UNHCR: Helping Forgotten Refugees

UNHCR screenshot

While much attention was focused on North Africa during the so-called Arab Spring, some effects of revolution were not so obvious. In Egypt, for example, refugees from Libya flooded over the border after a civil war and the death of former leader Muammar Gaddafi. However, Egypt also sees refugees from other parts of Africa. Dealing with it day to day is the UN’s Refugee Agency, the UNHCR. WRS’s Tony Ganzer went to the UNHCR office outside Cairo to hear how things are going:

6 of October City is a suburb of sorts, or a satellite city from Cairo. It has 500,000 residents itself. But most of the 44,000 refugees helped by the UNHCR office here are scattered across Cairo. Continue reading “UNHCR: Helping Forgotten Refugees”

Part 5: ‘People have changed, the government hasn’t’

Power

Before leaving Cairo, WRS’s Tony Ganzer gathers the views of people across various sectors in Egypt, including those with organizations headquartered in Switzerland, to find out whether they think the country is on the right course:

Despite the constant din of Cairo traffic and residents, there are still quieter spots in certain parts of the city.  Occasionally one finds a place along the Nile. It’s also relatively calm in the southern Cairo neighborhood of Maadi.  It’s where the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross has its offices.

SPREYERMANN:  “The transition is not yet over. It has changed to a large extent from the demonstrations, frequent demonstrations, and related to that clashes with the police.  It has changed from that to the more political process.”

Klaus Spreyermann is the head of delegation for the ICRC in Egypt.

SPREYERMANN: “Many services and  decision makings are slowed down, if not blocked, due to the fact that nobody knows today, and that is really a new perspective, nobody really knows exactly where the country is going on a political level.  We have seen 70 percent of Islamist parties actually being represented in the new parliament.  How this is going to affect the country, where it is going, these are things we can’t clearly see.”

The ICRC has been in Egypt since at least 1935, Spreyermann says, giving it much time to watch Egypt’s changes over the years, but it’s unclear what the country will soon look like.

Spreyermann is convinced the next great challenge here will be economic.

SPREYERMANN:  “With the tourism down, not surprisingly with all this bad or disturbing news that people get from Cairo too often, this is very practically influencing the possibility for income for the population.  You add to that, for example, the return of hundreds of thousands of people who used to work in Libya, due to the conflict.  These remittances are not coming back.”

These economic challenges, and those particularly affecting refugees in the region, are some of the biggest concerns of the UN’s Refugee Agency, UNHCR.  Karmen Sakhr is the Senior Protection Officer at the UNHCR Cairo office.

KARMEN SAKHR: “I have to say that the situation is not very ideal, because socially, economically it is challenging for the persons of concern, so we deal with a lot of frustration.  I think that colleagues have been doing a great job in managing, at the same time, the changes, the political changes in the country, and with our persons of concern here.  It has been a very, very exhausting year.”

Sakhr says things in Egypt aren’t as bad as some might think they are, though there are problems.  Some observers, like the Swiss government, are offering aid in the time of uncertainty.  Benjamin Frey is the deputy head of the Swiss Programme Office, in the Swiss Embassy in Cairo.

BENJAMIN FREY: “Well I think it’s fundamental to understand that this country does not necessarily have a democratic past.  It means that there is, of course, a potential here. There is a civil society that had very much trouble functioning under the Mubarak regime.”

That means the Swiss are aiding NGOs, the media, but also the Egyptian government to understand democratic systems.

But some problems could be institutional. Khaled Fahmy is the chair of the history department at the American University in Cairo.

KHALED FAHMY:  “It’s business as usual, but people are not as usual.  The people have changed.  The government hasn’t changed.  It is up to you, and to your listeners, to make up their minds on whether or not the revolution has succeeded.  I think that if people change, that is the most difficult thing.  We see a very determined effort on the part of the regime to stay in power, this is a very, very well-entrenched regime.  So it’s not easy, it’s not going to be dislodged in a day or two, or indeed, not even in a year or two.”

As Egypt continues to feel its way toward a new type of governance, Fahmy thinks the most confusing, and dangerous actor is the ruling military council.  It is inherently undemocratic, like any military, he says.  He disagrees with but doesn’t worry about the rise of political Islam in Egypt.

But the lack of control and oversight over the ruling military, Fahmy says, is a grave danger to democracy.

This story was part of a 2013 Edward Murrow award winning entry

Part 4: A walk through Cairo’s revolutionary streets

Khan el Khalili

Zurich social worker Hamed Selim has been in Switzerland more than 20 years. He is a Swiss-Egyptian, but says he still feels more Egyptian than Swiss, despite having a Swiss wife and children who have grown up here. WRS’s Tony Ganzer returned to Cairo with Selim, who takes us on a tour of his hometown as he surveys for himself how the revolution has changed it:

The senses can easily be overloaded in Cairo’s Islamic quarter, and the bazaars of Khan El Khalili. Shopkeepers eagerly bark for customers for bright and colorful tapestries, fragrant spices and incense.

Before the revolution Hamed Selim says there were always illegal activities in parts of the market extending seemingly for miles.  But now things have changed.

HAMED SELIM: “Yeah okay, I didn’t see electro-shock before, you know, in the street.”

TONY GANZER: “Stun guns and things like that?”

SELIM: “Yeah, yeah, yeah.  I didn’t see this, or these knives. Farther, before the revolution, if you walk with a knife in your pocket, and a police officer stop you, you are in a big problem until jail, you know? But now you see, they sell everything.  You couldn’t see it before.”

GANZER: “Do you think that’s good? Was that what the revolution was for?”

SELIM: “No, not at all.  The revolution is not for such things.  You know like, they would like to have, you know like, students should have a decent job.  Or to see that we have hospitals, or we have good schools, or such things.”

The many parts of Cairo were Selim’s playground and education.  He’s proudly from downtown, but could find value in many of the city’s corners. Even at the Swiss embassy, long before he thought of becoming Swiss.

SELIM: “The embassy: it’s just side to side to my school, you know.  And every day you pass by, you know, since I am 6 years old. You know like, ‘Hi,’ and try to play with the dog.  And you try to steal the Birnen?”

GANZER: “Pears?”

SELIM: “Yeah, yeah from the trees in the garden from the other side, you know.  It’s really nice.  I’d never think that I could go to Switz…it didn’t come. It didn’t come in my head.”

Selim met his wife while she was on vacation in Cairo, which turned into his moving to Switzerland, working for a time for Caritas, for politicians.  But these Egyptian streets remain a place of comfort.

SELIM: “It’s called the old Islamic part, you know.  Here you find a lot of mosques from the Mamaluk time, you know.  And, yeah, they restored the whole area, it’s really nice. Here you see behind you, these people who, yeah, make these souvenirs. It’s really nice, you know. It’s really peaceful, yes.”

GANZER: “How do you think things have changed for this part of Cairo since the revolution?”

SELIM: “I think the people here [are] suffering, because people say because of revolution we don’t have lots of tourists now.  Yeah, they would like to have always this easy-coming money, you know.  And I think the revolution did lots of things good, even for them. Because I expect it will be always [better], not as bad as in Mubarak time.”

The area around Cairo makes up a mega-city, with a population of about 20 million people.  40 percent of those people live at or below the international poverty line.

Still, politics dominate conversations here in cafes, and in just about every taxi.

SELIM: “A lot of opinion floating around?  No, only two. ‘Revolution good’ or ‘bad,” and we speak about both. Who says revolution is bad saying ‘look around you, there is no police here, and there is this and that.’ The people saying the revolution is good, you know like, they say, ‘OK, we are patient. We are optimists.’”

Far from the markets, and far from inner-city politics, Hamed Selim still finds quiet at the feet of the pyramids.  He lives not far from the Alps in Switzerland, but comes here for peace.

SELIM: “As I was a student, and as I was young, I came here around four times a week riding horses, sleeping here, eating in the desert making a grill, such things. That’s a part of my life I really do love, you know.  Lots of memories, you know.  Wake up the stable guys at 5 o’clock in the morning and tell them, you know, like, ‘Hey, I would like to have a horse now.’ You know, and just riding, riding horses you know. Feeling, being free in the desert and the pyramids.”

It is but a slight respite from the many unknowns in a still evolving revolutionary Cairo.

This story was part of a 2013 Edward Murrow award winning entry