By Iman Hegazy*
Since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, millions of Syrians have been displaced either as refugees or migrants. Until March 2021, Egypt officially received 132,000 Syrian asylum seekers—a peak record according to the “Monthly Statistical Report” of the “United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Egypt.” It is a pragmatic shift, not only by reconstructing the composition of the Egyptian urban context, but also by causing several impacts on the society in Egypt, including socio-economic, cultural, and political influx. Thus, a sense of fear, as well as recognition of new traditions have emerged.
The Egyptian urban fabric has no refugee camps. It is an open, diversified urban refuge, embracing Egyptians as well as migrants. In comparison with the existing scientific work, the topic of the Syrian refugees in Egypt has been seldom researched in terms of analyzing or documenting their needs and conditions. There is also a shortage of research that investigates the Syrian refugees’ socio-cultural impact, and their extent on the Egyptian urban settings. Thus, this paper researches the Syrian refugees’ daily life challenges in terms of fear in the host society, and to what extent their tradition, culture and norms have been recognized in the Egyptian urban context. How has the urban space evolved since this new influx? What is the reaction of the host community towards these new traditions?
Methodologically, this research relies on site visits, “observation”, and “focused and open-ended” interviews. The former is with the refugees themselves, local communities, and services providers, such as UNHCR and other international NGOs. The latter is with the Egyptian citizens and refugees. The aim is to convey a description that focuses on the relations between traditions, culture, and norms with the built fabric across different settlements in Egypt. In this research, three types of residential neighborhoods have been chosen: a popular neighborhood, an ‘informal’ neighborhood, and a planned neighborhood in the 6th of October City.
Last but not least, at a time of unprecedented displacement across the world, the built environment is always in transition; re-negotiated by engaged actors that shape the place. Therefore, the paper aims at qualitatively hearing the Syrian refugees’ voices in order to better understand their daily life interactions and socio-cultural impact in the host society. It is an attempt to enhance their societal interaction, harmony and coexistence in addition to replacing their isolation, fear and conflict with integration, contribution, and peace.
Egypt has signed not only the 1951 convention, in addition to its 1967 protocol in 1981, but also the OAU-convention of 1969 in 1980. This means that officially, the Egyptian government is obligated to take all responsibilities of refugees settling in the country. However, in practice they are disintegrative, the refugees are mostly living in fear, especially after the June 2013 regime takeover. Therefore, the UNHCR-Regional-Representative-Egypt, in accordance with the 1954 MOU is taking all responsibilities towards refugees, including social and legal recognition.
On the one hand, the notion of refugees’ recognition has been frequently investigated. For instance, in 2008, Ketil Eide published the paper “Recognition and Social Integration,” through which he focused on the connection between the phenomena of recognition, identity, and social integration. Later, in 2012, Kati Turtiainen confirmed Eide’s classifications. In his paper, “Possibilities of Trust and Recognition: Resettlement as a Part of Durable Solutions between Refugees and Authorities,” Turtiainen further explained how building of trust between refugees and authority is essential to create legal and social recognition for refugees. Yet, in 2016, the publication, “The Performance of Subject Positions, Power, and Identity: A Case of Refugee Recognition,” by Jennifer Dagg and Mark Haugaard revealed the negotiation between identity and recognition, describing the case of the young Palestinian woman refugee in Ireland.
On the other hand, the aspect of refugees’ impact has been also elaborated in other numerous researche. For instance, Walter Kok (1989) released the article “Self-Settled Refugees and the Socio-Economic Impact of their Presence on Kassala, Eastern Sudan,” in which he analyzed the positive socio-economic and cultural impacts of Eritrean refugees in Kassala border region. Likewise in his paper, “Globalization, Humanitarianism and the Erosion of Refugee Protection,” B. S. Chimni (2000) underlined that the “negative” societal refugees’ influx is firmly associated with positive economic growth impact. Furthermore, Hallen Ghorashi in her publication, in 2005, “Agents of Change or Passive Victims: The Impact of Welfare States (the Case of the Netherlands) on Refugees,” found the effective impacts of the regulated society, such as the Netherlands, on the lives of refugees, focusing on Iranian women refugees in Netherland.
The state-of-the-art shows that international discourse tackle refugees’ circumstances by focusing on their conditions of recognition or their impact in general. However, the fear of the refugees and their material cultural impact and traditional expression in the host community is seldom researched. Therefore, unlike the abovementioned publications, this paper researches the refugees’ incidence of fear, the recognition of new traditions, and their material socio-cultural impact on the urban setting of the host society. The case study focuses on Syrian refugees in the 6th of October City.
Methodologically, the author made site visits to 6th of October City to collect reliable data regarding the Syrian refugees’ daily experiences and their on-ground impact. That is in addition to the “episode interviews” with either refugees or Egyptian citizens, including NGOs workers. The interviews were descriptively studying the Syrian refugees’ socio-cultural and political recognition and their impact on the host society urban image.
2. Egypt as an “Urban Refuge”: The Syrian Refugees Daily Life Experiences
This section discusses the interaction of the Syrian refugees within the Egyptian urban context with regard to the following dimensions: the socio-political changes, the humanitarian assistance, and the refugees’ settlements in Egypt.
2.1. The Socio-Political Changes: Fear
Despite the Egyptian government legal obligation towards refugees based on the 1951 convention, until 2013, the country has been going through difficult socio-political changes. Each Egyptian power transition has had a different strategic plan towards the Syrian refugees. Therefore, their conditions were unstable with a lack of legal recognition framework (Gozdziak & Walter, 2012; UNHCR, et al., 2013). According to Honneth, the lack of legal recognition comes from the absence of legal documents. Thus, a lot of fear and pressure were imposed on the Syrian refugees which was confirmed during the author’s personal communication with the Syrian refugees in 2017. (Shahine, 2016).
Yet, before July 2013, entry visas for Syrians to stay in Egypt were not required. Ahram-English, a Syrian refugee, stated in an interview, “[w]e felt as if we were in our own country. . . we are so close in everything, including language, culture and religion. That offered us real solace, as we wanted our children to be brought up in more or less the same culture as we were raised in.” (Shahine, 2016)
However, since July 2013, the Egyptian borders have been closed. Syrians are obligated to obtain security clearance and entry visas to stay in the country (Shahine, 2016). As a result, many Syrians were spontaneously arrested due to their invalid residence permits. (UNHCR, 2013). These security actions have been set by the current regime as a reaction to the participation of some Syrians in demonstrations, and protests. (Shahine, 2016). Thus, many media channels started to negatively report the Syrians (UNHCR, 2013), and later an anti-sentiment was created towards them by the Egyptian citizens (Shahine, 2016).
Furthermore, according to the author’s personal communications with refugees between 2017-2021, the Egyptian authority does not permit Syrians to have either bank accounts or register businesses. To open a business, it must be as a partnership with an Egyptian citizen. A legal working permit was only released to Syrians with residence permits. As a result, the refugees were stuck. It was hard to find job opportunities, and the only way to get out of this bottleneck is to work in “the black market,” such as street vendors, or constructors, or cleaners. These policies created a sense of fear and insecurity in Egypt. (UNHCR, 2014). Many Syrian refugees simply decided to leave (interviews 2010-2020).
2.2. Humanitarian Assistance: Recognition
To deal with the abovementioned challenges and incidence of fear, many Syrians started to register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (“UNHCR”) to benefit from its assistance and aid. Based on a personal interview with a supervisor at CARE international organization, Mr. Abdulatif, the UNHCR mainly focuses on the legal recognition of refugees. It is the first step to obtain legal documents and to be recognized (Honneth, 1996), from the authority as well as from the hosting society.
Based on the Egyptian municipality’s confirmation, the UNHCR issues two types of cards: yellow and blue. The former is a temporary residential permit, which can be renewed. The latter is a “refugee’s permanent residence permit.” (UNHCR, 2013). Also based on the same previous personal communication with Mr. Abdullatif in 2017, most Syrians get a yellow card, not a blue one, as they are afraid to have trouble if they return to Syria, like being taken to prison.
Moreover, the UNHCR gives monthly vouchers of 400 EGP and assistance of 400 to 1200 Egyptian pounds. It is mainly for refugees with emergencies, such as a husband’s death, work inability, handicap, and household loss. According to the author’s personal interviews with stakeholders and refugees in 2017, they explained that some Egyptian citizens, mosques, churches, and local organizations are supporting the Syrian refugees. That is by giving them material aids such as clothes, food, furniture, and money. Confirmed in the UNHCR (2014) report. Thanks to this, many refugees decided to further stay in Egypt, and, as a result, their numbers started to increase again (UNHCR, 2013).
However, despite the UNHCR’s hard efforts, many refugees still prefer to live in the country illegally and not be recognized by the Egyptian authority. Many Syrian refugees frequently explained that the reason behind this is they are not willing to be labeled as a refugee.
2.3. The Refugees’ settlements in Egypt: “Mapping”
As explained by Mr. Moataz, an Egyptian citizen during a personal communication, on 03 April 2018 and earlier confirmed by Arous (2013) in her master thesis, since the arrival of Syrian refugees in 2011, they are establishing a “community cluster” process to develop their own urban context. As shown in the figure below, the Syrians prefer to cluster in detached areas, mostly at the outskirts of big cities, such as the 6th of October City, which is considered as the most populated urban refuge.
According to the “Monthly Statistical Report” of the “United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Egypt” (UNHCR, 2018), and as shown in the figure above, Alexandria follows after the 6th of October City in hosting the most Syrian refugees. It is remarkable to mention that thanks to Alexandria’s location on the Mediterranean Sea, most of the refugees who take it as a destination, are temporarily settling there, as a transit, until heading to Europe. (UNHCR, WFP, UNICEF, IOM, CARITAS and CRS, 2013).
3. “6th of October City” “Little Syria”: Impact
The above section, Egypt as an “Urban Refuge”: the Syrian refugees daily life experiences, addressed the challenges and fears that the refugees are imposing in Egypt. It is not only shining the spotlight on their socio-political interaction, but also on the humanitarian assistance that they are receiving. This is definitely increasing the Syrians’ legal and social recognition and motivating them to create their own new self-clustering communities. Yet, the following section studies the influx of the aforementioned contest on the urban image of 6th of October City, including their traditions, culture, and identity with regard to the city’ background, Syrian refugees’ new lives, and the new socio-cultural expressions.
3.1. “6th of October City”: Background
The “6th of October city” is a satellite city, located in GCR (Great Cairo Region). It is designed as an industrial city consisting of 12 districts, including residential areas for factory workers (Arous, 2013). The city is quite detached from the capital Cairo and far away from all services (Sims, 2012), approximately 35 kilometers west of the capital, see figure below. Thanks to this, according to the author’s personal communications in 2019, rent in this location is reasonable and cheap in comparison with other downtown areas. Therefore, the 6th of October City has offered many accommodation opportunities for the Syrian refugees and later became the highest in number of refugees settlements (Arous, 2013; observation 2020). Moreover, as frequently mentioned by many Syrians during the author’s personal interviews, 2017-2021, the city is quite similar to the urban environment that the Syrian used to live in.
In fact, the Syrian refugees have increased their demand for accommodations. As a result, the 6th of October City’s urban setting has dramatically developed. Now, the city has more public and private dwellers, as well as gated housing settlements (interviews, observation, 2017-2021). According to the UNHCR’s 2013 Joint Assessment report for Syrian Refugees in Egypt and the author’s personal interviews with social workers from different refugee’s organization in 2017-2019, the city is currently the most dense and attractive Syrian settlement, making it a vibrant Syrian hub.
3.2. Chances: New Life
In the 6th of October City, and due to Egyptian generosity the assistance offered to the Syrians (Shahine, 2016), they have created a welcoming atmosphere for the refugees. This has built a trusting bond between the two-social groups (interviews, observation, 2017-2019). This type of emotional bond is an essential element to creating self-confidence. Following Axel Honneth (1996), the presence of trust provides a sense of confidence and later recognition. In this case of refugees, it fortified their social respect, rights and belonging to the city (Honneth, 1996; Thomas, et al., 2011).
Accordingly, the refugees’ social networks, interactions and relationships has increased and spread out. This was not only between the Syrians themselves, but also towards the Egyptians. Syrians and Egyptians have become more engaged and bonded (interviews, observations, and site visits, 2017- 2021).
This has encouraged the refugees to develop individually and to establish their own self-esteem. This is accomplished by using their Syrian identity, tradition and norms in creating material cultural expressions. Following Honneth (1996) and Thomas, et al., (2011), the sense of self-esteem is based on the valuable competency which can differentiate one another. This is visually clear at Al-Hosari Mosque area. Yet, now, Al-Hosari quarter is labeled as “Little Syria” or “Little Damascus” (observation, 2019).
3.3. Socio-Cultural Expressions: New Traditions
Based on the author’s observation in 2021, among all neighborhoods of 6th October City, the 2nd district is the densest and most attractive area. This is due to the presence of Al-Hosari plaza, which is a public space named after the Al-Hosari mosque: the quarter’s iconic mosque. Now, Al-Hosari plaza is a Syrian socio-economic, cultural, and political hub. It became very busy and is perceived as a Syrian landmark, as confirmed in a personal discussion with Mr. Borhan, an Egyptian scholar on December 4, 2018.
The figure above shows one of the most famous residential-commercial buildings in Al-Hosari. As mentioned by many residents, it is where the label of “Little Syria” was created and spread to the whole city. In total, the two blocks consist of 35 Syrian and 17 Egyptian shops, restaurants, and cafés. Most have Syrian tags or names, such as ‘Negm El-Sham,’ ‘Khayrat Demashk,’ ‘Salon Al-Malek Al- Souri,’ and others (observation, 2020). This confirms the obvious material traditional and cultural impact the Syrians have on the urban image.
Similarly, the 6th of October City has continuously changed and developed. It has been overwhelmed by “black markets,” see figure above. The “black market” paved the way for Syrian refugees because of not having legal documents and therefore work permits (interviews and observation, 2017-2019).
However, this informal market led to a collective negative attitude from locals towards refugees because of the competition (Alshoubaki & Harris, 2018). To avoid this tension, the Syrians hung a central panel thanking the Egyptians for their hospitality and support. This action proved effective, replacing this socio-tension respect and returning the welcoming atmosphere (interviews; observation, 2017-2020).
Yet, on one hand, the 6th of October City has been achieving higher life standards and stronger financial status. Both Egyptians and Syrians are benefiting from this socio-economic development (Arous, 2013). But on the other hand, rent has dramatically been increasing. For the sake of not being able to pay the accommodation rent, many Syrians have no choice and have been forced to move to social housing neighborhoods. The refugees explained that these urban refuges, such as Masaken Osman and Beyt al- Ayla, are not qualified regarding the quality of life and services (interviews, 2021). The two social housing neighborhoods are located on the 6th of October City’s south-western periphery, opposite each other on both sides of the Wahat road.
The Masaken Osman urban refuge was established by a faith-based organization. Thus, it has control and power over the whole area, and therefore the organization has its own way and criteria to accept the settlement of any refugee in the area. As Arous (2013) described it, it is a “Patronage Type of protection.” In fact, the Masaken Osman urban environment is more deteriorated than in Beyt al-Ayla. It is unclear, informal, and dense, and people are aggressive. Beyt al- Ayla is also an informal urban context. It includes many black-economic markets. These informal small shops extend through the streets between the building blocks. Beyt al- Ayla has a high lack of services and a low quality of life (interviews, 2019).
As a socio-tolerant urban environment, Egypt has approved being a welcoming atmosphere for the Syrian refugees. Thanks to many Egyptian cities’ location, and detachment, far away from the socio-political conflicts, they offer the chance for the refugees, with or without legal documents, to securely settle. Or in other words to “freely live-in shadow.”
For example, in the 6th of October City, social recognition is more effective than legal recognition. However, it is important to mention that, before the Syrians’ arrival, the 6th of October City, as well as many other cities in Egypt, failed to attract populations and, therefore, their financial status was unstable. Yet, after the refugees’ arrival, many cities have developed both in terms of economy and urban development.
Yet, in search of new urban refuge and to overcome the feeling of fear, the Syrian refugees have negotiated their ways through their new self-established communities. They imposed new coping mechanisms with spatial practices to feel safer in the Egyptian society. On one hand these practices, like cooking traditional food, playing Syrian music, or labeling the markets with Syrian names, helped the refugees to be unique and attractive in the Egyptian socio-economic market. On the other, it brought new cultural traditions to the Egyptian society, which created a sense of communication between the two social group and made the bond between them more profound and deep.
Last but not least, this paper underlines that the Syrian refugees become increasingly socially recognized through their socio-cultural impact and imported traditions. The city now known as “Little Syria” demonstrates refugees’ material impact and sense of belonging to the city. In fact, although many of the Syrians came as refugees, with no choice “victims,” they have rapidly developed into “active agents” and reshaped the Egyptian urban context to a new “Egyptian-Syrian” mix urban environment.
Iman Hegazy is a PhD-candidate at the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, professorship of Urban-sociology. In 2015 she got her master degree of architecture and urbanism, European urban studies program (EUS), from the same university. In 2012 she acquired her bachelor of architecture from the Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transport (AASTMT) in Alexandria, Egypt. She worked as assistant-lecturer and researcher in several universities, in Egypt as well as Germany. Her main focus is on the topics of socio-architecture and urban-sociology. She has interests in the subjects of community development, especially concerning diversity, migration and integration. Currently, her researchers are oriented towards the social field. She qualitatively reviews the societal symbolic meaning of the urban fabric to enhance the cities’ social harmony and coexistence. In addition to her academic engagements, and to improve her practical experiences, she works as an architect and urban planner in an architecture office in Germany. She was born on January 22nd 1990, in Alexandria, Egypt.
 See generally Ketil Eide, Recognition and Social Integration, J. Refugee Stud. 122-132, (2008).
 See generally Kati Turtiainen, Possibilities of Trust and Recognition between Refugees and Authorities Resettlement as a Part of Durable Solutions of Forced Migration, (Oct. 7, 2012) (Ph. D dissertation, Jyväskylä Studies in Education, Psychology and Social Research).
 See generally Jennifer Dagg, Mark Haugaard, The Performance of Subject Positions, Power, and Identity: A Case of Refugee Recognition, Eur. J. Of Cultural & Pol. Socio. 392-425, (2016).
 See generally Walter Kok, Self-Settled Refugees and the Socio-Economic Impact of their Presence on Kassala, Eastern Sudan, 2 J. Refugee Stud. 419–440, (1989).
 See generally B. S. Chimni, Globalization, Humanitarianism and the Erosion of Refugee Protection, 13 J. Refugee Stud. 243–263, (2000).
 See generally Hallen Ghorashi, Agents of Change or Passive Victims: The Impact of Welfare States (the Case of the Netherlands) on Refugees, 18 J. Refugee Stud. 181-198, (2005).
 See Elżbieta Gozdziak & Alissa Walter, Urban Refugees in Cairo, Inst. for Stud. Int’l Migration (Nov. 12, 2012), https://issuu.com/georgetownsfs/docs/urban_refugees_in_cairo.
 See Joint Assessment for Syrian Refugees in Alexandria. Alexandria, United Nations High Comm’r for Refugees (June 23, 2013), https://reliefweb.int/report/egypt/joint-assessment-syrian-refugees-alexandria-egypt-february-2013.
 Gihan Shahine, Syrians in Egypt: A Haven Despite the Hardships, Ahram Online (May 17, 2016), http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/151/217025/Egypt/Features/Syrians-in-Egypt-A-haven-despite-the-hardships.aspx.
 UNHCR, 2013. Joint Assessment for Syrian Refugees in Egypt, s.l.: s.n.
 See Joint Assessment for Syrian Refugees in Egypt, United Nations High Comm’r for Refugees (June 8, 2014), https://data2.unhcr.org/en/documents/download/41021
 See generally Axel Honneth, The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts (1996).
 Rasha Arous, Refugee Setting and Urban Form and Governance: The Predicament of Syrian Refugees in Navigating Cairo’s Urban Spaces and the Complexities of Governance in Turbulent Times (Aug. 9, 2013) (M.S. thesis, University of Ain Shams).
 See generally David Sims, Understanding Cairo: The Logic Of A City Out Of Control, (2012).
 See Fiona C. Thomas et. al., Resilience of Refugees Displaced in the Developing World: A Qualitative Analysis of Strengths and Struggles of Urban Refugees in Nepal, 5 Conflict and Health 1, 1 (2011).
 See Wa’ed Alshoubaki & Michael Harris, The Impact of Syrian Refugees on Jordan: A Framework for Analysis, 11 J. Int’l Stud., 154, 154 (2018).
Maysa Ayoub & Sahden Khallaf, Syrian Refugees in Egypt: Challenges of a Politically Changing Environment, Ctr. for Migration and Refugee Stud. (2014).
See generally Uwe Flick, Qualitative Sozialforschung: Eine Einführung (2014).
See Katarzyna Grabska, Marginalization in Urban Spaces of the Global South: Urban Refugees in Cairo, 19 J. Refugee Stud. 287, 287 (2006).
See generally Katarzyna Grabska & Lyla Mehta, Forced Displacement: Why Rights Matters (2008).
See Karen Jacobsen, Can Refugees Benefit the State? Refugee Resources and African Statebuilding, 40 J. Mod. African Stud. 577, 577 (2002).
See Karen Jacobsen, Maysa Ayoub & Alice Johnson, Sudanese Refugees in Cairo: Remittances and Livelihoods. 27 J. Refugee Stud. 145, 145 (2014).
See Egypt: Syrian Refugee Situation, United Nations High Comm’r for Refugees, (December 15, 2013), https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/syria/location/1 (accessed June 27, 2021).