In the following months after the January 25th Revolution in Cairo, African refugees, asylum seekers, and forced migrants in Egypt were as desperate as ever. After one Sudanese woman, a mother of two, was dismissed from the UNHCR offices, and subsequently denied financial assistance, she became suicidal. Eyewitness reports tell of a UNHCR officer who rudely instructed her to leave, expressly stating that there would be no assistance to her and her children. The Sudanese woman then proceeded to pour benzene on every part of her body in front of the office. If not for a few valiant first-responders she would have burned to death. In front of countless of her fellow community, and peers, who were at UNHCR protesting that day, she was rescued, taken to a hospital to receive treatment for her burns.
To any outsider, who is not aware of the profound plight of refugees in Egypt, the Sudanese woman’s actions may seem extreme, and while they certainly are, they are not unfounded. Tens of thousands of Sudanese seek asylum in Egypt alone, not to mention the overwhelming numbers of refugees who pour in from all over Africa seeking various forms of refuge in the continent’s largest metropolis.
Like many migrants all over the world, their fate is patience, to bide time, waiting for the response of the largest international organization on Earth, the United Nations, as their individual cases are mediated by NGOs, and service providers, such as AMERA (Africa and Middle East Refugee Assistance).
The UN offers resettlement and assistance programs to refugees in lieu of Egypt, which made reservations to articles 12 (Personal Status), 20 (Rationing), 22 (Public Education), 23 (Public Relief), and 24 (Labour Legislation and Social Security) of the 1951 Refugee Convention 1. The reservations effectively disallow refugees, and especially non-Arab, African asylum seekers, the right to access public relief and humanitarian assistance, as they are institutionally marginalized as second-class citizens.
As the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants states 2, “It is virtually impossible for refugees to work legally in Egypt.” Most of Egypt's refugees are hopelessly unemployed, and in dire need of educational, and professional opportunities, especially those further ostracized by race, ethnicity, and religion, as is the case with African refugees in Cairo.
While much of Egyptian refugee policy is a consequence of the already tempestuous ill regard for domestic nationals, further heightened by the injustices of the Mubarak era, the tragically significant populations of Sudanese and African refugees are largely unnoticed by local and foreign media. IRIN, a humanitarian news and analysis service to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs released a post-revolution study of Egypt’s refugees in 2013, quoting Aly Mahmud, a Sudanese refugee and the founder of the refugee employment aid NGO Makerem African Society, “Life in Egypt for refugees has moved from bad to worse after the revolution” 3.
Nonetheless, by the summer of 2011, Tahrir Square became a symbol of freedom in the Middle East, with such unusual instances of solidarity as young Egyptian men banning in solidarity with Shia Bahraini victims of riot police. Then, on June 1st of 2011, Egypt’s mass groundswell of action in the name of social and political freedoms cleared the air for an impossible sight. The Darfurian flag was seen flying in front of the Sudanese Embassy, in Garden City, Cairo. For four hours, Sudanese-Darfurian women called for the trial of Omar Al-Bashir, and the implementation of a no-fly zone in Darfur for the protection of civilians, as well as petitioning the release of conscientious detainees in prisons, and to stop the killing and raping of women in Darfur.
Introducing Abdel Rahman, Sudanese-Darfurian Educator
Abdel Rahman Siddiq Hashim walked among the women who demonstrated with timely impact before the front steps of their embassy. For over a decade, Abdel Rahman has lived in Cairo, Egypt as a forced migrant and asylum seeker, with intermittent official recognition under UNHCR’s enviable refugee status. Abdel Rahman is from Darfur. For him, to see the sight of his peoples’ flag, flying above his empowered countrywomen was as clear a sign of change as any he had ever experienced. Yet, that sign of change would prove merely symbolic, as Abdel Rahman was swept into the post-revolution fervor of Egypt in the midst of a serious and violent upheaval. As an educated Sudanese man compelled to escape the unspeakably awful realities of life in Darfur in the early 2000s, Abdel Rahman arrived in Egypt after attempting to find residence in Syria and Libya. Egypt, he attests, has been, by far, the most enduring place to live as a refugee, particularly as a well-educated African with a mind to serve one’s community. El-Wafaa Refugee Culture Center was a result of Abdel Rahman’s ambitious vision for community service and social advancement amid the refugee populations of Egypt.
In September of 2006, the El-Wafaa Center opened and later became a successful English language learning institution, and community-based organization under Abdel Rahman’s direction, receiving students from all over Africa regardless of ethnic, religious, or tribal backgrounds.
El-Wafaa translates as “the fulfillment”, from the Arabic. This founding social basis was an underappreciated, pioneering effort for his community, as with the greater NGO community networks. English teachers from the American University in Cairo, from Europe and elsewhere, arrived to the despairingly modest, and sorely underfunded El-Wafaa Center. In Ain Shams, an impoverished refugee neighborhood widely known for its diverse migrant communities, nearly 300 students benefitted from the Center’s programming by the end of the first year.
Sadly, by the 8th of August 2013, after faring two years amid the hectic and uncertain post-revolution social climate, the El-Wafaa Center was closed. As with many community leaders who stand with vulnerable minorities and attempt to form a common cause, only to assist their own communities, as is the case with Abdel Rahman, they receive the brunt of the hardship, and all the more so when times are bad. The Egyptian landlord who rented the Center location to Abdel Rahman then proceeded to confiscate his Sudanese passport and all of the Center’s material resources.
Later, in one last, futile effort to resuscitate the Center by registering with the Ministry of Social Affairs in Egypt, Abdel Rahman was at the very least able to donate all of El-Wafaa’s furniture and teaching materials to the Father Philip Sina Center for Secondary Education, another shoestring refugee education community center in Cairo.