Refugees in Cairo Are Starving

Egyptians Evict them from their Apartments and Attack them with Machetes and Guns
by Amir Heinitz on Thursday, February 3, 2011 at 11:28am

At eight o’clock, after a night interrupted by pistol and machine gun shots and loud arguments between pro-Mubarak and pro-Democracy Egyptians on my street, I was woken up by a phone call from one of the Somali community leaders from the low-class Cairo neighbourhood Ardiliwa. “Amir, our people are starving, we don’t know what to do. Some of the Egyptian landlords have threatened to evict us from our apartments, if we don’t pay them the rent right away.”

The tension on the streets is high. When I walked through Cairo’s downtown streets close to my apartment at lunch time, people were suspicious of each other, some quarrelled. Later on fights broke out, Mubarak thugs and supporters and protestors attacked each other with stones. Plainclothes police officers used their guns against protesters. The army was standing by, not going further than occasionally firing with their machine guns into the air.

The exact number of the refugee population from Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Ethiopia, Eritrea and other African countries in Egypt is unknown. Numbers vary between one and three million, most of these refugees come from South-Sudan and Darfur. The numbers of Somalis seeking refuge in Egypt, particularly in Cairo is rising, due to the continued warfare in the Horn of Africa. Since refugees took to the streets in 2005 and protested against their inability to earn money legally, get access to any form of proper health care system, send their children to school and constant racial and religious discrimination faced in daily life in Egypt, the UNHCR moved its operations an hour outside of dowtown Cairo to 6th October City. Refugees struggle to gather the money to take a bus there, and since then no real relations exist between the communities and UNHCR, which according to its platform is the agency for assisting refugees. Refugees complain regularly of being turned away and being beaten up by UNHCR security personnel.

During the current crisis the army has not deployed in Ardiliwa, neither in the neighbourhoods of Arab Maadi, where many Ethiopian refugees live, nor in the parts of Nasr city populated by large numbers of Sudanese. During the last days all my phone calls were dominated by one topic: “Amir, we cannot leave our apartments anymore. What can we do? We are worried. I hope you are safe.” Those that managed to get work as security guards of factories, packers, house maids or those who have to sell their bodies for money in less dignified ways, could no longer bring in the few Egyptian Pounds they were contributing to their families and communities.

Before the revolution broke out my colleagues and I were working on urgent resettlement cases of Ethiopians that had been tortured by the Ethiopian regime in ways unimaginable and for whom life in Cairo only intensifies their traumas. We were working on the cases of Iraqi women, with cancerous growths in their breasts, who are harassed by Egyptians on a daily basis because they refuse to cover their hair. A Somali father with ten children approached me for help with his and his ten children’s resettlement case. He could only buy 3 kilograms of lemon per week for his family, that is 40 grams of vitamin C per head each day; the WHO recommend 400 grams. I was supposed to see a Sudanese women last week whose daughter is becoming progressively paralyzed due to the lack of treatment for her leg which was shot in Darfur. During the last few winter months everybody I met suffered colds or influenza. These refugees who are extraordinarily vulnerable should, according to UNHCR instruments, be resettled to countries where they can overcome their psychological trauma, grow up and live healthily, with access to health care and education and free of harassment.

The UNHCR has closed down. A few days ago I heard that they would open again yesterday, they did not. The road to 6th October City is too dangerous, criminals are roaming the highways, cars are stopped and plundered. The staff, mostly consisting of Egyptians who live in the affluent areas of Cairo, cannot go or want not to go to work. Talk is that UNHCR will be closed at least for another seven days. Caritas, located among the five-star hotels, embassies and villas of Garden City, is unreachable for refugees from the outskirts of Cairo. Walking down Garden City myself I am subject to road blocks erected by army and popular committees every second road. Despite the favourable treatment I receive with my white skin, a reality which is changing rapidly, a thirty minute walk turns into mental exhaustion.

One of the Iraqi community leaders in 6th October was approached by a number of Iraqis while on the market today: what can we do? We have our residence on our UNHCR refugee papers, we cannot even leave the country. We do not have valid passports anymore. A few days ago the Iraqi government sent two airplanes to evacuate Iraqi citizens, refugees from civil war in Iraq, how can they be expected to flee back. Another Iraqi reported how thugs attacked his house with sticks, machetes and guns. One of the men protecting the house was shot. Eventually, they managed to overpower the intruders and turn them over to the authorities. There were reports today saying that the government not only set criminals free, but that some NDP members take part in robbery and assault to spread fear among the people. Iraqis, confronted with an array of stereotypes against them and little means of effective protection, make easy prey.

At night another Somali community leader called me. His breath was short and he was shouting into the phone “They started coming, Amir. They were at our cafeteria. They have knifes and sticks, they are firing at us. I heard someone screaming of pain. What can we do? What can we do?” “Run, Abdikadir, run, get inside your home, look after your family.” The gate to Abdikadir’s house was later on broken. He stayed up all night guarding the house and protecting his young siblings and his old father. Ethiopians and Sudanese on the phone complained about the lack of food all day long – their diet is already beyond meagre. Their gratitude for someone caring only increased my feeling of powerlessness. My nerves were shot but tears would no longer come after having seen uncountable injured Egyptians being carried inside from the edges of Tahrir Square by pro-Democracy demonstrators.

Amir Heinitz is my roommate, still living just a few blocks from Tahrir Square in Cairo.

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