Migrants – ever the foreigners?

People have come to Egypt over the centuries for many reasons. Fleeing war, injustice, or simply in search of a better life. You would think Egyptʹs acceptance and ability to integrate would have been strengthened as a result. But the reality is different. By Aya Nabil

By Aya Nabil

In the early days after Rose Cocoʹs arrival in Cairo from southern Sudan three years ago, she had a lot of questions about what her life in Egypt would be like. Would she be able to adjust and stay as she planned, or would she have to look for another country to move to? The answers which immediately sprang to mind did not bode well, especially after what happened on the night of her arrival, when a tok tok driver hurled a brick at her head. As her aunt who has lived in Egypt for eight years explained: "You havenʹt seen anything yet." This only increased her misgivings.

All of Roseʹs expectations changed that day. Before her arrival in Egypt, her only thought was that she was coming to a country which shared many things with her homeland. Egypt is both Arab and African. Indeed, once upon a time the two were one country, added to which she had the impression that Egyptians were good-natured and friendly. Getting used to living in their midst would not be difficult, therefore. At least this is how Egyptian soap operas, which are broadcast non-stop on Sudanese TV, portrayed the situation.

The onset of alienation

What happened that first night and the words of her aunt were only the beginning of Roseʹs changing impressions. Over the years, her sense of alienation has become entrenched. She even believes that, had she lived in Egypt her whole lifetime, Egyptians would still not accept her and she would remain a stranger or a guest, since she doesnʹt look like them, or as she says, since "her skin colour is different".

For a long time, Rose tried to get used to all this, but then her son Yusuf was born and the situation was different. The question which she had tried to avoid over the years surfaced again: would her child have a better chance than she had had of integrating into this society into which he was born, despite not holding its nationality? Or would she have to move on once more, so that he would not have to face the same sense of alienation she felt?

Migrants at a police station in Rosetta, Egypt (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Egypt – simply a staging post for many refugees from African countries: among others, the EU relies on Egypt for the protection of its external borders, as the country is part of the East African route that runs from Somalia via Ethiopia and Sudan to the Egyptian coast near Alexandria. In the war-torn and chaotic Arab world, the EU has a huge interest in keeping autocratically governed Egypt stable. Poverty there is rife. Although growth has increased, many people are unhappy about the reforms introduced by the government, under pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to deal with the deepening economic crisis

The alienation which Rose and other foreign nationals living in Egypt feel, even though it differs in degree and form from one person to another, may seem strange when we talk about Egypt, which has seen many migrations over centuries for a host of reasons. There are those who came here alongside foreign occupiers or as invaders, and those who came to escape war or poor conditions in their own countries, seeking asylum elsewhere. This is not to mention those people living in Egypt because of work, study or marriage to Egyptians, all of which reasons might lead us to assume that there has been an increase in acceptance and integration of the other, and not the reverse, as Roseʹs experience indicates.

At an official level, the status of migrants in Egypt is no different; national government policy makes it all the more difficult for them to integrate in society. After all, Egyptian law grants asylum seekers neither permanent residence nor citizenship.

First stop for migrants: the UNHCR

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Cairo is the only organisation allowed by law to register asylum seekers, granting them temporary residence with a view to finding them an alternative country to move to. According to the latest figures the UNHCR published in July 2017, the number of registered asylum seekers in Egypt is around 210,000.

The UNHCR cannot provide alternative re-settlement arrangements in other countries for everyone who is registered, especially in light of the increased number of refugees coming to Egypt from Arab or African countries experiencing unrest or war. Indeed, there are many who have been classified as refugees for a very long time, including some who have either been living in Egypt for decades or were born there and have never set foot in another country.The only exception is in cases where a female refugee marries an Egyptian man, in which case the children receive Egyptian nationality, but not the mother. If the opposite happens, however, and a male refugee marries an Egyptian woman, their children will only get a mention of the motherʹs name in their birth certificates.

The problems which refugees face in Egypt prompt many to seek other types of residence, as permitted by the law. They include study and investment, and these two are the most common among other Arab nationals who want to do business or simply find work. In 2015 the Egyptian authorities estimated that the number of foreigners in Egypt was around 5 million.

"Weʹre all brothers"

Between this and that, the phrase "weʹre all brothers", which is always repeated by officials when they talk about immigrants, is meaningless. Indeed, it raises questions about their understanding of the real conditions which such people experience in Egypt, especially in cases where the latter view it as their new home, even if they themselves donʹt themselves hold Egyptian nationality.

In front of the Maadi Gardens Metro Station, or rather in the poor popular part of this upscale neighbourhood, I met Rose, so she could accompany me to her present home. Moving quickly, Rose cut a path through the queues in front of the shops in the streets surrounding her house. Many African faces were in evidence, reflecting the large numbers of them living in this part of the city, attracted by the cheaper prices. As the crowds grew, so Roseʹs speed increased. When I asked her why, she replied, "So that no one will bother us."

Rose knew that, even if she looked like an Egyptian in terms of her clothing, or was a familiar face to the hawkers and neighbours in this area, the colour of her skin meant that she was a foreigner or "only a guest" in the eyes of those who knew her or didnʹt know her. Perhaps this is illustrative of the harassment she faces from some people in the street.

Cairo resident Yemenite Fatima el-Mutahar (photo: Goethe-Institut/Sandra Wolf)
Yemenite Fatima el-Mutahar has lived in Egypt for several years; in that time her views about the country have changed. She considers Egyptian hospitality superficial; as soon as money becomes an issue, all overtures of acceptance cease. Fatima blames the change she has witnessed in Egyptian behaviour on the deterioration of the Egyptian economy

Roseʹs life is devoid of any social contact with Egyptians. Few of the neighbours exchange greetings with her, despite their face-to-face encounters. Neither the school nor the church offer the opportunity to mix with Egyptians, who study and pray at different times to the Sudanese. She feels that this stems from the way they look down upon dark-skinned people.

Thus, she limits her dealings to those of her relatives living here who, in turn, limit themselves to people they know. Moreover, they live close to one another in well-known places. As she explains: "so that we can keep each other company and give help, if anything happens to any of us."

The stereotype

Little gets out of this circle. The more you speak with an Egyptian accent and can look like Egyptians in terms of skin colour, customs and traditions, the situation is slightly better. Thereʹs no doubt that these things seem to disappear completely in better-off areas, especially in the towns.

By contrast, in the countryside, circumstances prevail – such as kinship, degree of wealth, and established practices – that make the integration of non-Egyptians very difficult. Rose hasnʹt passed this test. She couldnʹt abandon all her old culture, even though she has taken on a lot of Egyptian practices. Similarly, she is unable to switch her place of residence to one of those areas where difference in nationality didnʹt matter. Sheʹs in limbo; she canʹt move forward towards the Egyptians who donʹt acknowledge her and nor can she go back to her own country, from which she fled because of war, oppression and unrest.The gap with other nationalities of dark-skinned, Asian or even Western origin is increasing, even in the case of those born here or of mixed origins. Ali Hassan, a 17-year-old who lives with his Egyptian father and Malaysian mother, says he always faces questions about his true identity because of his motherʹs features, which he inherited. He adds: "It was terrible at school. I constantly feel obliged to make an extra effort to prove my Egyptian identity in order to convince those around me."

Economic pressures

In contrast to Rose and Ali, Fatima al-Mutahar, who is of Yemeni origin, doesnʹt face the same problems in dealing with Egyptians in the street. Her skin colour and hijab make her look like most Egyptian women and she doesnʹt stand out; she has even mastered the Egyptian accent. Hence her different origins are not apparent, except when dealing with officialdom.

Fatima el-Mutahar with her son Fatima el-Mutahar with her son (photo: Goethe-Institut/Sandra Wolf)
Fewer problems in dealing with the Egyptians: Yemenite Fatima el-Mutahar is indistinguishable from most Egyptian women by her skin colour and headscarf and is thus perceived as familiar; she has even mastered the Egyptian dialect perfectly

In the early days of Fatimaʹs residence in Egypt, her Yemeni identity sometimes became apparent because of her accent, but it didnʹt cause her a problem. Indeed, Egyptians were welcoming towards her, always repeating that she was from a "sister" Arab country. It is the same for those displaced by wars from other Arab countries such as Syria, Iraq, Libya and Palestine. Paradoxically, despite the Arab character of Sudan, the features of its African citizens deny them such treatment here.

But after several years of living in Egypt, Fatima was of another opinion, which is that this apparent sense of welcome is superficial; it soon disappears in any more profound relations, especially on an economic level. As Egyptʹs economic situation deteriorated, Fatima began to feel a change in the way people dealt with her. Some Egyptians saw her and other foreigners living in Egypt as competing for their modest livelihoods, or causing an increase in rents, costs of transportation and retail prices in the areas in which they live. This is all the more acute in cases where the migrants themselves are of limited means and canʹt support themselves.

Fatima relies on self-employment, but it doesnʹt provide her with the stability she badly needs because of her son Rabiʹaʹs increasing age and nor does it address the fears she has had since his birth regarding her future here.

As she says: "One time he used a couple of Yemeni expressions with his friends at school and one of them turned and said to him that he wasnʹt Egyptian. ʹWhy are you here?ʹ they asked. When he asked me about it, I didnʹt know what to say. I donʹt want him to feel any conflict in his identity between the country where he lives and his original homeland. I donʹt know for how long Iʹll be able to protect him from this, or whether heʹll get the same opportunities with regards to study and work as Egyptians. His papers to get into school alone obliged me to do a myriad of complicated procedures. From what I see around me, it was the same for the sons of immigrants living here before me. The number of people getting this sorted is very low, and I donʹt have the means to help him get it in his own right."

Fateema Idris, Executive Director of the Egyptian Multicultural Refugee Council (Tadamon) (photo: Goethe-Institut/Aya Nabil)
Fatima Idris, managing director of "Tadamon – The Egyptian Refugee Multicultural Council", says that everyday economic pressures in Egypt has made immigrants the weakest link, exacerbating their social marginalisation

The weakest link

Fateema Idris, Executive Director of the Egyptian Multicultural Refugee Council (Tadamon), says that the increased pressure of life in Egypt makes migrants the weakest link and thus further marginalises them in society.

Fateema deals with around 30,000 refugees a year. She was herself one of them 18 years ago when she came from northern Sudan, after having decided to settle in Egypt and to explore her grandfatherʹs Egyptian origins; he came from Qena in Upper Egypt. She went on eventually to acquire citizenship and decided to stay.

As Fateema says, "the pressure was less then and Egyptians were more welcoming of foreigners. Itʹs my view that they didnʹt have a problem with the other, but with themselves."

She adds: "I was able to fit in because I looked like an Egyptian from Nuba. Moreover, my children are light-skinned and they donʹt face many problems. When we get together, however, the questions start, as if they werenʹt my children, to the point where one of the female teachers at their school once told my sonʹs friend: "Youʹre fair and sweet". I was forced to intervene to stop the notion taking root in them that superiority goes with fair skinned people only."

Fateema says that life in Egypt follows a pattern. If a person diverges from this, a problem arises: "I know a lot of women who resorted to wearing the hijab, so they donʹt encounter problems in the areas where they live for looking different."


While Rose thinks of emigrating to another country to escape this alienation, Fatima is hesitant about her ability to put up with it, while Ali stands in the middle. He holds Egyptian ID, but he is not at ease with the way he looks, feeling that some of those around him do not accept him. He doesnʹt know how to overcome this feeling: "Iʹll always feel like a stranger, even if I consider leaving here."

Aya Nabil

© Goethe-Institut | Perspectives 2018

Translated from the Arabic by Chris Somes-Charlton

Aya Nabil works as a freelance journalist for many national and international media organisations. She has scooped at total of 5 awards to date; most recently she took first place at the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism Award in 2017.