Omar, 7, is one of more than 135,000 Syrian refugees officially registered in Egypt. Originally from rural Damascus, he fled to Cairo with his family after his father was detained, then released, by the Assad government.
Omar’s father now works as a furniture mover. His family lives in a poor area of the Egyptian capital that is popular with Syrian refugees. Registered with the UNHCR, they receive $80 a month from the organization – barely enough to pay the rent.
But Omar’s family says his situation has taken a far worse turn than what’s become the standard refugee story: they say that their son was raped by a group of young Egyptian boys. They have pressed charges against his alleged assailants in an Egyptian court and are now hoping to leave Cairo for asylum in Germany.
While many Syrians in Cairo say they have been welcomed by the Egyptian people, others struggle to survive and can’t find access to education for their children.
“There are no refugee camps in Egypt. But if you investigate people’s lives deeper, you [see the poverty],” says Mohammed, an official with UNHCR in Cairo who works in psycho-social services. “The biggest problem Syrians face here is the lack of job opportunities. They keep saying, ‘Even the Egyptians are out of work.’”
Here, Mohammed and Omar’s mother, Um Omar, tell her son Omar’s story – one that reflects the precarious situation for Syrian refugees in Egypt.
Syria Deeply: What is Omar’s story?
Mohammed: Omar is a bit shy. He used to go out, every day, to play with his friends in front of his house. The area he used to live in had lots of houses, alleys and goods storage spaces. I met Omar’s family as I was following up on the bad situation families are subjected to. His mother told me about the psychological condition he is starting to go through. In the last three months, he developed a tendency to isolate himself. He expresses fear. He suddenly starts crying. We didn’t know the reason at first. I tried to talk to him to understand but he refused to say anything.
One day, he went to his mother with a pale face and high fever. His face was exhausted. I asked him what was wrong and he refused to answer. I tried to make him feel comfortable about telling me. Eventually, he started talking in a trembling voice. He told me two Egyptian children he was playing with convinced him of going with them to a basement. Once they were there, the children took turns raping him. They started by stripping off his clothes and then they molested him. They did that four times, threatening him each time that they would tell us and his parents about it if he told anyone. He is a child. He doesn’t understand all this.
Syria Deeply: When you met Omar after his mother told you the above story, what did he tell you?
Mohammed: I had long sessions with Omar. I tried not to mention what happened directly. He was suffering from a huge psychological trauma. His mother told me he once came home with a pair of scissors, wanting to cut his penis off. His mother saw him and stopped him. When that happened, she felt the situation is too dangerous. Her view of the case was changed, after she was reluctant to talk about her son’s case out of fear of stigma. She finally sued the parents of the three children who attacked Omar.
Syria Deeply: What did UNHCR do to help Omar?
Mohammed: First of all, we moved the family to another house. I was appointed as a psychological supervisor to follow Omar’s case, since he is having a certain social phobia. He is starting to get better now. The UNHCR negotiated moving the family to a foreign country. They got initial approval and the family will be taken to Germany soon.”
Syria Deeply: Um Omar, did you follow a legal procedure for your son’s case?
Um Omar: Yes. I pressed charges in an Egyptian court against the three Egyptian children and their families. I demanded that the children would be put in a penitentiary for minors. I also demanded financial reparation for damage. The court sympathized with my case and I’m thankful for that. But when I was about to win the case, I was threatened by the children’s parents that if I don’t drop the charges, I’ll be killed or deported by some influential Egyptian military officers. The families of the children offered to pay US $10,000 in reparation. My husband was afraid of being deported, because he was detained for a long time and he was always afraid after that.
On the day I dropped the charges, I received checks that I discovered were not covered by the families’ bank accounts. They have deceived me and the Egyptian children were released. The crime they committed remained unpunished! What eases my pain is knowing that I will live in another country, where my child will have some of his basic rights. That doesn’t mean it is ok to leave such crime unpunished. I believe there must be a severe punishment, maybe even the death penalty for those who rape children.
Syria Deeply: Mohammed, during your year of work in psychological support for refugees, how many similar cases have you documented?
Mohammed: So far, there are no official statistics of such cases. Fear of stigma, that many families suffer when one of their children is raped, is preventing those families from reporting what is happening.
However, as a social organization, we are working hard to find all those cases, in order to give psychological and social support. On the other hand, you should know that rape cases are not limited to the countries refugees live in. We had seen many cases where women, men and children were raped in the prisons of the Syrian regime. The effects of such cases are severe, and they still haunt the victims.
Edited by Karen Leigh.
Mohammed and Um Omar’s names have been changed, for privacy, and their answers have been edited for clarity.