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Sudanese Refugees

Down and Out in Cairo

Abdalla Hassan, Cairo, Egypt, July 31, 2000

Sudanese refugees in As-Salaam, a shantytown outside Khartoum (Photo: AFP).
“My name is Naomi,” she says. “In my home country I have a name given by my mother: Yangi. This name [was] given to me because my mother had two children who died before me. That is why I am called with this name. Anyone who comes after two late children is given this name.”

Naomi was born in Yei, a small town near Sudan's Ugandan border, in 1942. Today, she is one of roughly 20,000 Sudanese refugees living in Cairo.

Two of Naomi's sons came to Cairo as students, part of a wave of southern Sudanese émigrés who arrived in the 1980s to get their university degrees and return home. But as political conditions deteriorated in Sudan, many never went back. With a war raging in the south, returning to Sudan almost always meant conscription in the government army. For many southern Sudanese, this meant enlisting in an army engaged in a war against their friends and family. Another of Naomi's sons left Sudan for Uganda and then Kenya.

Naomi taught in Khartoum for two years. By then, the Sudanese government had made Arabic the only language allowed in schools, and since her Arabic is poor, she opted to teach English to young children. Keeping her job, however, required that she participate in a military training program for government employees: “I had to go for training to be like a soldier going to war, but I [was] afraid. There is a system that any government official has to go for military training for three months: men and women. For three months you learn how to shoot the gun, how to march like a soldier, all these activities of armies. Then you are given a certificate and you continue your work. I [felt] that this [was] something I couldn't do. I decided to pull away from teaching and come here.”

Today Naomi works with and for other refugees as part of All Saints' Cathedral's Joint Relief Ministry (JRM) in Cairo, where she supervises students at a skills training program. “Sometimes there [are] bad feelings that we are here because somebody caused this problem,” she says. “When we come together and we do our work together, it gives us the spirit of love. That makes that hatred go away from our head.”


Sometimes there [are] bad feelings that we are here because somebody caused this problem... [But] when we come together and we do our work together, it gives us the spirit of love. That makes that hatred go away from our head.

For over a decade, the Joint Relief Ministries at All Saints' Cathedral and St. Andrew's United Church—both in Cairo—have assisted refugees from southern Sudan and all over the world. A medical clinic at All Saints' offers general, prenatal, and pediatric care for a voluntary contribution of LE 2 [US$0.50], and if medications are expensive JRM covers most of the cost.

Church programs augment the skills of refugees and give them the opportunity to earn a small income. A food program distributes beans, lentils, rice, sugar, oil, and powdered milk to pregnant women, large families, and single-parent households. And although All Saints’ is an Anglican Cathedral, aid is given to refugees with no regard for denomination.


Naomi has not returned to Sudan in the nearly four years she has lived in Cairo, despite the fact that her two daughters and her husband, a prominent politician in Sudan, are still in Khartoum. Yet she holds onto the hope of returning home. “Even if the war does not end, I have that idea of going back to Sudan to see my family. I have to go back,” she says. “I have to go and stay with my girls. Because no one should leave girls with their father alone. It is not too correct.”

But as fighting continues in southern Sudan, the flocks of people seeking refuge in Egypt only continue to grow. “Maybe five years ago there were 8,000 or 10,000 southern Sudanese here,” says Mark Bennett, coordinator of JRM. “Now there are more than 20,000 in Cairo. There may be another 3,000 or 4,000 in Alexandria and small numbers in other places as well.”


“A Nightmare Scenario”


Famine and war in Africa's longest-running civil conflict have claimed the lives of as many as 2 million Sudanese and have left 4.5 million homeless. Nearly 500,000 Sudanese refugees have fled to eight neighboring countries. Slave raids occur regularly in parts of the south.

Armed militia groups, controlled by the hard-line National Islamic Front, regularly attack military and civilian targets. Overhead, noisy Russian-made Anotonov bombers pelt the countryside, leaving no one insulated from the conflict.

Outsiders often cast the 17-year civil war as a religious war between a Muslim and Arab north against a Christian and animist south. According to this view, northern Sudanese—Arab Muslims—control the government and use its force to persecute southern Sudanese, who are usually black Africans.

There is some truth to this perception. But while religion is a widely publicized dimension in the civil war, Barbara E. Harrell-Bond, distinguished adjunct professor of forced migration and refugee studies at the American University in Cairo, believes that the roots of the conflict are far more complex: “It has much more to do in my view with oil, with water, and all kinds of other resources that people want to control.”

Indeed, recent fighting in the south has been linked to control of nearby oil fields, and oil pipeline projects funnel millions of dollars to aid the government's war effort. Rebel troops capture weapons from stockpiles in government garrisons and augment them with arms they receive through Kenya and Uganda.

Civilians are inevitably caught in the middle of the struggle. “The military lives off the civilians. The gun is your salary. The gun is how you keep yourself alive,” Harrell-Bond observes. “Civilians are the victims exploited by the very groups that are supposed to be liberating them.”

Sudanese civilians fleeing to neighboring Congo find themselves caught in another bloody conflict, as guerillas from the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) clash with insurgents from Rwanda and Uganda. Those who flee from Sudan to Congo find a life not much better than the one they left behind.

Father Claudio Lurati, vice-pastor of the Church of the Sacred Heart in Cairo’s Abbasseya neighborhood, is a Comboni missionary, a member of the order of the Catholic Church named after the first bishop of Sudan. In 1995, Father Claudio spent five months in the SPLA-controlled village of Mapuordit, halfway between Yerol and Rumbek, in what is known as the “liberated areas”. No church existed; prayers were held under a tree. One thousand children attended a large school constructed from bush material.

“We never had any contact with the government troops or with the government authorities. The area was totally controlled by the SPLA,” Father Claudio recalls. At the time, government soldiers still remained in Yerol and Rumbek. They are no longer there. The SPLA “liberated” them in a series of bloody battles three years ago. 

“The conflict in Sudan is a nightmare scenario: endless years of civil war, millions killed or starved,” says Father Claudio. “The frontlines of the conflict are ambiguous, marked by constantly shifting alliances.” Yet it has ebbed into a forgotten war. “Journalists need quick events,” he says. “[In Sudan], it is not as if you can speak of a battle or a huge advance. It is difficult to give constant coverage to a war that has been going on for 17 years, and where there are no changes.”

After so many years, the conflict has come to seem insoluble, but Harrell-Bond points out: “I think you have to ask yourself whose interests are being served by it not ending. There are many interests that converge in this war… I wonder really how much the two parties want to come to a reconciliation. Because for soldiers there isn't a better business than war. Why should they stop it?”



Door to the First World


According to the United Nations, a refugee is a person who has a well-founded fear of persecution—should he decide to return to his country of origin—on the grounds of race, religion, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. 

Egypt was one of the original framers of the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees. But when Egypt ratified the convention, it entered a list of reservations. Refugees in Egypt are not legally entitled to work and have no access to national health facilities, government schools, or subsidized housing.

Southern Sudanese are Egypt's largest refugee population. By most estimates, 7,000 to 8,000 Sudanese refugees arrive in Egypt every year, the majority fleeing from the south and stopping in the shantytowns that surround Khartoum on their way to Cairo. 
However, Father Claudio says that nearly all the refugees he meets see Cairo only as a stop on their journey: “A pulling factor is that many people now have the chance to migrate to the United States, Canada, or Australia as refugees, and this has drawn many people. They come here at any cost because they have a reasonable hope to travel to these places for resettlement.”

Harrell-Bond agrees: “Egypt has become a country of transit, where getting refugee status means getting resettled in a Western country.” Those fleeing Sudan pin their hopes on attaining formal refugee status from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). “The truth of the matter is that probably only 30 percent of them will find that opportunity,” Harrell-Bond says.

Currently, 3,500 asylum-seekers, mostly southern Sudanese, are waiting for the UNHCR and the Egyptian government to determine their status. As of June 30, 2000, there were 7,400 recognized urban refugees in Egypt. The largest groups included Sudanese (44 percent), Somalis (37 percent), Yemenis (9 percent), and Sierra Leoneans (2 percent). The remainder was comprised of 20 other (mainly African) nationalities.

The Cairo office of the UNHCR typically takes over a year to make a decision. When they do, they reject candidates 70 percent of the time. Harrell-Bond thinks the UNHCR is working to keep refugees away from industrialized nations. “If you think of UNHCR as an instrument of northern countries,” she muses, “then they want to keep refugees from reaching their shores. And remember that UNHCR is very dependent on those very same donor states for its budget.”

Today, 3-5 million Sudanese nationals live in Egypt. The influx began after the signing of the 1978 Wadi El Nil Treaty, which granted Sudanese people the right to live in Egypt without a residence visa. In June 1995, when violent Sudanese Islamists shot at Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's motorcade during his visit to Addis Ababa, Mubarak held the Sudanese government responsible and revoked the treaty. And while it is still easy for Sudanese to enter Egypt on a one-month tourist visa, getting that visa renewed can be more difficult. Fearing deportation, many Sudanese prefer to take their chances and remain in the country illegally.

Without legal authorization to work, Sudanese refugees in Cairo often find survival in the city difficult. Many southern Sudanese women earn an adequate income as housekeepers. But Sudanese men, for whom housework is almost never an option, do not find jobs as easily. When they are able to find work, employers often ask them to work 10 to 12 hours a day for salaries as low as LE 250 [US$62] a month. In a city where narrow, sparsely furnished apartments rent for between LE 400-500 [US$100-125], many wind up sharing two rooms among as many as 12 people, sleeping in shifts.


“It is the Grass that Suffers”


Biar Alier, 33, has a quiet, likable demeanor. He came to Egypt in early 1989 to study agricultural engineering at Alexandria University. He spent three semesters in college before the government suspended his scholarship. The Sudanese government called on him to return home and attend one of the newly opened universities in Khartoum. Instead he traveled to Cairo looking for work. He earns enough cleaning bachelors' houses to contribute his share of the LE 400 [US $100] rent for an apartment without a phone in Hadayek El Maadi—a barren mud brick and cement suburb of Cairo on the edge of the desert.

Biar, a member of the Dinka tribe, has his roots in the Upper Nile region of southern Sudan in the Jonglei province town of Bor, where construction of the ill-fated Jonglei Canal began. Biar's father owned hundreds of cattle. “Back home we used to marry with cattle,” explains Biar, whose father had six sisters. Each sister represented a dowry of at least 30 heads of cattle. “If you calculate that—and this number is going to reproduce—including what my father inherited from his father, that means he was a millionaire,” he laughs.

Before Biar was born, his family migrated north to the border town of Kosti, leaving behind the family's cattle wealth. Biar has two living siblings. One brother lives with him in Cairo. Another is in a refugee camp at Kakuma, on the border between Kenya and Sudan.

After selling everything they owned, those who make the journey to Egypt have little intention of returning. “When you think of going back there where you have nothing, it's just like going back to hell,” says Biar. But for him the prospect of returning one day to Sudan does not seem unimaginable. “I don't know what will happen. [I am] just putting it in God's hand, hoping for the best. And the best that can happen is that peace will be back and I will go back home.”

I wonder really how much the two parties want to come to a reconciliation. Because for soldiers there isn't a better business than war. Why should they stop it?
Born in Bor, Michael Buol Man was 13 years old when civil war broke out. He left Khartoum on Nov. 13, 1999, traveling to Cairo by steamer. He bears the distinctive scars of the Dinka tribe on his forehead. Branded at age 13, the markings represent his passage into manhood.

While working 72 hours a week pumping gas at a service station, he studied accounting at the African College in Khartoum and was a member of a Bible study group. He also was one of nine arrested from the group and accused of engaging in politics, not religion. After spending six months in prison, he was released on Aug. 17, 1999. Security forces, Michael says, demanded that he change his name to a Muslim one and cooperate with them. He refused, determined to find a way out of Sudan.

He is married with two sons: one is 4 years old and the other is 2. Like Biar, his two brothers are in Kenya's Kakuma refugee camp. His two sisters are in SPLA-controlled territory. “I got news that they are married. I don't know the names of their husbands or whether they have children or not.” The last time he saw his sisters was in 1983. Rejected for asylum by the UNHCR, he desperately searches for work. “Our life is very difficult here,” Michael says. “I have children. My life is very difficult. I need any work, even cleaning the house. I can do it.”

Mayar Mayar Kuethpiny, 56, left his hometown of Wau in southern Sudan's Bahr El-Ghazal province in 1985 for the last time. For decades, he crisscrossed the country, selling dura, sugar, lentils, and fruit. Armed conflict made travel prohibitively dangerous and put an end to that career.

“I got stranded,” says Mayar, a tall and brooding figure who has two wives and nine children, ranging in age from 9 to over 20. As a businessman, he could afford to rent a place in Khartoum, but with no business and no financial means to pay his expenses he, along with 2 million other internally displaced southern Sudanese, eventually wound up assembling a makeshift dwelling on the outskirts of Khartoum.

“I also could not educate my children,” he adds. “We embarked in educating our children through self-help schools where we used to volunteer to be teachers.” Twenty-four schools were built. Enlisting the support of non-governmental organizations like Save the Children, the parents formed councils to administer the school. Mayar is proud of his service as the financial secretary for one such group. A year ago, the government confiscated 10 of the schools. “It was just Islamicization they were aiming at. We initiated these schools on our own. We [could] not just surrender them,” Mayar recalls. Eventually the government prevailed. Disgusted and discouraged, Mayar left the shantytowns for Cairo. He arrived on March 31, 2000.

“The government says, 'We are soldiers, we know how to talk, which is through the gun,' ” he reflects. “They say, when two elephants meet, it is the grass that suffers.”


Church of the Sudanese


On any given day, the high arched ceilings of the Church of the Sacred Heart—or the Church of the Sudanese, as its neighbors know it—ring with the sounds of weddings, baptisms, and christenings. A school for refugee children enrolls 900 students. The church clinic, open three days a week, is a small room. Hanging on the wall, just above the doctor's desk, is a picture of the sainted Sudanese nun Josephine Bakhita.

On summer evenings, hundreds of southern Sudanese gather in the church courtyard. A canteen at one corner makes brisk business selling soda pop, tea, and sweetened warm milk. Vendors polish and mend shoes, others sell vinyl Republic of Sudan passport holders and copies of the Bible in Arabic. Sudanese youth spill out in front of the church gates.

8-year-old Joseph, barefoot and clothed in undersized hand-me-downs, is one of the many Sudanese children who have been displaced by their country's civil war. He, his mother, his two sisters, and his younger brother, live—as he puts it—“in the church.” Finding no other safe or affordable haven, many single mothers and their children have made the church courtyard their home. In one corner, hand-washed clothes hang to dry on the trunks of three palm trees, next to the plastic bags and old suitcases that hold the refugees' possessions. Some of the children in the church's courtyard play with a tattered, deflated ball, while others drum on empty cans of powdered milk.

Joseph doesn’t go to school. He knows his mother spends her days in Sixth of October City, a planned community in the desert outside Cairo, but he does not know what she does there. When asked where his father is, he pauses and shakes his head quizzically. “Ma feesh,” he says. There is none.

On July 24, as the temperature climbed past 110 degrees Fahrenheit, a public bus struck a Sudanese man in front of the church. A confrontation ensued between the driver and passengers on the bus and a small crowd of young Sudanese men who demanded that the injured man be driven to the hospital. The dispute intensified when the Sudanese smashed the windshield of the bus. An angry crowd of Egyptians armed with sticks and stones began to form and the Sudanese retreated inside the courtyard of the church, locking its green gates behind them. As a false rumor spread that the Sudanese had the bus driver hostage inside the walled church compound, the mob of Egyptians began to hurl rocks through the gates and torched the pastor’s car in front of the church entrance. The Sudanese hurled rocks back. Hours after the standoff began hundreds of police officers in riot gear were dispatched to the area to subdue the ongoing unrest.

The events of that day and the media coverage that followed were a plain reminder that in this alien land, Sudanese are not always welcome guests. “Refugees: Guests or Criminals?” blared the front page of the popular, pro-government weekly Rose El Youssef in its July 30 edition. “Many African immigrants are engaging in illicit activities such as drug dealing. They get drunk in the streets and harass women, throw wild parties, and in general act like hooligans. Is this a way for guests in our country to behave?”

The day after the riots, Egyptian police backed by armored SWAT vehicles had already taken up positions around the perimeter of the church. The courtyard that had previously been crowded until well into the night was nearly abandoned. In a city that never sleeps, the gates of the Church of the Sacred Heart closed promptly at 8:30.

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