Syrians find refuge in Egypt, but pine for home

By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo

Syrian refugee Mahmoud Hassan Qaseedi sells home-made food items outside a Cairo metro station. [Waleed Abu al-Khair/Al-Mashareq]

Syrian refugee Mahmoud Hassan Qaseedi sells home-made food items outside a Cairo metro station. [Waleed Abu al-Khair/Al-Mashareq]

As the Syrian war enters its seventh year, some refugees in Egypt are looking towards the end of the conflict and a possible return , while others are coming to terms with the reality that they may remain in their temporary home for longer.

Many are apprehensive about returning because of the difficult economic conditions in Syria, and because most have lost the jobs and businesses they had before the outbreak of the war.

Mahmoud Hassan Qaseedi arrived in Egypt in early 2013 with only a small amount of money, leaving his property and business behind.

Qaseedi, who hails from the town of Hayrin in the eastern Ghouta region of Damascus, told Al-Mashareq he could not bear the thought of putting the lives of his wife and three children at risk, so he decided to flee.

The family moved to Lebanon, and from there to Egypt.

During his first few months in Egypt, he faced some difficulties, he said, and moved to several different locations around Cairo, including 6th of October.

The family finally settled in the Tora area, attracted by its low rents and its proximity to the metro.

Qaseedi said he had been a food merchant in Syria, selling home-made items such as zaatar, bread and baked goods, so he decided to do the same in Egypt.

"My wife prepares some items such as Syrian baked goods, pickled foods and zaatar mixes," he said.

In addition to the proceeds from his sales, Qaseedi said, he receives 1,500 Egyptian pounds ($83) a month from the UN.

By itself, this is insufficient to meet his family's needs, he explained, as the rent for the apartment in which he lives is 1,100 pounds ($61) and he has to pay tuition for his children and cover household expenses.

Return to Syria or remain?

Despite the hardships he faces in Egypt, Qaseedi said, news of the possible establishment of safe areas in Syria does not entice him to return.

Even if those areas are established, he said, they would be far from his hometown, and would not represent a true homecoming.

On the other hand, said Daraya native Mahmoud Birqdar, who has lived in Egypt since late 2012 and works as an electrician in 6th of October, "the decision to return is a foregone conclusion, no matter how long we stay".

Birqdar told Al-Mashareq he hopes the coming months will bring about more ceasefire decisions and an end to the hostilities so he can return to Syria.

"I may not return immediately with my family," he said. "I would go back alone to straighten out my affairs and repair what can be repaired in my house, which may have sustained damage in the many rounds of fighting."

"I also will try to reopen my small shop or start any other type of business, and then bring my family," he said. "The decision to return is inevitable, no matter how long we stay in Egypt."

Fears of hardship and risk

Saada al-Sarmini, who fled Hama at the outbreak of the conflict, said she arrived in Egypt from Jordan in 2012 with her husband and four daughters.

"The news that circulated at the beginning of the events about abuses and assaults on families and girls was frightening," she told Al-Mashareq. "I do not know what would have happened to us had we stayed in Hama or even any other area in Syria."

Although the family is well off financially, she said she found it difficult to adjust to life in Cairo.

Even so, she said, the family is still not willing to "take the risk of returning now or anytime soon to Syria".

Cairo University sociology professor Bassima Husni told Al-Mashareq that fear is a major factor in whether refugees ultimately opt to return.

Many Syrians have an instinctive fear of returning, she said, which is not limited to the security situation, but also concerns how they will be able to support their families, as the war has destroyed everything in most areas.

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