Long before the start of the Arab Spring, Syrians in the southern town of Saqba had close ties with Egyptians in Damietta. For generations, the two towns were their countries’ capitals of furniture making, and businessmen and artisans moved back and forth between them. When Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s regime began driving citizens from their homes, many residents of Saqba found Damietta a logical destination. Some had existing relationships with Egyptians there, and Egypt overall was welcoming toward Syrian refugees. Moreover, the cost of living was low, and craftsmen and artisans felt sure they would find jobs in Damietta. And they did. By the summer of 2013, a local NGO reported that there were over 8,700 Syrian refugees living in Damietta. Many found work in furniture factories or workshops. Syrian shops and restaurants took root. Many Syrians settled there permanently and even married Egyptians.
But three months ago, with millions of Egyptians in the streets, the military overthrew President Mohamed Morsi, and life for Syrians in Damietta—and across all of Egypt—suddenly changed. NGO workers in the area describe a complete reversal in behavior. From 1958 to 1961, Syria and Egypt were one country known as the United Arab Republic. Though the union was brief and ultimately unsuccessful, both Syrians and Egyptians would refer to the historical relationship. When Syrian refugees began arriving two years ago, they were welcomed into Egyptians’ homes, offered empty apartments, cash assistance, and whatever else people could spare. Now, stories of strife abound. A Syrian restaurant called Sheikh el Kar was burned to the ground, and many Syrian-owned shops were vandalized and broken into. Last month two seven-year old Egyptian boys from Damietta splashed gas on the leg of an eight-year-old Syrian boy, and lit him on fire. Another 19-year-old refugee from Damascus told me he was attacked on the street and had a rope hung around his neck.
Many Syrian refugees have been fired from their jobs, according to Nesreen Faqousa, the Executive Director of Resala, an organization that supports Syrians in Damietta in partnership with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). “The owners say I don’t need Syrians here,” says Suzan Wardeh, who works with an NGO called Tadamon. Now, “they’re asking about the legal documents for work which…[were] not required before.” Farqousa fears that unemployment among Syrians in Egypt will only increase, and that the aid from international organizations, no longer supplemented by donations from Egyptians, is insufficient to cover the needs of the population.
What’s happening in Damietta is happening to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees across Egypt. Syrians, along with Palestinians and other foreigners have been the targets of xenophobia and virulent Egyptian nationalism since Morsi’s ouster and the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. Having fled one hostile and unstable environment, they now find themselves in another. Between aggression from the local population, and increased bureaucratic obstacles and harassment by the state, many Syrians have chosen to leave Egypt, and many more will follow, often heading for even more precarious lives elsewhere.
Most onlookers are at a loss to explain why things changed so quickly. Prior to June 30, much of the aid to Syrians came from Islamic charities and individuals affiliated with Islamist groups. Some observers who work closely with the Syrian community speculate that this led Egyptians to associate Syrians with Islamists. In a speech on June 15, just 18 days before his ouster, Morsi cemented that association when he announced his government’s commitment to “the liberation of the Syrian people.”
Since June 30, the Egyptian media has demonized Syrians, accusing them of working with the Muslim Brotherhood, and attending sit-ins in support of ousted president Morsi (no Syrian or Palestinian was arrested at either sit-in.)
“People are using Syrian refugees as a political pawn,” said Nader Attar, founder of the Refugees Solidarity Movement in Alexandria.
Outside of Cairo is a place called “Little Damascus.” Thirty-three thousand of an estimated 300,000 Syrians in Egypt live there. At its heart is a plaza full of outdoor cafes and restaurants, all serving Syrian fare, situated between two seven-story buildings. Young men play pool and ping pong between the chairs and the water pipes, and vendors peddle their wares at tables piled high with Syrian goods. Egyptian nationalist songs play in the background.
“Before, Egyptians used to say Syrians were the bravest people,” said O., the owner of a restaurant-supply business. Now they say, “You are liars” and “You participated in Rabaa” (the pro-Morsi sit-in that was violently dispersed on August 14).
M., a friend of O., says he is thinking of moving his family to Sudan. “Now being Syrian is like being Israeli,” he said. Others talk of moving to Algeria or Sweden.
The new Egyptian government has been creating rules to discourage Syrians from remaining in Egypt. Prior to June 30, Syrians could enter Egypt without visas. However, on July 8 the government revised its policy and Syrians must now obtain a visa, along with a security background check that can take up to a month, in advance of their arrival. Since July 8, UNHCR—that registers and provides services to Syrian refugees—reports no new arrivals of Syrians to its offices.
Egypt also announced earlier in the summer that Syrian children would no longer have the same access to schools as Egyptian children. Though the Ministry of Education reversed the decision shortly before school started, many families had already left.
Worst off are Palestinian refugees who were living in Syria when its civil war broke out and have since fled to Egypt. Syria had one of the more generous policies in the Arab world with regard to Palestinian refugees, and as a result there were many Palestinians living there, many of whom have never set foot in the West Bank or Gaza. Though they fled the same conflict as native Syrians, the Egyptian government and the international community recognize them as Palestinians. As such, they fall outside of the mandate of UNHCR.
Palestinians from Syria are more likely to be deported from Egypt. Activists with the Refugees Solidarity Movement based in Alexandria report that over 500 people have been deported from Egypt thus far, over a third of them children. Most are Palestinians who were residing in Syria.
Early on, many Palestinians fleeing Syria chose to flee by boat to Europe. Now many Syrians are also attempting the crossing, which costs about $4,000, hoping for better treatment and economic conditions. Over 3,000 Syrians have arrived in Italy in the last month. Most of them had come from Egypt.
Meanwhile, those who stay are trying to get by. Said Farqousi: “Syrian children have started to learn the Egyptian dialect so it doesn’t show that they’re Syrian.”