Iraqi refugees in Egypt: living a nightmare
In 2003 the president’s statue fell, and with it Baghdad. Politicians took on prophets’ roles. Bombs reshaped the skyline. Iraq experienced the largest population displacement in the Middle East since 1948.
In 2009, Cairo – a “transit city” – gave refuge to Iraqis fleeing from sectarian violence, killing, rape and torture. Most of these people arrive in Egypt with barely enough savings for a few months, with no steady jobs, no access to state health care or state education. Some restart their lives in the US or Australia or Canada, others give up and return to their war-torn homeland.
The Iraqi refugee population is the third largest in the world, after the Afghan and Palestinian refugee populations. About 2 million fled to neighboring countries, mostly Jordan and Syria, and 2.5 million are displaced inside Iraq.
The sudden influx of Iraqi refugees to Egypt started in 2006 after Jordan closed its borders. Refugees say Egypt is cheaper and Egyptians are nicer, compared to Syria or Jordan. Egyptian officials are unsure of their number. In 2008, the first official survey on Iraqi refugees estimated 20,000 refugees currently live in Egypt. Human Rights Watch, on the other hand, estimates that about 100,000 Iraqis refugees are in Egypt (2007). Behind those zigzagging numbers is a population living in uncertainty.
“We need someone to talk to people, to educate them about us,” Nuha said. She told me that people tend to misunderstand who Iraqi refugees are: “we are not anybody’s burden,” she said. Nuha has lived in Cairo since 2005 with her family, and works in the Resettlement for Legal Aid Program. The Resettlement for Legal Aid Program, formerly Iraqi Information Office (IIO), is a link between the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Iraqi refugees who are seeking assistance in resettlement.
After the US invasion, they risked their lives by staying in Baghdad. Two assassination attempts were made on her husband because he worked for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), an American NGO, besides being Sunni and an ex-air force navigator during the Kuwait–Iraq war (1991).
Nuha herself worked as a sales manager for Canon. The Ba’ath or those collaborating with the American occupation were targeted after the war. She has a son studying at university and a young daughter. The events of their last 6 months in Iraq are engraved in Nuha’s consciousness – she and her daughter were nearly killed in an explosion near her daughter’s school in Baghdad.
If they go back to Iraq, they will be killed. Two of their friends returned and were assassinated.
While we were strolling down the street in the Sixth of October, a suburb 25km away from Cairo’s center, a black car sped past us, attempting to grab Nuha’s bag. Her grip was too tight, but her arm was hurt. “This is a well known black car, everybody knows about it here, only the police strangely don’t recognize it.” A yellow card, Nuha said, is no guarantee of authority’s protection, “One day, I went to the police station to file a complaint, presenting my yellow card to the police officer to which he said ‘soak it in water and drink it, if I want to deport you I will.’” She will not report this incident – few Iraqis would dare to do that. A lot of Iraqis choose to keep a low profile during their stay in Egypt.
It is hard to make sense out of the mess that’s currently happening in Iraq. Nuha said: “Now good and bad became one thing in Iraq.” The war, the collapse of Saddam’s regime and the sectarian governments’ policy prompted sectarian violence and ethnic cleansing that is effectively changing the demographics of the entire region.
Suchitra Vijayan, legal director of the Resettlement for Legal Aid Program, said that in Iraq there are around 50 to 60 militias: “if one is expelled from a militia, it is a simple matter to form your own,” he said.
Most of the Iraqis who flee Iraq are escaping direct threats. In the beginning, the violence was toward minorities but in time it escalated to include all groups. We are talking about groups defined by religious affiliations (Sunni – Shi’a), especially after the Samarra bombing in 2006. People defined by ethnicity, like Kurds, Turkmen, Arabs, Yazidis and Shabak. People with a particular political opinion, like associates of the Ba’ath Party and the former regime. Academics, professors, teachers and students, “are considered as Ba’ath affiliates so they are in danger,” Suchitra explained. Single women are commonly subjected to abduction, rape, trafficking, murder, honor killing, or pressured to conform to strict Islamic codes. Sexual minorities or persons accused of “un-Islamic” behavior can be abused, kidnapped, or killed.
Nuha introduced me to her husband, and we shook hands. Once a former air force navigator and later aid manager, he is now trying to sustain a small computer shop. Highly educated Iraqis fall victim to the high unemployment rate of their “transit” countries, underusing their professional skills in small informal businesses. Egypt’s unemployment rate is 10%. It was reported in the first Egyptian official survey that most Iraqis are investing money in Egypt, or have a sound financial basis, compared to other refugee communities like Somalis or Sudanese.
Back in 2006 that was the case. Iraqis believed they would be staying in a “transit” country for a matter of months. But the refugee resettlement program took years because of security checks by national agencies. Now their emergency savings are dwindling, supplemented by a meager side income. Iraqi refugees say that by the end of 2009 most of them will leave Egypt, either to third countries or back home, simply because they can not live like this.
The global financial crisis has also hit international organizations, including UNHCR, affecting their humanitarian programs. Abeer Etefa, a Public Information Officer in the Middle East and North Africa (UNHCR), said: “UNHCR has urged major industrialized nations to place the same importance on human lives as multi-billion dollar bank rescues.” 10,000 Iraqis are registered with UNHCR in Egypt.
In a small gloomy room, two thin mattresses served as sofas, and a small television in the corner broadcast Arabic pop-culture. An Iraqi mother of two was crying. Next to her was a white plastic bottle of sleeping pills. Her older son was at work at a call center. Her younger 18-year-old son joined us on the mattresses. He said he wanted to be a German language translator and visit Madrid. Ordinary enough ambitions. His father also had ambitions. After he returned from Baku, Azerbaijan, after studying petro-chemical engineering, he had to do military service in the Iraq–Kuwait war, serving with the military police.
In 1991 his wife and little sons were forced to watch their father being burnt alive in front of them: “they put a tire around him, and then burnt him,” she said, recalling the American-inspired Shi’a uprising against Saddam. She said it was because he was Shiite and she is Sunni. Before fleeing to Egypt in 2005, her name appeared on one of the Mahdi militia’s lists, “I found my name written on the death list that was hung high on the water tank, so nobody would take it off, it meant that anybody has a right to put a bullet in my head.”
The Mahdi Army is an Iraqi force created by one of the most influential religious and political Shi’a figures in Iraq, Muqtada Al-Sadr. Later, one of her sons was kidnapped for 13 days. She decided to flee to Egypt. She and her two sons left Basra to Baghdad undercover in 2005, acquiring tourist visas through “some Egyptians”.
She works as cleaner to earn a living and relies on the help of aid organizations and kind neighbors. I asked her about her relatives in Iraq, she waved, saying; “they abandoned me.” Nuha said that single mothers are prioritized in resettlement by UNHCR because they can not return to Iraq or support themselves in Egypt.
I went to another gloomy flat, barely heated, where another single mother of three was living. She migrated to Egypt in 2006. Her husband abandoned them in Egypt and never returned. Back in Iraq, her house is gone: “I was surprised to find the neighborhood where I lived peacefully, where Sunni lived with Shi’a peacefully, turned up side down after the US invasion. That never happened before.”
On arrival in Egypt, most Iraqis apply for a tourist visa, the rest get an investor’s visa or yellow cards from UNHCR and the lucky ones get a student visa. However, since the beginning of 2008, the authorities started to refuse Iraqi refugees applications for entry visas or turned down those who sought to renew it – leaving the refugee's status as illegal. Some turned to international organizations like UNHCR for the quickest resettlement; others are left on the verge of departure back to Iraq. And for those with money, around $1,500, can use unofficial Egyptian channels for visas “under the table”, according to an anonymous source. For some, it appears the only way out.
Nuha and her family and the two single mothers with their children are waiting to be resettled in the US. The process of resettlement to a third country from Egypt takes a refugee across several organizations and several interviews, basically to determine their security status and the vulnerability of their situation. UNHCR and US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) offices can play a pivotal role in an Iraqi refugee's situation. Nuha said: “even if UNHCR approved an Iraqi refugee to be resettled to the US, his case can be turned down later by USCIS.” A knowledgeable official from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) explained: “UNHCR refugee status determination is based on the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and its 1967 Protocol. In contrast, USCIS make their determinations based on U.S. Law,” the official said. An IOM official added that the security checks that USCIS must make to grant asylum take time, which explains why it is hard to determine the waiting period. Some wait for years.
“Those photographs can get me killed back in Iraq,” Ali Al-Zobaidy showed me photographs of him with American soldiers in a US camp in Baghdad. “He’s Mexican,” he pointed at the Latino-looking guy with him, “he joined the army only to get residency in the US.” Ali was a coordinator and translator with the US army back in Iraq. He told me that it was an important position as he was there for the Iraqis, communicating with Americans on behalf of Iraqis and vise versa.
He also showed me photographs of him and his two friends. “Both of them are dead,” he said, killed by the Mahdi militia. Being threatened by the Mahdi militia and Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), he came to Egypt four years ago. Now Ali is a reporter in Al Sharqiya, Iraq's first privately owned satellite channel.
He told me how he met Ayad Allawi, a former interim prime minister of Iraq, and talked about the Iraq situation and Iraqi refugees. And he showed me the picture of his mother on his computer, who he has not seen since he left Iraq. Ali has a yellow card and is now awaiting resettlement to the US.
“I can’t explain what happened in Iraq easily. As Iraqis we lost Iraq a long time ago under the fire and revolutions of 1958. But in 2003 we truly lost Iraq in a cruel way. Iraq will need years to stand up on its own legs. It will need someone who will be able to grasp the situation. Someone who will unite the nation that was split into races, roots, religions, and different ideologies,” he said.
Firass Al-Jeboory, a former legal consultant in the Ministry of Education in Iraq, told me that he is heading to Mumbai, India, in February, to attend a conference on tribal conflicts and their impact on human rights. Currently he is working on his second book on politics and human rights. He has been visiting Egypt since 2004 for seminars and books. “Iraq has been at war for 30 years,” he said.
He talked about the Iraq–Iran war (1982), and then about the war with Kuwait followed by the uprisings of the Kurds and Shi’a against Saddam Hussein. Then he talked about the late 1990’s, about how America and the UK bombed Iraq over weapons of mass destruction. “Iraq is occupied, nothing comes in or goes out,” he said. So Dr Al-Jeboory used to copy books onto CDs to take them to Iraq.
Dr Al-Jeboory recalled the first McDonald’s restaurant in Iraq, built right after the invasion, which did not survive a day, and how American cars are cheap in Iraq. His Iraqi agricultural business makes enough income, and in Egypt he dedicates himself to studies and refugee issues. He has Egyptian residency; he also had a yellow card and threw it away explaining that he “was disappointed” in UNHCR refugee policies.
The Iraqi community in Egypt is not isolated but is cautious in interacting with Egyptians, Dr Al-Jeboory said. The results of NGOs like The Resettlement for Legal Aid Program, and the official Egyptian report on Iraqis, highlight the same point. While Ali said that Iraqi society went through many conflicts and radical shifts. Until recently, Iraqis lived “imprisoned” in their own country, but now they deal with other nations and need to adapt their perceptions on the new reality, Ali added. “Iraqis will need time to let go of the accumulated sediments and start a new life,” he said.
“I will return to Iraq this year, it is my home,” Dr Al-Jeboory said, who is unafraid to go back to Iraq with his wife and children. “If it is maktoob [written from above] it is maktoob,” he said.
“Why don't they establish their own representative organization?” asked Dr Magued Osman, Chairman of the Egyptian Cabinet in International and Decision Support Center, during our brief encounter at the reading of the first official survey on Iraqi refugees. However, in reality it is not happening. All other large refugee communities, like Sudanese and Palestinians, have established representative associations in Egypt except the Iraqis.
Mai Choucri, a coordinator in Tadamon – an Egyptian Refugee Multicultural Council – said that Palestinians have the oldest organizations in Egypt, like the Palestinian Women’s Union that started in 1968.
Tadamon recently held a meeting to put together a community center project for Iraqis that would provide psycho-therapy, free classes and leisure activities. The project is still managed within UNICEF.
Participating NGOs are concerned about the government’s reaction. It is not the first attempt to establish an organization for Iraqis in Egypt. Dr Firass Al-Jeboory, who has been working with NGOs since 1999, pointed out that the obstacle is that under Egyptian law, any association must have 51% of the board Egyptian. He attempted twice to establish an Iraqi association but in vain. Dr Al-Jeboory believes an association should be purely Iraqi for Iraqis. Any sponsorship should go to Iraqis and not to foreign members, in his opinion that will make a greater change.
Officials are concerned that extremists might infiltrate the country or bring sectarian conflict under the banner of “organization”, as non-governmental sources and independent media channels like iraqiinegypt.com explained. More than a year ago, a request by Iraqis to open a Shiite mosque in the Sixth of October City suburb was rejected by Egyptian authorities on the grounds that Shi’a is not an official religion and such action might initiate a Sunni–Shi’a conflict. 90% of Egypt's 78 million population is Muslim, and most of them are Sunni. Ali said that the Egyptian government is afraid that in case of conflict, the government does not know which authorities to refer to back in Iraq: “the political relations between the two countries are not stable at the moment,” he said.
“Now the Iraqi government is attempting to get all those refugees back, but a lot are scared to go back,” Ali said. Ali has an old in-valid passport and he will not renew it because he said he will not need it to be resettled in the US. In 2005, the Iraqi government announced to all immigration authorities that passports issued under the Saddam period and after the war, N-series and S-series respectively, are no longer valid. These are to be replaced by new G-series papers as the only recognized travel documents.
But consulates only started issuing G-series papers a year ago. “G-series were issued only to get all those immigrated Iraqis back,” said Dr Al-Jeboory, “Iraqis had to take a dangerous trip to get a valid passport.”
The UNHCR is giving $600 per family member, up to a maximum of four, and even paying the transport from the airport to their homes, if Iraqis decide to travel back to Iraq. But Iraqis are afraid to return, and some have no homes to return to, lost forever under the label of “public property”.
Mona Abouissa for RT