Iraqi refugees in Egypt

_45023936_saoundandsis226×1701.jpgWhile most of the two million Iraqis who fled violence in their country are now in Syria or Jordan, nearly 150,000 are in Egypt. Four Iraqis describe life in a country with high unemployment, rising food prices and scant support for Iraqi refugees.

Saoud’s mother and younger siblings are returning to Iraq this week after three years in Egypt, but it’s still too dangerous for his father to return.
Saoud is staying in Cairo with his father, to develop his art

“We left Iraq because we were threatened. My Dad was one of the few in our Baghdad district to have worked in the government. It was a Sunni area and my mother is Shia.”

Most Iraqis are not allowed to work in Egypt and neither of his parents have earned any money since they arrived.

With funds running out, most of them are going back to a different part of Baghdad to stay with another branch of the family.

Souad wants to stay in Cairo, to improve his art.

“The UN referred me to an Iraqi information centre, who told me about the Townhouse Gallery, where I’ve been learning a lot in the free workshops. The gallery has started supporting me by fundraising – there’ll be no such opportunity to develop my skills in Iraq. My younger brother and sisters haven’t been so lucky.”

Unlike Syria or Jordan, Egypt does not allow Iraqi refugee children to enter the free state education system. Iraqis have to enrol their children in fee-paying schools.

“For the last 18 months we have been schooled at home and took public exams at the end of the year.”

Souad says he feels very sad not knowing when he will see his mother, brother and sisters again.

JANI, 55
Jani used to run a string of businesses in Baghdad and he had close links with the US and other foreign missions there. After several of his offices were ransacked while he was abroad on a work trip, he moved his family to Cairo in July 2005.

I think most Iraqi refugees have no idea there’s a UNHCR resettlement organisation here

“I had million dollar contracts outstanding with the Iraqi Health Ministry, which is controlled by the party that follows [Shia cleric] Moqtada Sadr. As I am a Chaldean Christian and had relations with the coalition, they wanted bribes, which I didn’t give”.

Jani is in a better position than many Iraqi refugees in Egypt; he has earned some money giving management lectures in Lebanon, Turkey and Cairo.

“Even people who brought money to open businesses in Egypt – they’ve gone bankrupt. They have to pay high taxes for the privilege and they don’t understand the market here.”

“I didn’t come to Cairo to stay. We thought things would improve and that we could go back. But returning to Iraq would be like committing suicide. I have lost everything; but above all I have lost my homeland.”

Of the estimated 150,000 Iraqi refugees in Egypt, only about 11,000 have registered with the UNHCR there. After three years in Cairo, Jani and his family have finally applied for resettlement in the US.

“I think most Iraqis in Egypt have no idea there’s a UNHCR resettlement organisation here. Cairo is a very big city, there are only a few Iraqi families that I know here.”

Zuhair is an electronic technician who used to run his own shop in Baghdad. A Sunni, he had been an officer in Saddam’s army and was living and working in a Shia district of the city. _45019400_iraqisreturnxegypt226_170_a1.jpg

Iraq is encouraging nationals to return by flying them home for free

“I was sent three threatening letters at home. Then they shot one of my cousins. Three days later, they killed a second – I knew I was next”.

He arrived in Cairo with his wife and four daughters in October 2006.

“The same people who sent me the letters, now own my shop”.

Zuhair has moved the family outside Cairo because the rent is cheaper, but life is a big struggle.

“I have tried to find work many times, but because I’m over 30 they say I’m too old.”

The UN contributes towards his two youngest daughters’ school fees but he has to pay the difference. He says he doesn’t know what he will do when his savings of $5,000 finally run out.

I was sent an email saying if I didn’t go back to Baghdad to get killed, they would kill me in Cairo

“Our apartment has just two rooms plus kitchen and bathroom. We sleep on the floor because we don’t have beds. We’re just trying not to spend too much”.

The family has expanded since arriving in Egypt. His eldest daughter, 20, fell pregnant and had the baby against her husband’s wishes. He has left her and returned to Iraq. Sadly, the family’s move has not even freed them from fear.

“I was sent an email in July, saying if I didn’t go back to Baghdad to get killed, they would come to Cairo to kill me. My wife read the email.”

Zuhair hadn’t told his wife about the three threatening letters he received, he says there were already enough other security worries to make them leave. His wife is in shock.

“She has become very, very sick. She doesn’t eat, she doesn’t talk, she doesn’t care about her children. Sometimes I don’t hear her voice for two or three days.”

Zuhair’s mother is still in Baghdad but has warned him not to return.

“I know if I go back I will be killed and leave these women on their own. My only hope is the UN calling me to say I have somewhere to go.”

Ishuak and her family left Iraq after her son was kidnapped and tortured in Baghdad. His captors only agreed to release him on condition they left. They went first to Jordan, but moved to Egypt for cheaper dentistry college fees for their son.

“It’s still the same in Iraq, there’s no security. I am Sunni and the government is Shia, the militias are Shia. I can’t return.

“We used to live in a mixed area but now it’s Shia. Neighbours have told me that people from the Mehdi army have taken over our house. I am asking the UNHCR for resettlement.

“In Egypt the UNHCR is very slow, because there are already a lot of different refugees, especially from Sudan. It’s much quicker in Jordan and Syria.”

Ishuak’s husband and granddaughter both need urgent medical attention. Despite all this, she says they are lucky.

“We are in a better position than others in Iraq who cannot leave”.


All of the Iraqi contacts in Cairo were provided by:Iraqis In Egypt