Egypt’s revolution is worsening the insecurity of women at the bottom of the heap who scrape a living in the capital’s slums.
Cicilia’s story maps in one transient life the story of the troubled country that borders Egypt – Sudan - the place from which thousands have been forced to flee.
She is lucky; an interviewer at Refuge Egypt she now sits quietly filling in forms at her desk in the cramped basement of All Saints Anglican Cathedral in Zamalek.
Only 56, her expression is heavy; she has the air of a much older woman and it’s not surprising. For Cicilia – named in Yei by her Catholic-educated parents for the patron saint of music – is a thrice migrant.
A commercial administrator in southern Sudan’s capital, Juba, she was abandoned by her husband for another woman 26 years ago and has had to raise her four children on her own, against a backdrop of war and displacement.
‘I am sad because I didn’t have anyone to help me. When I am facing a problem I will pray but sometimes I am crying. I will be cold in my heart’, she says.
Offering emotional as well as practical care is important to Refuge Egypt, headed up for Bishop Mouneer Hanna Anis by British NGO Interserve.
‘It is amazing how resourceful people like Cicilia have had to be,’ says the 46-year old Project Director and former Airbus engineer who came here just over three years ago. ‘We have been able to give her some counselling which they all badly need.’
He oversees 60 mostly Sudanese and some Egyptian staff, running medical, and self reliance projects for up to 10,000 refugees annually from mainly Darfur, North Sudan and Kordofan.
This year alone the project has registered 1,614 newcomer refugees. Additionally the Humanitarian Assistance Team has distributed 6,483 food bags, 2,108 people have collected clothing and 376 blankets have been given out. Many more will be needed for the winter.
Multiple displacements leave deep scars on people who have led lives of uncertainty, terror and want. Long after the TV cameras have left the war zones, charities like Refuge Egypt and Anglican Hope Africa continue to address the human fallout.
Egypt’s social upheavals have made refugee problems worse. After the revolution, according to the International Organization for Migration, 75% of Sudanese in Cairo claimed to live under US$1 day, compared to 20% of the local population.
Fifty per cent reported not being able to attend work, while 80% did not receive any wages in one survey month.
Many upper-class Egyptian and expatriate families fled the country, causing numerous domestic workers from various countries to lose their employment.
Cicilia has already been forced to flee three times, first from Yei then Juba because of war, then Khartoum where life for Christians became ‘difficult’.
Says a report written for the Diocese by the American University of Cairo: ‘Sudanese refugees assert that Egypt’s revolution has amplified the insecurity and fear of a situation already made tense by refugees’ inability to obtain proper legal working status here, as well as severe racial discrimination.’
Cicilia who is multi-lingual (she learned Latin and English from Italian nuns, before a uniform Arabic was foisted on all southern schools) helped set up a kindergarten for 30 fee-paying children in Khartoum. Her education means she has desk work with the Refuge. Domestic service is the only alternative – all that’s officially allowed by the government for both men and women.
There are now thought to be some 25,000 Southern Sudanese in Cairo – 56% of the total refugees logged by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, but every year the number rises.
They are bussed every Friday from assembly points at Aswan near the border to Cairo’s Sacred Heart Church, from where they are sifted into the various tribal networks that exist across the city.
Many tell of a hard life here of poverty and xenophobia.
According to one account, ‘A Sudanese woman came here after the revolution and she had been beaten by Egyptian guys. She was sick and needed doctors, food and clothing. Her face and her body were cut. She said she was walking and four men appeared. They beat her and left her. This was in Maadi [a middle-class neighbourhood near the Nile]. Here you are afraid to even ask someone the way.’
Sexual assault is a constant worry. ‘Men call out for bunga-bunga’ says Cicilia.
Her face lights up suddenly: ‘They throw stones but the stones will not hit me. God is the one who is taking care of me.’
She, like so many, needs only a small amount of cash – in this case E£1,500 - to support herself by starting her own cold-water tie-dye business and selling clothes back to Sudan.
‘I am asking God, God help me. If I have done wrong, forgive me in what I am facing now. I am still having a cross, but God is great.’
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