In Egypt, Sudan's Single Moms Resist Resettlement

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Refugees from South Sudan who are living in Egypt have both a newly independent homeland and a host country that has become harsher since the January revolution. For single moms, the future still looks brighter where they are.

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A Permanent Life

Many Sudanese have been living here for 10 or 12 years.

The determination for resettlement has "nothing to do with length of stay in Cairo," said Mahmoud Farag, community outreach team leader with the legal aid group Africa and Middle East Refugee Assistance. Most Sudanese have to settle into a permanent life in Egypt and seek work to feed their families.

The number of Sudanese refugees here is difficult to count.

As of January 2011, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Egypt said 41,360 were registered.

Farag says actual numbers are far higher; anywhere up to 3 million.

Single mothers are not tallied as a group. However, aid workers, including Fatima Saeed, with the aid organization Children's Collective in Cairo, say that single mothers and their children make up the lion's share of the ex-pat Sudanese community here. Most of their husbands either died or abandoned them back in Sudan.

A newly heightened sense of nationalism among post-revolution Egyptians makes some more likely to hire a fellow citizen and to distrust foreigners who are seen as stealing jobs, according to a spokesperson for a church group who asked that he and the group not be named.

This goes hand-in-hand with increased discrimination against African migrants and refugees associated with the reign of former president Hosni Mubarak.

"The people say 'You are here because of Mubarak. Now that he's gone, you should also go,'" says the legal aid group's Farag, who is Egyptian.

Hostility Rising

Farag said hostility against the Sudanese is rising now that people are less likely to fear retribution.

"Being attacked is a normal thing – they abuse you, they steal from you, they slap you, you can't even raise your hand to do anything, just keep working," said George Marual, a South Sudanese man living in Cairo.

Police are said to be unwilling to help the refugees when they are mugged, assaulted or sexually harassed. Since they lack recourse, many victims do not report abuse to the authorities.

Rent for migrants is often higher than for Egyptians, prompting them to seek higher wages, said Marual. Employers would rather hire a citizen, for less.

Sabina said that she makes 1,070 Egyptian pounds (roughly $180 USD) per month. Her rent is 1,000 pounds and a cheap meal costs 5-10 pounds for a single person. She has to sell homemade crafts and ask for assistance from an advocacy group to get by.

Despite these challenges, a very small percent of people from South Sudan and Darfur want to return home, according to Africa and Middle East Refugee Assistance's figures.

"The repatriation program has not been very successful," said Farag, adding that only 3,000 of the people from South Sudan signed up to go back through the South Sudanese government office in Cairo since the repatriation program was launched in 2006.

Many refugees say they don't want to return because there is no home left, no families, just abandoned properties that have been picked apart or destroyed over the years by scavenging neighbors and paramilitary groups.

"[There is] no infrastructure in South Sudan, no schools, no hospitals, the houses and lands are burned up. And some are from unsafe places," says Farag.

Many ethnic conflicts still rage across the region as ethnic militias battle northern government forces and each other. Subscribe

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Igor Kossov is a freelance journalist in the Middle East. He has recently investigated the Libyan insurrection and the plight of refugees in the region. He has also covered politics in Uganda as well as local and international issues in New York City.

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