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In Egypt, Damascus on the Nile

CAIRO – Last year, Omar Haidar arrived in Egypt. As bombs rattled entire neighborhoods, the 26-year old hotel manager fled his family’s village in the hard-hit suburbs of Damascus.

Written by Stephen Kalin Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

After participating in protests, Haidar was arrested by Syrian military security in August 2011. After his release, he went into hiding and nearly a year later escaped to Lebanon, remaining there just three days before continuing on to his final destination – Cairo.

Sectarian violence in Lebanon has driven Syrians like Haidar to abandon Syria’s volatile neighbor for the dusty streets of the Egyptian capitol. “Omar means Sunni, means you are not welcome in Lebanon,” he says.

In Egypt, Haidar found a respite from the violence and fear of the previous 18 months and arranged for his father and five siblings to be extracted from Syria.

They now live together in a small apartment on the eastern outskirts of Cairo, in a dusty neighborhood where at least 100 displaced Syrian families have settled.

Though Egypt shares no border with Syria, it has witnessed a noticeable surge of refugees from the war-torn country in the past six months. As many as 150,000 to 250,000 Syrian civilians have settled across Egypt, mainly in Cairo and the coastal city of Alexandria.

[![][2]][2]Egypt allows Syrian refugees to live in what’s considered a more dignified manner, compared to overcrowded camps along the Turkish and Jordanian borders. But Syrians’ ability to blend into the urban fabric here complicates efforts to identify them and reach families in need.

In December, the UNHCR included Egypt in its regional response plan for Syrian refugees, joining Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. The agency says more than 800,000 Syrians have fled the country since the start of the conflict in the spring of 2011.

“It should push the whole country to face the burdens, because a whole population is arriving in Egypt,” said Ahmed Abughazala, a UNHCR spokesman in Cairo.

On a sunny day in mid-February, Haidar and his family packed into a small white Suzuki van. They went to the organization’s temporary registration center in Zamalek, an upscale neighborhood not far from Tahrir Square – the sight of Egypt’s own revolution.

When UNHCR started registering Syrians early last year, the waiting time was usually three days to receive a yellow card, which grants refugees protected status. As registrations have increased, so has the wait time – it now takes two months.

In August 2012, there were 1,300 Syrians registered with the UN in Egypt. That figure now exceeds 18,000, with another 10,000 awaiting registration.

The Egyptian government estimates that there are 150,000 registered refugees in its country; the total figure – including those who avoid centers like the one in Zamalek – is closer to a quarter of a million.

Haidar waited six months before registering so that his entire family could do so together, and then only with the hope of attaining eligibility for resettlement in Canada.

He estimates that only ten percent of his neighbors are registering with the UN, and attributes the low rate to Syrians’ distrust of international organizations.

Like many Syrians in Egypt, Haidar and his family have been living on their savings and benefiting from the generosity of Egyptian individuals and organizations as well as wealthy Syrians who are now living in Egypt.

“Egyptian people love Syrian people,” said Haidar. “If you are Syrian, you will be received with smiles and with questions.”

The government of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi has allowed Syrians to stay in the country on renewable three-month renewable visas and granted them access to public schools and hospitals.

NGOs have been providing Syrians with housing, jobs and vital services like healthcare. The most common source of support comes from religious organizations.

“It’s only natural that Islamist charities have filled the gap in services, said Sima, a secular Syrian activist. A long-time resident of Cairo, she began working with refugees last year and recently set up a community center in cooperation with an Egyptian NGO with funding from UNHCR.

Her homeland is “a society that cannot function, and the idea of the community center was to create a place for society to be able to function again,” Sima says.

She is creating a “mini community within Cairo that helps them get over [what has happened], and start to think about moving on and turning the page and living with the dignity that they hoped to live in when they arrived.”


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