went to the port city of Alexandria, after they found a smuggler willing to bring them and other Syrians to Sicily. After her children arrived, they travelled to the Swedish capital and applied for asylum.
The trip cost $3,000 dollars per person, a family’s life savings for an uncertain chance at a better life. When asked whether she thought it was a safe trip, Merwa looks ashamed. “To be honest, I didn’t know that it was that horrible until news channels started reporting about people who died during the trip. But still, I’m happy that I sent them away. It’s better to go there than to stay here. Sweden sounds like a nice place where they can get a good education. In Egypt, my sons didn’t have a future.”
Merwa, a Syrian with Palestinian roots, left Syria more than one year ago to flee the civil war. Her husband had heard positive stories about Egypt – that Morsi was good for Syrian refugees and that entry visas were not needed. She said she was happy in Egypt until Morsi was ousted. “General el-Sisi reminds me of Bashar al-Assad and his father,” said Merwa. “Back in Syria, we grew up with the idea that Assad was a saint, too.”
Syrian asylum seekers under the age of 18 in Sweden can be reunited with their family members, Merwa said, so she expects that the rest of her family will leave soon.
When Merwa is done talking, she whispers something to Salem, buys vegetables and leaves the shop immediately. “She told me that her husband arrived in Sweden two months ago, but that she cannot go there. Being reunited with family members only counts when there are children involved,” he explained.
Before the ousting of Morsi, who had an open door policy for refugees from Syria, Syrians said they felt safe and protected in October City. However, following Morsi’s removal, their situation turned for the worse when some public figures and parts of the mainstream media started accusing Syrians of being supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and taking part in pro-Morsi demonstrations, Amnesty International reported.
On July 15, talk-show host Tawfiq Okasha said, “In the name of the Egyptian people, I tell all Syrians living in Egypt a 48-hour ultimatum. The Egyptian people have all the addresses where you live … If you sit with the Muslim Brotherhood after 48 hours, the people will come out to destroy your houses. Your addresses are all there.”
Nader G Attar, the Egyptian co-founder of Refugees Solidarity Movement, told Al Jazeera that Egyptian television stations often carry xenophobic rhetoric against Syrians and Palestinians. “Because of this, Syrian refugees are willing to take higher risks, like leaving on smugglers’ boats,” Nader said. “However, they also leave because of the poor economic situation in Egypt and their prospects. Syrians now realise that the war isn’t going to be over soon, and that it will be better to be a refugee in the West than in the Middle East.”
These attitudes aren’t universal, though. For instance, Mohammed, an Egyptian living in Sixth of October City who declined to give his last name, said he is very pleased with the arrival of Syrian refugees in his neighbourhood. “Syrians are polite, work hard and are friendly. No, I don’t have any problems with them. They lighten up this country with their presence,” he told Al Jazeera.
“I’m going to Alexandria tonight,” says 35-year-old Ibrahim. “So I’m in a hurry to catch the bus.” He walks quickly, carrying a big bag on his shoulders, with his two little children beside him.
Ibrahim declines to say when his boat will leave, fearing he could still be arrested by the Egyptian Navy in Alexandria. Egypt has reportedly detained more than 1,500 refugees from Syria, including children, for weeks and sometimes months. The detained refugees had tried to migrate to Europe on smugglers’ boats, Human Rights Watch reported on November 11.
Ibrahim worries the boat will sink, but he sees no other option. He has visa problems in Egypt, and returning to Syria is not an option. His house was destroyed, and all of his family members left the country months ago. “I heard that half of the boats contain little children and that they put 250 people on a small boat which can only carry 100 people. So that’s why I’m nervous. I just hope we will reach the shore. After that, everything will be fine.”
He grabs his children by the hand, smiles, and says goodbye to his friends in “Little Damascus” for the last time. From the entrance of his little grocery shop, Salem salutes him.
“He is lucky that he can leave Egypt,” says Salem. “The weather is getting worse, so I guess going to Italy by boat soon isn’t an option anymore.”