Why do people like Egypt so much

Immigrants in Egypt: The Eternal Strangers?

People have come to Egypt over the centuries for a variety of reasons. Be it on the run from occupying powers, wars or grievances in your own country, as an asylum seeker, not to be forgotten as a job seeker, student or to get married. One would assume that all these experiences have strengthened Egypt in its acceptance and ability to integrate, but the reality is different.

From Aya Nabil

Rose Kuku came to Cairo from South Sudan three years ago. In the first few days, many questions went through her head: What would her life be like here in Egypt? Would she settle in well and stay as planned, or would she be forced to look for another country? The answers she gave to herself were no longer confident after a tuk-tuk driver threw a brick at her head one night. Her aunt, who had lived in Egypt for eight years, only commented dryly on the incident: "You haven't seen anything yet!" Rose's doubts grew.

That night everything changed for Rose. Before moving to Egypt, all she could think of was to finally come to this country that had so many things in common with her own. Not only was Rose an Arab African; Sudan and Egypt were once even a country. In addition, the Egyptians were really funny and friendly, so that it would be easy for her to get used to. At least that was the impression she got from the Arab dramas that ran up and down on Sudanese television.

But the incident that night and her aunt's words were only the beginning of a difficult time that made her completely rethink. In the years that followed, Rose felt increasingly strange in her environment. She got the impression that even a whole life in Egypt would not change anything about the fact that the Egyptians did not accept her, but saw her as a stranger or guest, because she looked too different, because "her color was different from their color," like Rose says.

Rose Kuku from South Sudan with her son Youssef | © Goethe-Institut / Aya Nabil For a long time she tried to get used to all of this. But with the birth of her son Youssef, the doubts she had tried to escape came back: Would her child have better chances of integration in this society into which he had been born, but of which he was not a citizen? Or should she now have to think about emigration again in order to protect her son from the feelings of being a stranger as she experienced it?
The thought is amazing that people of other nationalities like Rose experience Egypt in this way and feel like strangers, considering that Egypt's history is largely shaped by immigration. People have come to Egypt over the centuries for a variety of reasons, be it to flee from occupying powers, war or grievances in their own country, as asylum seekers, not to be forgotten as job seekers, students or to get married. One would assume that all these experiences have strengthened Egypt in its acceptance and integration capacity and not the opposite, as Rose and so many others have experienced.
The situation is also difficult for migrants in Egypt at the official level. The government's political course poses obstacles to their integration into society. Egyptian law does not allow asylum seekers a permanent residence permit or citizenship.
The only legal way for refugees to get a temporary residence permit is through the UN Refugee Agency in Cairo. The organization has the mandate to register the residence of asylum seekers until another country is available for their emigration. At the last census in July 2017, the organization reported that the number of registered people was 210,000.
However, the UN Refugee Agency cannot provide all registered persons with a residence permit in another country, because the number of people fleeing unrest and wars in Arab and African countries is growing. Many people have had refugee status for a very long time, but have lived in Egypt for decades or were even born here and have never seen the skies of any other country. The possibility of citizenship exists only for the children of refugee women who marry an Egyptian man. However, the women themselves do not receive citizenship, nor do foreign men who marry Egyptian women, nor their children, who only have the Egyptian mother's name on the birth certificate.
This lack of opportunity drives many refugees and migrants to seek other types of residence permits, such as B. in the context of study or investor visas. The latter are most widespread among members of other Arab nationalities who have sufficient funds to do business. Or, in spite of everything, many of them are looking for a job. The Egyptian authorities estimated the number of foreigners staying in Egypt at around five million in 2015.
“We are all brothers!” These words can be heard again and again from Egypt's decision-makers. They seem like an empty phrase and alien to life against the background of the actual realities with which foreigners in Egypt are confronted; especially those who consider Egypt their homeland, even if they have a different citizenship on paper.

"I feel inferior"

In front of the Hada'iq al-Ma'adi subway station, on the poorer side of this upscale neighborhood, I met Rose and she led me to her current apartment. With quick steps she penetrated the queues of waiting that had formed at the small market stalls in the streets around her house. The faces of the people told me that mainly people from Africa lived in this quarter, who could find accommodation here that was appropriate to their financial situation. The denser it got on the streets, the faster Rose's steps became and when I asked her why, she replied: "So that nobody bother us."
Rose has made the experience that even if she wears Egyptian clothes and is now known to the traders and residents of her area, because of the color of her skin she is always a stranger or a "guest" in everyone's eyes. As a result, she has suffered multiple harassment on the streets.
There is no social contact with Egyptians in Rose's life. Even among the neighbors, she is only greeted by a few when she meets them. School and church also offer no opportunities to mingle with the locals, as Sudanese and Egyptians learn and pray at different times. Rose thinks this is because people with dark skin are viewed as inferior by the Egyptians. Your network of relationships is therefore limited to resident relatives, whose contacts are in turn limited to acquaintances. The members of their congregation all know each other and live in a similar situation. In this way, explains Rose, "we can enjoy the company of others and if something happens to one of us, we are there to support."
Goethe Institute / Aya Nabil


Only a few non-Egyptians are able to break out of this cycle, with better chances for those who speak the Egyptian dialect and who most resemble the locals in skin color, customs and traditions. No doubt these aspects can become irrelevant the higher up the wealth scale one is. And there are also differences between town and country. Rural areas in particular are still dominated by traditional expectations and standards with regard to origin, property and traditions, which make the integration of foreigners there very difficult.
Rose could never live up to such demands, because although she has embraced many aspects of Egyptian life, she was not ready to completely separate from her native culture. It is also impossible for her to move to a place where her nationality and differences are irrelevant. She is stuck in the middle: She cannot approach the Egyptians who do not recognize her and she cannot return to her homeland, from which she fled war, unrest and tension.
Dark skin, Asian features or a Western appearance - the gap between the locals and people of other nationalities is growing. This also applies to children from binational marriages who were born in Egypt, such as 17-year-old Ali Hassan. Since he has an Egyptian father but a Malaysian mother and comes after her outwardly, he is constantly confronted with questions about his identity. “That's why I had terrible problems at school. I always have the feeling that I have to do two things in order to convince people of my Egyptian identity. "

Economic pressure

In contrast to Rose and Ali, the Yemeni Fatima el-Mutahar had fewer problems dealing with the Egyptians. Due to her skin color and the headscarf, she is indistinguishable from most Egyptian women and is perceived as familiar; she even has a perfect command of the Egyptian dialect. Therefore, apart from dealing with authorities, she largely keeps a low profile on her foreign background.
When she moved to Egypt, her dialect sometimes still betrayed her origins. But the locals seemed to take her warmly, after all, she came from a "brother country", as she was repeatedly assured. But while war refugees from Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Libya and Palestine are at least apparently shown this hospitality, it is completely denied to Sudanese, although they also come from Arabic-speaking countries.
Fatima el-Mutahar with her son | © Goethe-Institut / Sandra WolfFatima has been living in Egypt for several years and she too had to revise her views. She considers the hospitality of the Egyptians to be superficial and reaches her limits especially when it comes to money. As a result of the deterioration in the Egyptian economy, Fatima could see a change in the behavior of the Egyptians. More and more foreigners like her were accused of being a competitor when it came to the limited resources for a living and at the same time being responsible for rising rental, transport and shop prices. These allegations are most strongly targeted against economically weak immigrants who do not have their own businesses.
Fatima lives from freelance work, which however does not give her the stable life that she urgently needs for herself and her four-year-old son. With his birth, fears about the future began to smolder in Fatima. She says: “Once he said a few words in the Yemeni dialect in front of his friends at school, and they turned around and said he was not an Egyptian. And they asked him why are you here? And when he asked me that, I didn't know what to answer. I don't want him to feel that his identification with the country he lives in conflicts with his country of origin. I don't know how long I can keep him from that and whether he will get the same opportunities as his Egyptian brothers in studying and working. I want to enroll him in elementary school now, and that takes a lot of complicated steps that I can hardly afford to take. And if I look at the other migrants with children around me who have lived here for a long time, then it is very unlikely that I will be able to meet the requirements. "
Goethe Institute / Aya Nabil

The weakest link

Fatima Idris, managing director of "Tadamon - The Egyptian Refugee Multicultural Council", believes that the economic pressure on life in Egypt has made immigrants the weakest link and exacerbated their social marginalization.
Fatima works with around 30,000 refugees every year. She was a refugee herself 18 years ago when she came here from Northern Sudan to pursue her Egyptian roots, which she inherited from her grandfather in Qena in Upper Egypt. She eventually received Egyptian citizenship and chose to stay. “The pressure was lower back then,” she says. “The Egyptians were more open to others. And in my opinion, they don't have so much a problem with others as they have a problem with themselves. "
Fatima Idris, Managing Director at Tadamon - The Egyptian Refugee Multicultural Council | © Goethe-Institut / Aya Nabil
She adds: “I managed to integrate, although I look more like the Nubian Egyptians. My children have white skin and therefore few problems. But when we are all together, the questions start for us - as if these weren't my children. Once a teacher at her school went so far as to say to a friend of my son: 'You are white and beautiful.' I had to intervene. I don't want them to adopt the popular belief that fair skin is superior. "
Fatima believes that life in Egypt is dominated by stereotyping and that the problems always start when someone is different: "I know many women who were forced to put on a headscarf so that they no longer got into trouble in their residential area, because they looked different. "
Goethe Institute / Aya Nabil

Feeling alien

While Rose from South Sudan is thinking about emigrating to another country in order to escape the feelings of foreignness and Fatima from Yemen doesn't yet know whether she can endure them, Ali stands in the middle: he feels like an Egyptian, but his looks causes him problems and he has the feeling that those around him do not accept him. He doesn't yet know how to deal with it: "I have the feeling that I'll always be a stranger, so that I've already thought about leaving."


Aya Nabil is a journalist with many years of experience. For nine years she has been writing highly sought-after text and multimedia research, especially on the topics of human rights and society. Nabil works as a freelancer for various national and international media companies. So far, she has received five awards for her work, most recently as first place in the “Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism Award”, 2017 ”.

Translation: Jana Duman
Copyright: Goethe-Institut / Perspectives

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