Mar 6, 2013

Syrian Refugees Expose Egyptian Racism!

A refugee is a person who fled their country for fear of prosecution, conflict, disaster, etc. Many leave their countries due to political, religious, ethnic, or gender-based persecution. Depending on the country of arrival, refugees facing various obstacles; those could be legal barriers, or economic issues as it's difficult to find a job in the new country, or could be related to sociocultural factors such as difference in language, cultural habits, etc.

Once called a revolution, now the most commonly used word for what's happening in Syria now is civil war. Syrians have been fleeing the violence to neighboring countries. And while some countries set up refugee camps such as Jordan and Turkey, Syrian refugees in Egypt are more loosely located in urban or even rural areas.

In addition to the newly-coming Syrian refugees, Egypt is host to a large number of Sudanese, Ethiopian, Somali, Eritrean refugees plus Palestinians and Iraqis.

The response to Syrian refugee presence has shown as much Egyptian chivalry towards Syrians as well as deeply held racism against migrants from African origins.  There are many examples that support my argument:

FIRST:  Civil society response has been essentially different. Numerous civil society groups have stepped in to assist Syrians whether with medical, food, shelter services.  These range from nation-wide entities such as the doctors' syndicate to small locality-based groups and mosques. In contrast, refugee of African origins are assisted by a limited number of aid groups, mostly targeting refugees only. While most those groups assist Syrians as well, African refugees find it extremely difficult to access services outside those aid groups.

SECOND: While this closed aid system of African refugees limits their integration to Egyptian society, Syrians find it relatively easy to access various service providers alongside other Egyptians, facilitating their integration into the community. This is also manifested by the heavy presence of African refugees in Cairo (where they can access services), while Syrians are more spread in different governorates and regions of Egypt, because they know they may be able to get decent support.

THIRD:  African refugees report racist slurs and comments on Egyptian street every day. This comes in addition to persistent police harassment and abuse. While one cannot claim that life has been easy for Syrians here, their situation is significantly different.  I recall the brutal massacre of Sudanese refugees in Mostafa Mahmoud square in 2005 when security forces violently interfered to dismantle their protests in front of UN Refugees Agency Office resulting in killing dozens of protesters including women, children, and elderly people. 

FOURTH:     What African migrants go through on a daily basis is not limited to them. It also a ordinary occurrence with Egyptian Nubians. Their dark skin is easily seen as a basis to immediately perceive them as non-Egyptians, as many report that people usually assume they're Sudanese or African-Americans! While race is hardly an obvious factor in Egyptian politics, it's not unnatural to ascribe Nubian marginalization to their ethnic background. Even when some Nubians call for their 'right to return' as a necessary compensation to their forced displacement from Old Nubia, they're seen as instigators or separationists. 

FIFTH:  Women refugees from African origins, typically, find it more difficult as the sexual harassment becomes combined with racism. Since a big part of African refugee women work as domestic workers, they face the long litany of exploitation domestic workers usually face whether sexual or otherwise.

 We all know that sexual violence is not limited to any certain gender, race, etc. There have been increasing reports of exploitation of Syrian women to be married off without their consent in order to get her family supported by the husband. What happens to either Syrian or African women is a gross abuse and violation, however it highlights the different ways Egyptian male perpetrators view those women. Some can only amount to inferior domestic workers while the Syrians can be marriage material!

Comparisons are unfair and suffering is never to be quantified or measured. However, this is not the intention of this piece; it's about exposing Egyptian racist attitudes to Africans, which sounds like an oxymoron since Egyptians are African themselves.

Also, the issue definitely runs deeper than this. The historic relationship with Syria makes us see Syrians in a special light. This is at odds with the African relationships which once were strong but kept on declining particularly after Mubarak's assassination attempt in Addis Ababa. Everyday government and independent media cover events in Syria while we hardly get news of what's happening in Ethiopia or what's going on in South Sudan.

In any case, our society continues to be in deep denial about this problem, hindering any action to be taken in that regard. We have seen progress on some issues such as  they have moved from denial phase into how-to-deal-with-it phase, such as street sexual harassment. Whether we will see the same happening with racism and ethnic discrimination is yet to be seen.



  1. I've seen this all over North Africa and I agree with you 100%.
    I just don't get one point, why would anyone in Egypt think that someone with dark skin is an African-American, as you pointed on the fourth example?

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  2. I do agree with you regarding Egyptians' racial slurs that probably occur with African Migrants. However, extrapolating that to Nubians is relatively novel for me.
    In my 20+ years of living in Egypt, I never witnessed any racial classifications that put Nubians as a different category. A lot of Egyptians from different parts already have a similarly colored skin. Also looking at some of the elite circles in the country, I find a considerable amount of Nubians ranging from several prominent Businessmen to the former head of Egypt's Military (Field Marshal Tantawi) who is also Nubian.

  3. @PauloOne: that's an interesting question. I I think that will depend on things other than their skin color, like their style of clothes, hair, etc. It's related to perceiving black people as "foreign".

    @Anonymous: You have a valid point. What's being said about Nubians is not homogeneous across all of them. They come from different backgrounds, class, etc. However, it's really unfair to say they're not marginalized because some of them are rich or because Tantawy is Nubian. It's like saying Christians are fine because Sawiris is there. Their displacement to Kom Ombo desert is stark example in addition to political, cultural marginalization, etc.

  4. Thanks for the enlightening post. I have seen several instances of racism against Sudanese and other "Africans" in Cairo, as well as having personal experience while walking with a Sudanese acquaintance.
    I think you touched upon some interesting issues of identity: although Egyptians are Africans, they don't always see themselves as "real Africans" (of course this is a problem throughout North Africa). Due to history, culture, and language they might see themselves as closer to Syrian people, and certainly skin color plays a part in that.
    Keep up the great work. Look forward to reading more from you.

  5. Thanks Brett, another version of the piece was published here.

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