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Seasons of Migration

ABDALLA F. HASSAN | Egypt Today | August 2001 | pp. 74–79

As political unrest continues in Sudan, a steady stream of refugees is seeking safety in Cairo. But their problems are far from over.

“My name is Naomi,” she says softly. “In my home country I have a name given by my mother—Yangi. Anyone who, like me, is born after two children who died is given this name.” Born in 1942 in the southern Sudanese town of Yei near the border with Uganda, Naomi is one of the 20,000 or so Sudanese refugees living in Cairo.


The original wave of southern Sudanese émigrés who came to Egypt in the 1980s comprised university students who planned to return to Sudan upon graduation. But as political conditions deteriorated in their native land, many never went back. With armed conflict raging in the south, returning to Sudan has usually meant conscription in the army. Two of Naomi’s sons came to Cairo as students. Her husband, a prominent politician in Sudan, and their two daughters remain in Khartoum. Although she has not visited Sudan in the four years she has lived in Cairo, she often contemplates returning home. “Even if the war doesn’t end, I still want to go back to Sudan to see my family. I have to go and stay with my girls because no one should leave girls with their father alone.”


A schoolteacher, Naomi taught in Khartoum for two years. But when she discovered that public school teachers were required to undergo military training, she was afraid. “For three months you learn how to use a gun, how to march like a soldier, all these activities of armies.” She left her job and came to Cairo. Today, Naomi teaches sewing to refugees at the Joint Relief Ministry (JRM) program at All Saints Cathedral in Zamalek. “When we come together and work together, it gives us the spirit of love. It makes that hatred go away from our heads.”


For over a decade the JRM at All Saints Cathedral and St. Andrew’s United Church Downtown has assisted southern Sudanese and other refugees. There are children’s educational classes, English, and computer training as well as vocational courses for adults. Last December, through a performing arts program, refugee students staged a play called The Hanged Pot, which explored the clash between traditional African and Western values.


A five-day-a-week medical clinic at All Saints Cathedral offers general, prenatal and pediatric care. Church programs extend refugees’ skills 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 as well as to large families and single parent households. “Here at the church,” remarks the Reverend Huw Thomas, provost of the Anglican cathedral, “we do not have any denominational test.”

The numbers seeking a haven in Cairo continue to grow. “Five years ago there were 8,000 or 10,000 southern Sudanese here,” says Mark Bennett, JRM coordinator. “Now there are more than 20,000. There may be another 3,000 or 4,000 in Alexandria.” Southern Sudanese make up the largest section of Egypt’s refugee population, although Somalis, Sierra Leonians, Eritreans, Ethiopians, Libyans, Liberians, Yemenis and Bosnians as well as Palestinians have also found refuge in Egypt.


Many hope their stay will be temporary. “Egypt has become a country of transit, where getting refugee status means getting resettled in a Western country,” explains Dr. Barbara E. Harrell-Bond, adjunct professor of forced migration and refugee studies at the American University in Cairo. If accepted by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), they gain the opportunity to resettle in the United States, Canada or Australia. But as Bennett points out, “Probably only 30 percent of them will find that opportunity.”


Intended to foster closer ties between the two neighboring countries, the 1978 Wadi El-Nil treaty granted Sudanese the right to reside in Egypt without the usual residence permits or visas required of other nationals. Between three to five million Sudanese nationals currently live here. Those who arrived prior to President Hosni Mubarak’s attempted assassination in Ethiopia in 1995 are allowed to stay indefinitely. Obtaining the initial one-month visitor’s visa is generally straightforward, but Sudanese migrants who arrived after the assassination attempt must explain why they wish to extend their visas. Fearing deportation, many Sudanese do not apply for tourist visa renewals, nor are they granted work visas.


Sudanese women employed informally as housekeepers may earn an adequate income. But lacking legal employment status, the men do not find jobs easily, and employers may ask them to work 10 to 12 hours a day for monthly salaries as low as LE 150. Then there is the question of housing. Monthly rents run from LE 400 to LE 500 for a cramped, sparsely furnished apartment.



FAMINE AND WAR in Africa’s longest-running civil conflict have claimed the lives of two million Sudanese and created an internally displaced population numbering four and a half million. The 18-year war has been interpreted as a religious one between a Muslim and Arab north against a Christian and animist south. The grievances are widely perceived as racial and religious discrimination against southern black Africans by the northern Arabs who control the government. While religion is a widely publicized dimension in the civil war, Harrell-Bond believes something even more fundamental lies at the heart of the conflict. “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.


Armed militia groups controlled by the hard-line National Islamic Front routinely attack military and civilian targets, and slave raids occur regularly in parts of the south. Overhead, aerial bombardment by noisy Russian-made Anotonov bombers leaves no territory insulated from peril. Oil pipeline projects funnel millions of dollars to aid the government’s war effort. Rebel troops receive arms through Kenya and Uganda, augmented by seized ammunition stockpiled in government garrisons.


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


Father Claudio Lurati, vice pastor of the Church of the Sacred Heart in Abassia, is a missionary with the Comboni, an order of the Catholic Church named after the first bishop of Sudan. He spent five months in southern Sudan in 1995, in the village of Mapuordit, halfway between Yerol and Rumbek in what is known as the liberated areas, territory occupied and controlled by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). No church building existed so 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 authorities. The area was totally controlled by the SPLA,” says Father Claudio. At the time, government soldiers still remained in Yerol and Rumbek but for the last three years these two towns have also been occupied by the SPLA.


Most of the southern Sudanese now residing in Cairo fled from the south to Khartoum, where they lived in the shantytowns that surround the capital city. In recent years, roughly 7,000 to 8,000 Sudanese have been coming to Egypt annually. “A pulling factor is that many people now have the chance to migrate to the U.S., Canada or Australia as refugees. They come here at any cost because they have a reasonable hope to travel to these places for resettlement,” adds Father Claudio.


The conflict in Sudan is a nightmare scenario: endless years of civil war, millions killed or starved. The frontlines of the conflict are ambiguous, marked by constantly shifting alliances. Yet it has ebbed into a forgotten war. “Journalists need quick events,” speculates Father Claudio. “So 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.”


But will it ever end? “I think you have to ask yourself whose interests are being served by it not ending,” responds Harrell-Bond. “There are many interests that converge in this war. Think of the millions earned by the companies that fly in food and humanitarian workers as just one example.” Indeed, an indirect beneficiary has been the humanitarian industry: Since 1988, the U.N. and the World Food Program have sponsored Operation Lifeline Sudan, the largest, longest, most expensive humanitarian operation ever mounted. Says Father Claudio: “I wonder really how much the two parties want a reconciliation. Because for soldiers there isn’t a better business than war.”



BIAR ALIER, 33, has a quiet, likeable demeanor. He came to Egypt in 1989 to study agricultural engineering at Alexandria University. He spent three semesters in college before his government scholarship was suspended. When the Sudanese government called on him to return home and attend one of the newly opened universities in Khartoum, he came to Cairo to look for work. A housekeeping job earns him enough to contribute his share of the LE 400 rent for an apartment in Hadayek El Maadi. Having sold everything they owned, those who made the journey to Egypt have little intention of returning for the time being. “When you think of going back there where you have nothing, it’s just like going back to hell,” says Alier.


Born in Bor, Michael Buol Man was 13 when civil war broke out. He left Khartoum for Cairo on November 13, 1999. Man bears the distinctive marks of the Dinka tribe on his forehead. Now working 72 hours a week pumping gas at a service station, he originally studied accounting at the African College in Khartoum, where he belonged to a Bible study group. He was one of nine to be arrested and accused of engaging not in religion, but politics. After spending six months in prison, he was released in August 1999. Security forces, Man says, demanded he change his name to a Muslim one and cooperate with them. He refused, determined to find a way out of Sudan. Married with two children and rejected for asylum by the UNHCR, he is desperately searching for work. “Our life is very difficult here,” relates Man. “I have children. I need any work, even cleaning the house.”


Mayar Mayar Kuethpiny, 56, left his hometown of Wau in southern Sudan’s Bahr El-Ghazal province for the last time in 1985. An agricultural commodities trader, he frequently traveled between south and north selling corn, sugar, lentils and fruit. But armed conflict made travel dangerous. “I got stranded,” says the tall, brooding Kuethpiny who has two wives and nine children. He, along with two million other internally displaced southern Sudanese, made his dwelling on the peripheries of Khartoum.


“We embarked on educating our children through self-help schools where we used to volunteer as teachers.” Twenty-four schools were built. Enlisting the support of organizations like Save the Children, parent councils were formed and Kuethpiny became the financial secretary. A year ago, the government confiscated 10 of the schools. “It was just Islamization they were aiming at. We initiated these schools on our own. We cannot just surrender them,” says Kuethpiny, who arrived in Cairo on March 31, last year. “The government claims, ‘We are soldiers, we know how to talk, which is through the gun,’” he adds. “They say when two elephants meet, it is the grass that suffers.”



EGYPT WAS ONE of the original drafters of the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees. But when Egypt ratified the convention, it added a list of reservations. Refugees are not legally permitted to work and have no access to national health facilities, government schools or subsidized housing. In 1969 the Organization of African Unity (OAU) formulated a regional convention on refugee rights, of which Egypt is also a signatory. The OAU convention widened the definition of refugees to include victims of civil wars and wars of colonization, allowing refugees to be recognized on a group basis. Yet until now Egypt has not developed any national legislation to determine refugee status.


Those fleeing Sudan pin their hopes on attaining formal refugee status from the UNHCR, which assists the Egyptian government in ensuring the protection of refugees by carrying out status determination. Thousands of asylum seekers are awaiting determination of their status, a process that takes well over a year. “We are interviewing per month an average of 500 cases,” says Karim Atassi, the external relations officer at the UNHCR. Limited to the neediest of refugees, the UNHCR’s assistance includes the provision of monthly subsistence allowances, education grants at primary and secondary school level, health care and vocational training. The organization works through local partners which include Caritas Egypt, the Family Planning Association, the Joint Relief Ministry of St. Andrew’s and All Saints Cathedral, and the International Organization for Migration, which helps refugees move to host countries.


“In Egypt and much of the Middle East, which have principally an urban refugee caseload, resettlement has been seen as an accessible durable solution,” says Deanna H. Abdeen, regional refugee coordinator at the U.S. Embassy. In the 1999/2000 fiscal year, 2,879 refugees from Cairo were resettled to the U.S. Two years prior, the number was about 1,000.


However, the UNHCR Cairo office rejects roughly 70 percent of asylum cases. One interpretation of the organization’s high rejection rate is its role in staunching the flow of migrants. As Harrell-Bond says, “If you think of the UNHCR as an instrument of northern countries, then they want to keep refugees from reaching their shores. And remember that the UNHCR is very dependent on those very same donor states for its budget.”



WITNESSING SCORES OF weddings, baptisms and christenings beneath its high, arched ceiling, the Church of the Sacred Heart is known as the church of the Sudanese. It runs a school for displaced Sudanese and refugee children where about 900 kindergarten, primary and intermediate students are enrolled. The church clinic, open three days a week, runs from a small adjoining room. Hanging on the wall, just above the doctor’s desk, is a picture of the Sudanese nun St. Josephine Bakhita.


During the hot evenings of last summer, hundreds of southern Sudanese gathered in the church courtyard. A canteen at one corner made brisk business selling soda pop, tea and sweetened warm milk. A shoeshine was busy at work and peddlers sold trinkets, Republic of Sudan passport holders and Bibles in Arabic. Sudanese youth spilled out in front of the church gates.


I fast became friends with 8-year-old Joseph, who has two sisters and a younger brother. Barefoot and clothed in undersized hand-me-downs, he always spots me quickly in a crowd. I recognize him by his smile.


“Where do you live?” I first asked him.


“I live 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, clothes hang to dry on palm trees, precious life possessions are bundled in plastic bags and old suitcases are stored beneath. For the children, playthings are a tattered, deflated ball or empty powdered milk cans used as drums.


“Do you go to school?” I ask.


Joseph shakes his head.


“Where’s mama?”


“In Sixth of October City,” he replies.


“What does she do in Sixth of October?”


He doesn’t know.


“Where’s papa?”


He pauses and shakes his head quizzically. “Mafish [there is none].”


On July 24, 1999, a public bus struck a Sudanese man by the church. A confrontation ensued between the passengers, the driver of the bus and a small crowd of young Sudanese men, who demanded that the injured man be driven to hospital. The dispute intensified when the Sudanese smashed the windshield of the bus. Preparing for a showdown, an angry mob of Egyptians armed with sticks and stones began to form. The Sudanese retreated inside the church courtyard, locking the gates. In an attempt to free the bus driver falsely rumored to be held hostage inside the compound, the mob of Egyptians hurled rocks inside the walled church compound, vandalizing and torching the pastor’s car in front of the church gate. The Sudanese threw rocks back. Hours after the standoff began, hundreds of police officers in riot gear were dispatched to the area to subdue the unrest. The events of that day were a plain reminder that in this alien land, Sudanese are not always welcome guests.


In a front page story following the incident, sensationalist magazine Rose El Youssef blared: “Refugees: Guests or Criminals? Many African immigrants are engaging in illicit activities such as drug dealing,” charged the popular weekly magazine. “They get drunk in the streets and harass women, throw wild parties and generally act like hooligans. Is this a way for guests in our country to behave?”


The day after the incident, I visited Joseph. From the church rooftop he points to an armored police vehicle parked behind the church. “The police are here to make trouble,” he says, referring to the police officers stationed around the perimeter of the church.


In the past, the courtyard of the Sacred Heart Church was the informal hub for the Sudanese community, with crowds tapering off after 10 at night. Now merely a handful of Sudanese visit, and the gates close promptly at 8:30pm. 

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