CAIRO – Tens of thousands of Syrians who have settled in Egypt in recent years are caught between nostalgia for their home country and a desire to keep moving on towards Europe.
Mohamed Alaa left Damascus in 2012 when he was just 18 and now works in a cellphone shop called “Syria phone” in the Al Hussary neighborhood of Cairo, which is home to a significant Syrian community.
From the counter of his shop, Alaa told EFE he feels settled in Egypt and loved by the locals, who make up most of his clientele and friends.
He cannot, however, help himself from longing for his home country, an emotion that is marred by regret for the knowledge that, should he return, he would have to serve in the army of President Bashir Al Assad.
Military service is one of the main factors impeding men of fighting age and their families from returning to Syria.
“I want to go back to Syria, of course, but it’s complicated right now. As for traveling to another country, the possibility of going to a third country is better than any Arab country, especially if it is European,” he said.
Just like Alaa, many Syrians came to Egypt when the Syrian revolt of 2011 descended into all-out civil war, a conflict that trundles on to this day.
Egypt was long considered a transit country for refugees from both Syria and Africa, but authorities have clamped down on controls and almost completely halted the departure of boats from its Mediterranean coast in the last four years, meaning the only hope of making it to Europe for Syrians in Egypt is through the United Nations’ resettlement program.
In 2018, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees relocated 967 of the estimated 132,000 Syrian refugees registered in Egypt.
Local authorities say the number of Syrians seeking refuge in the North African country is actually as high as half a million.
Although they share a common language, religion and some history – considering Syria and Egypt formed a single nation between 1958-61 under Gamal Abdel Nasser – many Syrians still look to Europe as their final destination.
For Ubey Al-Muraby, everything is a question of “opportunities.”
He works at a shawarma store offering up succulent sandwiches of meat and garlic sauce, for which the Syrians are renowned.
He tells EFE that Syrian workers are in high demand in Egypt.
“I rent a house, I have my family in Syria and I send them money, I save a little,” he said, recognizing nonetheless that the situation for migrants in the country is not easy.
Al-Muraby could return to Syria if he wanted to and would be exempt from military service as he has an unfinished Economics degree waiting for him.
“I do not have problems with the government, the problem is money,” he said.
For some Syrians, Egypt represents a safe place away from the bombs and violence that forced them to leave their homes during the acutely violent years of the Syrian conflict between 2013-16.
Amira Ibrahim al-Baqay, 50, arrived with her family in Egypt in 2014 fleeing government-led attacks on opposition-held areas near the capital, Damascus. She feared for the lives of her three children.
“Life was very difficult, very difficult. The attacks never stopped, against us and the houses, it was an out of the ordinary war,” she said during a conversation with EFE in a Caritas clinic in downtown Cairo.
Here, she receives treatment for diabetes, high blood pressure and heart problems. She pays 50 percent of the cost of the medicine while the NGO picks up the rest.
Her husband receives a monthly grant from the UNCHR, which he uses to buy food and pay rent for their flat not far from the pyramids of Giza.
“Life is more difficult because of the price increase in Egypt in the last two years,” she said, thanking God for having a safe place to live and somewhere for her children to go to school.
Christine Beshay, communications officer at the UNHCR, said Syrians, Yemenis, Sudanese and South Sudanese have free access to primary education and medical care in Egypt.
There are around 32,000 Syrians in Egyptian schools alone.
There are no designated refugee camps in Egypt and Syrians can live wherever they choose in the country.
However, Beshay said migrants are particularly susceptible to price rises for basic products, which have climbed as a result of a 2016 deal struck between the government and the International Monetary Fund.