In Egypt, Syrian refugees recreate Syria
There is a district in 6th of October, a satellite city in the south-western part of Cairo, that has become a new Syria.
The names of the shops, the food sold in the restaurants, the Arabic dialect spoken and the people — not to mention the memories — are all Syrian.
After fleeing civil war in their home country, tens of thousands of Syrians arrived at 6th of October but did not go alone. They took their entire culture with them, from culinary traditions to social practices to memories of better days for Syria.
“True, we don’t physically live in our country but we still live in it in our hearts,” said Zakaria Abul Kheir, a Syrian community leader in 6th of October. “With every passing day, we miss our country even more.”
This wistful affiliation with Syria motivated the refugees to recreate their own country in Egypt.
When violence erupted in Syria in 2011, Egypt was among many countries that received Syrian nationals. As the violence increased, so too did the number of Syrians in Egypt.
Government figures indicate that approximately 500,000 Syrian nationals are in Egypt, although the real number is likely much greater.
Unlike in other countries, Syrian refugees were allowed into Egyptian cities and, for the most part, enjoy the same freedoms and opportunities as Egyptian nationals. Syrian refugees can receive health care at state-run hospitals and Syrian children and students enrolled in state-run schools and universities.
Syrian restaurants and shops opened across Cairo as Syrians looked to use their own skills and acumen to start a new life.
In 6th of October, about 32km south-west of downtown Cairo, approximately 80,000 Syrians have created their own “Little Syria.” They have bought up almost all the shops. Entering the commercial district is like entering a Damascus market. The herbs are Syrian, the kitchen tools are Syrian and even the falafel is made the Syrian way.
Apart from creating successful business models and recreating their own country, the Syrians are changing Egypt’s culinary traditions.
When Youssef al-Dimashqi, a Syrian in his mid-30s, opened a pita bread shop four years ago, few Egyptians frequented it.
“Now, I cannot cope up with rising demand for the bread,” Dimashqi said. “Egyptians — more than Syrians — have loved the bread’s flavour and become addicted to it.”
Many other Syrian dishes are captivating Egyptians.
Syrian beef and chicken shawarma has become an Egyptian favourite, as has Syrian kubbeh — a cooked mixture of bulgur and minced lamb. Syrian kebab shops have sprung up in many neighbourhoods, competing with — and sometimes surpassing — their Egyptian peers. This is not to mention Syrian desserts such as kanafeh, basbuseh and nabulsiyyeh.
Egypt has not benefited as much at the national level as it could have from Syrian expat businessmen, economists said.
Most of Syria’s business tycoons did not go to Egypt, opting for Turkey and Jordan. Most of the Syrians who went to Egypt arrived with just their talent and their wits, something they are making impressive use of.
“This is why they have to work very hard to prove themselves and create economic opportunities,” said Rashad Abdo, an economics professor at Egypt’s Helwan University. “The problem is that most of those Syrians are not part of the formal economy.”
Estimates put the amount that Syrians invested in Egypt since the Syrian civil war started at nearly $500 million.
Many Syrians had a tough time in Egypt after the ouster of Islamist President Muhammad Morsi in mid-2013, facing accusations of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. While some Syrians did support the Islamist-led protests that erupted after Morsi’s ouster, most steered clear of politics.
For Syrians who remain in Egypt, it is a mixed blessing. “We wish we could go back to Syria but how can we while the civil war is turning our country into rubble,” said Emad Oussama, a Syrian grocery store worker in his early 50s. “Egypt will continue to be our home until we can go back to our country.”
To others, there is no going back anytime soon and Egypt has become a new home that does not diminish their love for their old one. Many Syrians have married Egyptians and the change that the Syrians have wrought on Egypt’s food industry appears here to stay.
“Our coming to Egypt is like a marriage of cultures,” Abul Kheir said. “We are showing our Egyptian brothers and sisters that our food is good, too.”
Amr Emam is a Cairo-based journalist. He has contributed to the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and the UN news site IRIN.