CAIRO, Egypt (WOMENSENEWS)–As South Sudan celebrates its long-awaited sovereignty, refugees from that region who have been living here aren’t sure whether to stay or go.
For single mothers with children to consider–and some aid workers here say they represent the majority of the refugee population in Egypt–the quandary is particularly acute. While they worry about deteriorating conditions in Egypt since the Jan. 25 revolution, they still doubt their newly independent homeland is a better bargain, especially for their children.
One of these women is 55-year-old Cecilia Lukusalg, who has lived in Cairo since 2005 with her six children.
Lukusalg says she is reluctant to return to a country where there might not be any work, where infrastructure is lacking and where her family suffered through ethnic warfare.
On the other hand, since Egypt’s Jan. 25 revolution employment has gotten worse for foreign-born domestic housekeepers such as herself.
The Egyptian government prohibits official employment of refugees or migrant workers unless they can prove to have skills that cannot be found in Egypt. Few Sudanese arrive with much education and most join the informal sector as domestic workers or laborers.
Since the revolution, however, many wealthy foreigners have left the country, leaving their Sudanese housekeepers jobless. Lukusalg was lucky enough to pick up some shifts as a cleaner and assistant at a local refugee aid organization.
For another single Sudanese mother, Mandera Sabina, a key concern is schooling for her children.
It’s difficult for refugees to get into Egyptian schools, but at least schools exist here and offer well-trained teachers. Nothing like that can be found in South Sudan, she fears.
Better Than Homeland Schools
Egypt also has an established network of faith-based groups that run their own private schools and charge nothing. All of that is better than what Sabina would find in her homeland, if she were to join a U.N. repatriation program operating since 2006.
“It’s affecting my life because if they don’t study, their future is in the darkness,” said Sabina. She too has six children and her husband died many years ago.
She says at the moment they plan to stay in Egypt for at least two years so her children can continue their education. “If things are all right in South, that will be the time to go back,” Sabina said.
Any hopes of going to a third country are constrained by long waiting periods and uncertainty.
The number of yearly resettlement slots for Egypt has been raised to 2,000 this year to account for the country’s instability, up from 900 previously.
Victims of trauma and people under 18 and over 50 who have relatives in resettlement countries take priority, followed by women at risk and single mothers who are looking after many children.
The U.N. could not provide data on the number of slots that go to single mothers in particular.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees spokesperson Nayana Bose said that the average time to determine a refugee’s resettlement options is six months.
Sabina said the word among refugees is that it takes close to a year to find out what will become of you.
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.
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.
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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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