I have been working with refugees and asylum seekers in Egypt for three years now. I have been very fortunate to work with families up close. There’s a whole world to learn from survivors of conflict, persecution, massacres, ethnic violence, cross-border journeys and arbitrary arrests. The list is dense and intense. Some background information should make the picture clearer.
The majority of households are headed by a single female; husbands are absent for several reasons: divorce, disappearance, deceased or departed back to the hometown. In the offshoot, the male might opt for illegal migration to Europe in hopes of family reunion services.
That being said, it comes as no surprise that there are more women than men seeking the services provided by organizations dedicated to their aid and relief. With Egypt being a transit and a destination for refuge, asylum and migration, the government still does not issue work permits for either category. For more than a decade, refugees and asylum seekers alike have been, and still are, forced to work in menial labor (casual employment), something that requires no official documentation, and expects no benefits.
Moreover, only the Sudanese and Syrians are granted access to public schools, other nationalities have the option of expensive private schooling, or opportunistic community schooling – poised as an alternative for African nationals.
Now, let me tell you a few things I learned from these women:
“Her fingers gripped on it as if the stronger she held it, the stronger the door would protect her children and ward off strangers”
They Wake Up Every Morning and Work Hard
Throughout the years, refugee women have taken up different labors; the most common being housework and cooking, and sometimes handcrafts.
Only in exceptional medical conditions does the mother and head of the household become incompetent of providing for her children. Otherwise, she is always and avidly pursuing livelihood.
These single mothers wake up early in the day, and take their children to school. In the highly probable case they do not go to school (having dropped out to work and help provide for the family, or are academically failing), or during summer time, the mothers are forced to leave their children alone and head out to their menial work.
Often times a mother would walk into the office and ask that we speed up her paperwork as her children are locked up at home. The first time I heard it, the woman held out a key to the door of her house. Her fingers gripped on it as if the stronger she held it, the stronger the door would protect her children and ward off strangers.
“every time she goes to cash a voucher from the post office, young Egyptian tuk-tuk drivers gang up on her to steal her money. Usually, she splits the amount she’s received with them”
They Go Through Horrors
For refugees, we are strangers, the host community is a strange land. And unfortunately, to them, the host community is often inhospitable.
With a monthly income less than EGP1000, a family of 3-4 cannot afford to rent an apartment, or sometimes a room, in anything but Cairo’s darkest alleys. The residents of which are unkind, racially discriminatory (especially with Africans), violent and abusive.
All members are subjected to harassment and bullying, abuse and bellyaching bullying. Women in particular are subjected to sexual harassment and abuse. Their commutes are never hassle-free and their residencies are filled with terrors.
One mother explained to me that every time she goes to cash a voucher from the post office, young Egyptian tuk-tuk drivers gang up on her to steal her money. Usually, she splits the amount she’s received with them, all so she can leave in peace and not go home empty-handed.
“for months they kidnapped her during her commute to work, in a van, and raped her. And for months, she put up with it just to get to work”
Another mother had come in crying. She was past the point of breaking. She had been the target of communal gang crime abuse for months. She had changed her residence in Cairo to hide from harassment by government spies tailing her for intel on her husband. Seemingly, one gang had taken on the task to find her. And for months they kidnapped her during her commute to work, in a van, and raped her. And for months, she put up with it just to get to work, “they never asked for money, their aim was to terrorize and pressure me into telling them where he is”. They only managed to break her, when they started doing the same thing to her daughter.
“She had to leave her two children at home, the younger is a one year old child of rape, whom she couldn’t feed as a result to her own deteriorating health”
Their Conditions Are Abysmal
Living in a strange country, with no work permit, resorting only to casual employment and menial labor, getting subjected to harassment and abuse, naturally has a causal relationship with having a limited to no income.
Financial assistance and other services take a long time reaching beneficiaries; what with the endless processes, numerous decision criteria and templates. Not all are served, and not all who are served are done so in appropriate time.
Most women I met have to withstand degrading circumstances to earn a somewhat OK living. In addition to having to leave their children unguarded at home, some households are so poor that the mothers do not have any provisions to leave while they’re gone.
I met a mother around the neighborhood in tears. She had to leave her two children at home, the younger is a one year old child of rape, whom she couldn’t feed as a result to her own deteriorating health. And she had no money, she couldn’t even buy him powdered milk. The child was starving at home, attended to by a nine year old sister, with no food or money to buy any.
“Yes, they leave their children alone at home, and yes they get harassed, abused, even raped, and they withstand it all”
They Have Hope
Despite all the horror stories I just described, these women have hope. They are tougher than their circumstances. They understand how thin their situation is, and they strive to look after their children. Some achieve financial stability, some even find love.
Yes, they leave their children alone at home, and yes they get harassed, abused, even raped, and they withstand it all. They still pursue a source of income, they look after their children, and they find service-providers and go through the application process that facilitates a more dignified life.
I met a mother from South Sudan who has recently re-married, this time to a North Sudanese. I was curious if the political issues were ever a barricade. She very calmly explained how the political drift dates back only a decade, and that it was no issue between them. She talked fondly of how he looks after her, befriends her son, and works hard to provide for them.
A mother of a child with special needs got into a heart-to-heart with me a while back. I asked if she goes through negative emotions or thoughts in consequence of having a special needs child; what with the medical care they require, the difficulty of access to proper special needs education institutions in Egypt, and the constant need to guard and watch over them. She took a deep breath and kissed her child, and called him her intercessor (Al-Shafe’). She believes that having a special child is a blessing from God, that doing a good job at it is a sure ticket to heaven.
Mayada Serageldin is a third-culture child. She is also a humanitarian relief worker, a promoter of human rights and a storyteller. After graduating her MA in International Human Rights Law, she has been working with refugees and asylum seekers in Egypt for years.