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In Jordan, Thousands of Syrian Refugees are Under Serious Threat From a New Law

First published in Newsweek in print edition 17/10/2014 and online on 8th October 2014.

women and men make the long walk back to their shelters as  the return from the only market in the camp.

Women and men make the long walk back to their shelters as the return from the only market in the camp

Just 10km northeast of Jordan’s Mafraq city, some 20 tents are pitched next to a plot of agricultural land, the conspicuous greenery breaking up the otherwise flat, sun-bleached desert. In a faded blue font on the side of some of the tents are the words “UNHCR: The UN Refugee Agency”.

This small plot of land in the desert is the latest settling ground for Ahmad Al-Obeyd and over 100 members of his extended family, all refugees from the same rural Damascus suburb. For almost a year, Ahmad has been moving his caravan of tents around Jordan, following agricultural harvests in the hope of finding work. For the past five months, they have been based near Mafraq, on a dusty plot just two kilometres from the very country they once fled.

Al-Obeyd and his family all arrived in Jordan between December 2013 and March 2014.  Carrying whatever they could, some of his family paid smugglers while others hitchhiked through dangerous territory, before finally walking the last few kilometres across the border. His family were registered in Za’atari camp. “It was very, very tough,” said Al-Obeyd, “I don’t like to think about that journey, but thank God we made it.”

Now, thanks to a recent change in Jordanian Government policy, Al-Obeyd and tens of thousands like him live under threat of eviction, incarceration, and even deportation back to Syria.

Since the start of the Syrian conflict in the early spring of 2011, over 608,000 Syrians have crossed the border, seeking asylum and refuge in Jordan.  A recent economic study by the World Food Programme stated that the sheer number of Syrians coming in had “triggered major demographic shifts; tested infrastructure and pressured social services”.  Today, Syrian refugees make up one tenth of the Jordanian population.

As a result, public opinion has slowly turned on the refugees, and in a speech to parliament on the November 3rd 2013, King Abdullah II stated that unless the international community quickly came to Jordan’s aid, he would “take measures to protect the interests of our people and country.”

The resident of Mafraq, for example, are keen to keep Syrians away from their communities – a September 2012 poll by the Jordanian Centre for Strategic Studies found that 80% of townspeople supported the idea of segregation of refugees inside refugee camps.

Then, in July of this year, the government and its new Syrian Refugees Directorate, SRAD, implemented a new policy. According to the new rules unregistered refugees, and those who choose to leave the confines of the camps without official authorisation, find themselves cut off from any humanitarian assistance, access to public services, and at risk of incarceration, eviction and even deportation back to Syria. The choice presented to theserefugees is simple: stay in the camps, or give up your access to aid.

The reality is more complicated: nearly 100,000 refugees currently live in one of Jordan’s two refugee camps, created in response to the Syrian conflict – around 85,000 in Za’atari camp and an estimated 12,000 in the new Azraq camp, opened on April 30th this year. The rest – the vast majority – live outside the camps; having registered with the UNHCR in urban areas, not registered at all, or having simply left without authorisation.

“If you are not going through the bail out procedure, UNHCR is no longer in a position to renew your documents and to officially recognise your stay outside the camps,” says Bernadette Castel-Hollingsworth, UNHCR’s Head of Azraq Camp’s Field Office. As partners of SRAD, few aid agency workers are willing to openly decry the new policy for risk of a government backlash that could in turn seriously hinder their efforts with refugees. Nevertheless, many quietly worry that the policy signifies a new hardline shift from the government, presaging a more coercive, restrictive future for refugees without the right papers.

In order for someone to obtain a bailout from Za’atari or Azraq today, Syrians need a Jordanian relative – “not necessarily a blood relation, but there has to be a justified relation” Castel-Hollingsworth adds – who can vouch for you and is willing to act as your guarantor while you try and start a new life outside the camp. She acknowledges that obtaining a bailout permit is incredibly difficult: “It is very restrictive in terms of the criteria you need to meet, in order to be able to apply, and then to actually get the permit,” she says, from her office in Azraq camp.

At the other end of Azraq, sitting in the shade of his corrugated metal shelter, Sabra, a 41-year-old Syrian refugee from Aleppo, describes his first stay at the camp: “I arrived in Jordan and came to this camp on May 2nd,” he said. “I escaped the camp on the 28th May.”

It took just two and a half months before police in Amman stopped and questioned him, and, with only Azraq registration papers, he was quickly returned to the camp. Sabra’s story resonates with many like him: “I tried [to leave legally], but I couldn’t,” he says. “I tried to get the bailout [through SRAD], but I don’t have any relatives in Jordan or anybody who could be my [guarantor].”

Azraq camp’s creation was a direct result of the huge number of refugees overwhelming Za’atari camp in 2012. With a maximum capacity of 60,000 Za’atari quickly swelled to 120,000 just over a year after opening. Refugees soon streamed out of the camps and entered Jordanian residential areas. Al-Obeyd and his entire family were among them. As was common at the time, they snuck out in the night. “We left slowly, my son-in-law leaving first, then afterwards, in small groups, the rest of us snuck out,” Al-Obeyd says.

“At that time in Za’atari, there were 2,000 refugees arriving per day,” says Castel-Hollingsworth. “The government and UNHCR realised…Za’atari could not cope.”  In February, the government decided there needed to be another camp. Today, Azraq accepts 96-97% of all new arrivals into the country.

Azraq is unlike almost every other refugee camp in the world. Out of the gently undulating desert in central Jordan, Azraq’s rugged shelters sit in perfect rows. Today, close to 10,000 shelters have been built, each with a 5-person capacity. At 14.7 square km, the camp itself has the feel of peculiarly sparse, under-construction town. Everywhere is orange desert, grey roads and yellowing shelters.

“People say [it’s like planning a city], but yes it is urban planning. Yesterday I was approving the layout for a cemetery,” Castel-Hollingsworth says. Lessons have certainly been learned from the chaos of Za’atari, and Castel-Hollingsworth is proud of the fact there have been “no security incidents in the camp,” a serious issue that continues to plague Za’atari.

Yet there is much to be done. The camp itself has only one supermarket; no electricity save small, solar powered devices; no running field hospital; no floors in the shelters, and unlike Za’atari, practically no business opportunities for the refugees.

Castel-Hollingsworth considers these issues very urgent. “People say that if they get electricity, the hospital and the markets, people will come back from the urban areas to live here,” she says.  Yet, in the mean time, the refugees continue to leave – bailed out or not.

Sabra says that leaving Azraq was a way of restoring his “dignity”. “There is only so long you can live off [hand outs]. I feel I am living half a life here.” It is a sentiment echoed by Al-Obyed: “In order to live in dignity, you have to work,” he says. “That’s why we prefer to live [outside], even with all the risks involved.”

An estimated 13,000 refugees, or around 50% of those registered at Azraq, have already left illegally. Almost all of them will fall foul of the new bailout policy. Al-Obeyd knows his family are at risk by continuing to illegally reside in what are termed “informal tented settlements” (ITS). “When the policy first started, we began hearing of mass evictions of people just like us,” says Al-Obeyd. “We were seriously considering moving back to the refugee camps before they had a chance to move us forcefully.”

To date, ITS evictions have been fairly piecemeal, but one aid agency worker in Jordan warns that, “It seems to be accepted by aid workers that [more wide-scale evictions] will inevitably happen.” Al-Obeyd calls the new policy “devastating”. Nodding in the direction of his family, he notes, “It is the poorest, the most desperate, who are most affected.” He explains that for the Syrian refugees, everyone has lost something, and some have lost everything. “If they evict us, destroy our things and send us back [to the camps] I would ask them to instead return us to Syria.” He pauses to consider what he has just said, before nodding, “Yes. That would be kinder.”

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The Rollergirls of Cairo

First Published in INK Global Magazine September 2014.  Tearsheets below:

A plateau of late afternoon sunshine breaks over the top of the small stadium and quietly illuminates the green, acrylic court below. A wall of chairs towers over the court from one side while on the opposing wall, a grand dusty sign reads “International Cairo Stadium”.

Stepping into the arena, the girls assess their surroundings. “Not too bad.” Says one, slowly putting on her bandana. Others in the group smile and head towards the courtside seats, ready to kit up.

With the holidays finishing, it has taken this group of young women 3 months to find a new venue for their sport and their excitement is palpable.

These are the CaiRollers: Egypt’s first and only roller derby team. The World’s fastest growing female sport is now beginning to pick up speed in Cairo. With around 22 Egyptian members, the team has come a long way since its inception 2 years earlier when two Americans, Angie Turk and Shanekia Bickham, founded CaiRollers.

At the start, the group mainly consisted of members of the Cairo expat community, but now it is young Egyptian women who make up the majority.

28 year old Nawal Ahmed was one of the first to join the group after hearing about CaiRollers through Facebook. “There were only one or two Arab people in the beginning, the rest were all foreigners.” Says Nawal. “Now it is almost all Arab girls!”

As time progressed and the expat contingent slowly began leaving the country, the “fresh meat”, as the new recruits are endearingly called, drew in increasing numbers of young Egyptian women. Nawal recalls her first training session, still fresh in her memory.

“It was a tiny track, and there were around 7 or 8 girls. I was so excited; I loved skating when I was younger. When I put on the skates, they were so heavy because I had not skated for years.” Says Nawal. “But then, after half an hour I started racing with them, I was falling, I was learning. It was so much fun. Since then I have never missed a practice.

Two years later and Nawal has progressed from “fresh meat” to instructor, teaching the latest crop of women in the dos and don’ts of roller derby.

The basic gameplay involves two teams of five skating in their pack around the track. The five are made up of a jammer and four blockers. If one pack’s jammer is able to lap the opposing pack, points are scored, and it is the job of the blockers to stop the opposing teams jammer from passing them.

With this being their first practice in over 3 months, the girls are raring to go and quick to kit up: elbow pads, mouth guards, knee pads, wrist guards, helmets and skates all essential equipment. With a long piece of rope, two members carefully mark out the oval roller derby track while the others begin skating around, tentatively at first, before muscle memory kicks in and their speed increases. A couple fall over as trained, taking a knee down to the ground before righting themselves again and continuing round the track.

Twice a week the group would meet up and train in the art of roller derby: blocking, sprinting, jumping, hitting and falling. It’s not a sport for the faint hearted, with bruises and more serious injuries common, despite the protective gear they have to wear.

“It’s bad ass!” Says Lina El Ghobashy, who first heard of CaiRollers on the radio. “You play, get injured, but continue playing!”

Lina smiles to reveal a gap in her teeth, an apparent ‘war wound’ from an earlier roller derby bout. “Well, I gave this girl a hit and when she was falling, her elbow went straight into my mouth.” She explains with a shrug of the shoulders. “I had taken out my mouth guard just before, so I was penalised for that as well! A broken tooth and a penalty!” She laughs with faux indignity. “Don’t worry, I’m seeing a dentist later today.”

Since starting, CaiRollers have managed to organise three official match-style bouts, their popularity increasing with each one. Around 130 people watched their last match, dubbed the “mother of all bouts”. Since no other roller derby team exists in the area, the group is forced to split itself into two teams, the last bout: Isis Crisis vs. the Killa’patras.

In spite of the obvious physical dangers and relative obscurity of the sport, the vast majority of CaiRoller’s members have received nothing but support from family, friends and even complete strangers.

“The first few months my mother was worried when I was coming home covered in bruises,” explains Lina, “but soon she understood what it meant to me and is now fully behind it.”

Some, like Nouran El Kabbany, one of the newer recruits, take great pleasure in the shock value roller derby provides to her friends and work colleagues. “Just this morning a colleague saw my helmet and asked about it. I explained the game and her face was like ‘Woah! Is this here in Egypt?’ I felt so proud at that moment that I am a part of this.”

Yet more than simply fun, fitness and the occasional shock, Nouran thinks roller derby has had an all-encompassing effect on her life, an opinion echoed by many of the other members.

“Roller derby has changed my life for the better. It has given me greater self-confidence and the realisation that you are never too old to do something completely new.” She explains. “I find myself practicing every time I’m on the road. Derby is a life style, not just a game.”

Lina concurs, noting the peculiar contrast in her daily activities. “I mean I’m a pharmacist; it feels like you’re entering a totally different world. In the morning I’m in a suit with my glasses on and now I’m with skates being aggressive. I love it.”

Both Lina and Nouran consider the polar opposite duality of their lives to be a thing of beauty, and with CaiRollers’ prominence growing with every practice, bout and ‘fresh meat clinic’, an increasing number of local women are being given the opportunity to experience it first hand.

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‘Trade In Spade’ – Gaza’s Destroyed Tunnels

First published in print with Makeshift Magazine July 2014

Tearsheets below:

Abu Mohamed hovers near the entrance of a gaping cavern and fumbles with a small set of speakers. He carefully traces his fingers along a black wire until they reach a tiny, metal nub soldered onto the end. Putting the ad-hoc microphone to his lips, he shouts, “Ready? Okay. Pull, Wajdi!”

At the end of the tunnel, nearly a kilometer away, Abu Mohamed’s command booms through another set of speakers in a haze of distorted feedback. Wajdi, hunkered underground in near-total darkness, reaches over a mound of freshly dug soil and flicks a rusty switch from “0” to “1”. A nearby crank whirrs at full speed and a sprawl of cable slowly spins towards him.

Back at the surface, Abu Mohamed watches as an empty rubber sled, hooked to one end of the cable, slowly slithers down a steady gradient and into the tunnel to Wajdi, who fills it with soil and sends it back. Turning to me, Abu Mohamed smiles, throws his arms open and almost bows. “This is how you build a tunnel, my friend.

For the beleaguered residents of the Gaza Strip, underground smuggling tunnels to Egypt are a lifeline. When the Islamist group Hamas took control of Gaza in June 2007, Israel responded with a trade blockade, and the subterranean black market became the main thoroughfare for everyday necessities. “We’re talking everything here: household furniture, flour, sugar, cement, tobacco, electronics, gas. It was a huge business,” says Omar Shaban, an economist and director of the local think tank PalThink.

Hundreds of tunnels that connected to Egypt’s Sinai region once accounted for 99 percent of trade in Gaza, he adds. The market was so lucrative that in 2008, Hamas started incorporating tunnel revenues into its fiscal budget. “At its height, the tunnels were the main source of tax to the Hamas government. There were some estimations that the taxes arrived to half a billion dollars a year.”

That has all since changed since the summer of 2013, after Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi was overthrown in a military coup and a spate of terrorist attacks hit Egypt’s poorly policed Sinai. The Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas (an original offshoot of the Brotherhood) were quickly blamed for the attacks, and the smuggling tunnels were labeled a conduit to terrorism.

“They must have destroyed some 1,100 [tunnels],” Abu Mohamed sighs, remembering the Egyptian military operation that followed Morsi’s coup. He adamantly denied that weapons or militants flowed underground. “We use it as a lifeline, not for terrorists.”

Abu Mohamed is one of a handful of remaining diggers trying to resuscitate the tunnel networks and ameliorate an economic slump that Omar Shaban describes as “the worst ever in Gaza’s recent history”. Abu Mohamed’s tent in the southern Rafah region of Gaza is a rare sign of life in a sea of abandoned white marquees that shelter the entrances to defunct tunnels.

Abu Mohamed is five months and one kilometer into the project; he will need to double this to finish. “The tunnels need to be longer now to avoid the Egyptian military,” he says.

The typical strategy for building a tunnel is to simply dig at an angle perpendicular to the border with Egypt. Ahmed, another digger here, peers over the edge of a tunnel well and explains, “You have two basic types of tunnel: one like this,”—he kicks a rock down the shaft and waits to hear it crack against the bottom—“which is built straight down around 15 meters, before going straight across the border, then straight up again.” The other type slowly curves down in a gentle “U” shape before popping back up in Egypt.

“I have heard of some people digging with their hands,” Abu Mohamed explains as another sled full of soil emerges from the hole. “But we have spades and pickaxes. Gaza is good for that. It has a lot of construction equipment lying around and no materials to build with.”

The Gazan diggers almost mock the Egyptian border guards with how close they build to the border. None of the tunnel entrances are more than 200 meters away from the Egyptian outposts. “They already know we start here. What’s really important is that they don’t find the exit,” Ahmed says, pointing over into Egypt.

“We don’t know exactly where the other tunnels are, underground, but it isn’t that congested down there,” Abu Mohamed says. “As long as we dig straight from here we won’t have any problems. The only problems are when we reach Egypt.”

The entrance to his tunnel, which measures four-and-a-half feet high, is framed with large piles of sandbags in a cursory attempt to stop the earth from collapsing in around it. Wooden supports prop up the passageway for the first 20 meters, but after that, the tunnel continues on its own, unsupported and with tons of earth above it.

Towards the middle, the claustrophobia-inducing tunnel reaches several lows of less than three feet, requiring visitors to assume a prostrate crawl to sneak through. The atmosphere hangs heavy with a stale humidity, the earth sweats and heaves under the immense weight above it. In these tunnels, workplace safety and standard engineering codes are merely an afterthought.

“It’s very dangerous. I know a lot of people who have died,” Ahmed says. “My cousin was injured in a tunnel collapse just six months ago.” Peering into the darkness he recalls his first venture into one of the tunnels. “It felt like I was walking into my own grave.”

Wajdi suddenly comes in over the speakers from deep inside the tunnel. “[The sled is] all full, Abu Mohamed. Can you send some water and cigarettes down the next time?” Abu Mohamed reaches into his packet of cigarettes, pulls out three sticks and lays them down next to the microphone. “No problem, Wajdi.”

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August 7, 2014 · 16:55

Hobson’s Choice for Egyptian Voters

First published in the New Internationalist on May 30th

 

As polling booths closed late last night, Egyptians ticked off yet another election.  This has been the country’s second presidential election in as many years, and the 7th time Egyptians had been sent to the polling booths in just over 3 years.  Democracy by way of the ballot box abounds.  Yet the only reason these elections could even be called ‘democratic’ was down to one man, the Nasserist opposition candidate Hamdeen Sabahi.

With early results from the elections trickling out, the inevitable looks to be confirmed: ex-defence minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will be Egypt’s next President with a landslide majority, while his only opposition is left far adrift with just a single-digit percentage of the ballots. Yet while the result itself is as expected, the turnout and build up to the election was anything but.

The idea of campaigning against the man considered by many as the “saviour of Egypt” would be a hard, if not impossible, task.  Sisi had, after all, been the “hero” who removed the Islamist President Mohamed Morsi – this was a common sentiment from voters I spoke to.  Other potential candidates quickly opted out of the race, either out of reverence to Sisi, or citing the impossibility of competing in what was termed a “state of fear”.

Since Morsi was overthrown in July last year hundreds of his supporters have been killed.  Over a thousand more have been sentenced to death in the courts.  Journalists have been targeted and harassed.  Activists and members of youth groups have been imprisoned after the passing of a draconian protest law.  The message was clear: dissent and opposition will not be tolerated, and the same seemed to apply with the elections.

So when Sabahi announced his candidacy, he was met with accusations of delusion and backroom cooperation from a fragmented opposition bloc.  There was no way he could possibly win, and by competing he was simply bestowing a veneer of democracy to what was a practical coronation.

Travelling around Cairo, you could be forgiven for thinking there was only one candidate.  Sisi’s face beams down from posters and billboards, while Sabahi is apparently neither seen nor heard.  Yet out of the two, it was Sabahi who embraced the campaign period with gusto, while Sisi himself eschewed nearly all forms of electioneering.  Ostensibly due to security issues, the three-week campaigning period ended without Sisi making a single public appearance.

In the first week of campaigning, Sabahi’s headquarters was abuzz with young volunteers oozing an infectious confidence.  The walls were littered with posters of Martyrs from the previous three years revolting, in keeping with the image that Sabahi was trying to portray: he was the candidate of the youth and the revolution.

This belief was apparent in his team, and a sole objective was clearly stated.  Ehab Ghobashy, an organiser in Sabahi’s ‘Street Committee’ who referred to his candidate only as “the President”, held, if anything, a hubristic view as to who would win the elections.  “You wait and see, our President will win.”  He would say with a smile, reasoning apparently superfluous to his “good feeling”.

Further up the campaign echelon, a more pragmatic approach was taken, but the singular hope was still that, with the correct strategy, Sabahi would somehow win.  “We are targeting the youth [18-39], they make up 60% of the voting bloc” explained Hussein Qorshum, head of the communications committee.  “When we travel, we hit the areas we know we have support and tailor our speeches to address the needs of the people there.  This is how we will win – with our policies.  Sisi speaks of energy saving light bulbs?  We talk of solar power!”

However, as the campaign dragged on, the cracks started to show, literally.  The campaign was working on a laughably small budget and that much was clear to anyone watching.  Mid way through the campaigning, Sisi’s team had spent LE 12 million (£1,003,400) including renting a private jet that purportedly cost them £7,500.  In the same period, Sabahi’s director of advertising stated they had spent just LE 100,000 (£8,362).

It was a picture of forced frugality.  A great deal of their resources were drawn from Sabahi’s failed 2012 presidential bid.  Slogans, songs, posters and t-shirts from two years prior were all dusted off and brought back to life.  The campaign team didn’t even have a security officer, as, according to their secretary of the political relations committee, they “can’t afford one”.

The young team of volunteers found themselves harassed, assaulted, arrested and impeded in their work by both pro-Sisi civilians and policemen.  “Just two days ago, we had trouble in Mahalla,” said Ahmed Dowayik, a 22 year-old volunteer with Sabahi.  “They tried to stop our bus and pull us out but we just quickly drove out.”  He shrugs when asked who they were.  “They were dressed like civilians, but you never know.  The police just watched it all happen and did nothing.”

As the campaigning neared its end, it was noticeable that Sabahi’s team were trying to shift the goalposts.  The main objective remained the triumph of their candidate, but another aim suddenly came to carry great importance too.  “What’s most important for us is the spirit of youth.” Said Mohamed Aziz, a prominent organiser with the campaign.

As one of the cofounders of the Tamarod movement that brought about the fall of Morsi, Aziz knows what a successful campaign feels like, and the day after campaigning was finished, he was expert in avoiding a straight answer as to possible success in the elections.  “We’ve gained some ground and we’ve trained a lot of the youth in the democratic way.  The thousands that volunteered for us, work with us, the spirit of hope for a young crowd that believes in a democratic state, for me this is the most important thing.”

Yet on the day, the brutal reality in the turnout of the elections would have left both candidates disappointed.  While Sabahi had hoped for some success among the younger voters, Sisi had called for record voter participation, thus providing proof of his popular mandate.  The first days showing was so poor that it prompted an angry reproach from local television personalities.  The youth were particularly conspicuous in their absence.

On the second, and what should have been the final day’s voting, the turnout was hardly better, despite the best efforts of the state.  Non-voters were threatened with fines (voting is mandatory in Egypt, but this is never observed); a popular shopping mall was closed early; and the day was proclaimed a national holiday.  One studies centre put the turnout over the two days at a staggeringly low 7.5%.  Then, late on Tuesday, a desperate Presidential Elections Commission (PEC) made the extraordinary decision to extend voting to a third day.  The latest state figures now put the overall turnout at between 38 and 59 percent of voters.

The events of the polling period seemed to exactly mirror an earlier episode during the elections. On a trip to Benha, a group of Sabahi volunteers careened around corners in their campaign minibus, blasting songs and handing out posters.  The occasional onlooker smiled and the occasional onlooker gave a thumbs down, but the vast majority watched on with complete indifference, instead returning to whatever they were doing, as if nothing had happened.  As if nothing had changed.

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In Cairo’s Garbage City, Illegal Pig Farming is Coming Back

First Published in Vice ‘Munchies‘ Food Section – April 8, 2014

In Cairo’s ‘Garbage City,’ Illegal Pig Farming Is Coming BackAs I scrambled up piles of cardboard and across varied detritus, I eventually peered over a metal barrier into the porcine enclave beyond.  The two dozen or so pigs on the other side quickly scattered away to the shadows before slowly returning to where they were, munching on orange peels and the other organic materials left for them.

“Welcome to Garbage City!” yells one man below me, before continuing on in his business of compressing and packaging used cardboard. “You like the pigs?” he asks me.

Pigs hanging out on a pile of garbage. All photos by the author.

Manshiyet Nasser, or ‘Garbage City’ as it’s otherwise known, is a sprawling town of mostly Coptic Christians and lies under the Mokattam hills just slightly under five miles (8km) from downtown Cairo. With the majority of the population working in the informal recycling and rubbish collecting business, the area is home to some 60,000 ‘Zabaleen’ (literally ‘garbage people’) and the destination of some 30 percent of Greater Cairo’s daily municipal waste output—all 4,200 tons of it. Walking around the maze of streets, you occasionally pass by openings to the makeshift furnaces used for recycling; the blasts of heat and the whirr of metal reminding you exactly where you are—in essence, a recycling industry. Elsewhere, the smell—as one would imagine—is incredibly pungent. Foodstuffs and other organic matter putrefy under the hot sun, offering up an odor capable of burning the nasal hairs. It only takes about 15 minutes for the body to adjust to it, though, and eventually its power escapes you.

Garbage City is also home to the highest concentration of pigs in Egypt—around 50,000 of them. This is nearly double the number of pigs than there were the year before. It is an immense resurgence from five years ago, when Hosni Mubarak’s government culled most of Egypt’s pig population because of a swine flu scare. But even though pork farming is still illegal today, a few bold farmers are attempting to reform the industry altogether.

On April 29th, 2009, amid the growing paranoia over the H1N1 swine flu pandemic, Egypt’s government, under Hosni Mubarak, ordered the immediate slaughter of every pig in Egypt. At the time, Egypt’s agriculture ministry put the number of pigs in the country at close to 250,000.

Photo by Adam Ramsey

Despite the fact that no pigs in Egypt were found to have the new strain, and that the World Health Organization (WHO) stressed that it could not be caught from eating pork that was properly prepared, the decision went ahead. Shortly after the announcement, the government described the move not so much a precaution against swine flu, but a general public health measure. Nearly every pig in Egypt was taken to a slaughterhouse and killed, or, in several reported cases that don’t bear thinking about, either covered in acid or buried alive.

The pig farmers in Garbage City explained to me that it was now legal to own and rear pigs, but against the law to slaughter them to sell for consumption purposes. In other words, pig farming is still illegal. The loophole was an easy one to spot for the business-minded, though, and in the richer and more foreigner-friendly areas of Zamalek and Maadi, a few shops have taken to selling imported items. Slaughtered and processed overseas, the pigs are now sold to a predominantly foreign clientele living in Egypt.

Tucked away along one of Zamalek’s main roads, an otherwise unassuming alcohol shop sells an assortment of German pork products.  In full view of its entrance, a typical meat counter offers foie gras, mortadella, bacon, pork cutlets, and more.

Photo by Adam Ramsey
Above, a liquor store that sells German pork product imports

“Great pork, all from Germany,” says Atalah, an employee of the shop.  When queried on how much of the stuff they sell in a month, he estimates over 220 pounds. “There are a lot of foreigners here and they love their pork!” Assuring me of the legality of the operation, he stresses that he would never risk jail over something as trivial as pork, before continuing, in a whisper, “If you want I can get you good booze? All European stuff: beers, wine, vodka, whiskey. I have it. But keep it quiet, because it’s illegal.”

Back in Manshiyet Nasser, farmers explained the immediate problems they faced as a result of the 2009 killings. “I had around 1,500 pigs before Mubarak’s decision [to cull them].” Says Rezek, a Garbage City resident. “Then they came around and took them all; I must have lost something like 70,000 EGP ($10,000 USD) worth of pigs.”

“But it is more than just the initial money loss,” says Bekhit, an older pig farmer. “It was our way of life: It was the insurance of a monthly income, a source to pay for a wedding, not to mention good food to feed the family, you know, barbecue pork.” Barbecue pork is incredibly popular in Garbage City and it seemed to be a phrase almost everyone I met could say in English. “The pigs are great for all the organic materials we have to get rid of. We can recycle inorganic, you know, the plastics and stuff, but any leftover food would just sit there rotting,” adds Rezek.

Sitting at a café that spread precariously into the road, the men chatted about 2009 and the aftermath. “One of the most immediate things that happened was the price of beef went up. Anyone who still had their pigs would hoard them or sell them at way more than most could afford,” says Bekhit. “Before Mubarak you could buy pork from a butcher for something like 25 EGP/kg ($3.60 USD/kg). Now it’s double that.”

“It was our way of life: It was the insurance of a monthly income, a source to pay for a wedding, not to mention good food to feed the family, you know, barbecue pork.”

Raafat, a butcher in the area with 20 years of experience, estimates that he is one of six or seven butchers who continue to process and cook pork. “I actually had to start selling chicken immediately after the cull,” he explains. “There just weren’t any pigs.”

Before Mubarak, Raafat was going through about four pigs worth of pork a day. “After, it was maybe one or two a week. It is much better, but right now it’s pretty low, maybe two or three a day, but that’s because people are fasting for Easter, and the economy is a mess.”

One of the major issues he is still battling with is the lack of a certified stamp of approval from a health official. “Some people are afraid because it isn’t stamped so they don’t know what it’s like. Before the cull, there were doctors who would certify the meat—now I have to do it myself. That doesn’t worry people here, but outside of Garbage City it puts people off.”

Walking around Garbage City, it seemed as though almost every ad hoc building now had a few pigs tucked away behind the exterior, either in a makeshift sty in the back, on a rooftop, or under some stairs. “I remember when they first came [in 2009], says Bashai. “I hid two piglets in a small room in my house and had to let the others be taken and killed. It wasn’t until Mubarak was removed that things really got better,” he continued, in reference to the coup that overthrew the Islamist President in July of last year. “Under Mubarak, the government was still looking for pigs, but now there are no problems.”

Photo by Adam Ramsey
Pigs in a building in ‘Garbage Town’

Guiding me through to the back of his building, Bashai walked expertly across an ocean of bottles, cardboard, and—I couldn’t help but notice—at least two needles. I stumbled my way after him, desperately trying to not fall. His youngest son skipped past me and they both helped me into their pigpen. “I now have 60 pigs or so,” he stated with some dissatisfaction while the pigs walked around him, nibbling at his feet. “But I hope to have many more soon. Things are looking better now.”

Photo by Adam Ramsey

Rafaat agrees, saying that with the more comfortable attitude now being afforded to pork, sales can only increase. “I’m not afraid of anyone coming to arrest me over selling this stuff anymore.  I actually think the abattoirs will reopen soon.” He smiles. “I still offer chicken if people want it, but almost everyone wants the barbecue pork.”

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Access to Education an Added Challenge for Refugees in Egypt

First published in IRIN News Tuesday April 8th


Syrian, Sudanese and Somali refugees study art at a school run by NGO Tadamon

As the number of Syrians in Egypt rises, refugees say it has become increasingly difficult to find places for their children in already overstretched government schools.

In addition, refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in Egypt complain of unaffordable school costs in private and public schools, bureaucratic enrolment procedures, and a growing atmosphere of suspicion, xenophobia and discrimination in the classroom.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) had 179,762 refugees and asylum seekersregistered as of the end of 2013, most of them Syrian and Sudanese.

But according to a report by Egypt’s largest refugee-focused NGO Tadamon, the real numbers could be anywhere between 1.5 and 3 million, based on estimates from local NGOs, some of whom include economic migrants in their definition of refugees. Tadamon blames “differing legal definitions” and “a failure or refusal of many refugees to register” for the numbers confusion.

The right to an education is enshrined in the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, of which Egypt is a signatory. However, in 1981 Egypt put forwardreservations to several articles, resulting in diminished refugee rights.

Instead of a free education, refugee families need to apply for tuition grants from Caritas Internationalis through UNHCR partner Catholic Relief Services.

“Registered Syrian refugee families with school-going children receive an education grant to assist families [in] covering the costs of school fees, uniforms, books, stationary and transport,” said Marwa Hashem, UNHCR’s education officer in Cairo. “As of mid-February [2014], some 32,000 children have received education grants.”

” You won’t find an order from the government saying ‘Don’t let refugees into schools’ but you will see it when you go to a school and try to apply there. The doors won’t be open for them “

According to Mohamed El Miligy, an Egyptian-Sudanese activist and communications officer for Tadamon, there is a conspicuously tortuous enrolment process set up to deter refugees from entering into an already overstretched education sector. “The [amount of] paperwork means that many will not be able to start [school] for a year or two.”

“It is difficult for… refugees to enrol in public school if they lack previous educational documentation,” Hashem added.

Despite UNHCR’s advocacy for Sudanese and Syrian refugees to have access to education facilities and services, Miligy says that in reality there are a growing number of cases where the “pretence of acceptance” is removed altogether and the school doors are simply shut on refugees attempting to enrol their children.

“There are many schools that will simply not let refugees in,” said Miligy. “You won’t find an order from the government saying ‘Don’t let refugees into schools’ but you will see it when you go to a school and try to apply there. The doors won’t be open for them.”

The Ministry of Education did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.

Discrimination

Hanadi Mohamed, a Sudanese refugee, says her children also encounter discrimination in Egyptian public schools. Refugees say the general atmosphere towards them has deteriorated as a result of Egypt’s political upheaval and flailing economy.

“I took my youngest to kindergarten here and when I came back I found the other children calling him names and physically beating him because he was Sudanese. He was crying. I asked the teacher whether she could do something but she didn’t help at all.”

Mohamed ended up having to remove her child from the school. Several parents told IRIN they had little choice but to do the same out of fear of bullying.

Tadamon runs separate refugee schools, under its “Alternative School Initiative” specifically geared to refugees who have no viable access to an education. Tucked away behind unmarked doors of unfinished apartment buildings, the schools often welcome children who have already been subjected to harassment and discrimination from their previous schooling environment.

“Their psychology is affected; they get so down. So the families take them out of the school and take them to us where we can try and deal with them,” Miligy said. “Some of the children become violent as a result, while others are very withdrawn and hardly speak.”

No money

Six months of research into the state of refugee education in Egypt by the UK-based Refugee Youth Project, published in a report at the end of 2013, found over 80 percent of the 400 refugee interviewees cited high school costs and a lack of money as the main reason they could not afford to send their children to school.

Magdy Garas, co-director of Caritas Egypt – a charity that provides financial aid, social support and medical care to refugees in Egypt – estimates there are around 17,000 Syrian families who are in financial need yet receive no support from either UNHCR or Caritas.

“We believe there are around 250,000 Syrian refugees in Egypt. We manage a humanitarian plan with 31,000 Syrians and the UNHCR supports a further 138,000, but the remaining 81,000 individuals, around 17,000 families, are still in need of financial support,” he said.

According to a government estimate from June 2013, there are 300,000 Syrian refugees in Egypt. As of 8 March, 134,917 Syrians had registered with UNHCR as refugees.

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The Cairo Cult of Field Marshal Al-Sisi

First published in Vocativ on February 18th 2014 – photos by myself or Amanda Mustard

One man’s beaming face is omnipresent in the streets of Egypt these days. Most often seen in full formal military regalia, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s image is everywhere. A year into his tenure as chief of Egypt’s military, Sisi facilitated the popular coup that ended the short-lived reign of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi on July 3, 2013, and it didn’t take too long for a hero-worship cult to emerge.

Sisi Cult Paraphernalia 10

It’s hard to think of a genre of merchandise that hasn’t yet featured Sisi’s visage. Posters of him are boosted up on billboards. Key chains with his army portrait are on sale for 1 Egyptian pound ($0.14) on street corners. Opinion articles in some of Egypt’s largest news outlets commend his “Herculean strength” while noting the “ardour of the sun in his veins.”

THE SISI SONG

If the key rings, flags masks and chocolates were not enough, Sisi’s legacy has also been immortalized though song. A self-declared boy band wrote an ode to Sisi called “One Dream,” to encourage the field marshall to run for president. Mission accomplished. The group’s uniform consists of leather jackets and, of course, t-shirts with Sisi’s face on them. Lyrics included such heartwarming phrases as: “Tomorrow is ours, tomorrow is better. Tomorrow Sisi will be our president.”

Sisi Cult Paraphernalia 12

Although much has been attributed to the man, Sisi has remained relatively quiet. The field marshal rarely holds press conferences or gives interviews, and he certainly doesn’t have a Twitter account (unlike hispredecessor). Rather, videos and recordings of him are strategically leaked. Yet, rather than provide a clear and honest depiction of the man, they have served only to perpetuate his enigmatic persona, all of which helps the merchandising push.

(ZumaPress.com/Amanda Mustard)

Though Sisi has yet to officially state his intention to run for presidency, it is almost certainly just a matter of time until he does. (Russian President Vladimir Putin has already stated his backing of Sisi for President.) Come the presidential elections in March/April, it is almost guaranteed that Sisi will become Egypt’s next president.

(Polaris/Amanda Mustard)

Sisi’s campaign for presidency arguably started the moment Morsi was overthrown.  Enterprising groups have ensured bridges are adorned with signs asking Sisi to “complete [his] favor.” Immediately outside the High Court in downtown Cairo, a huge poster pleads with Sisi: “Our love is yours, our hands are yours, our allegiance is yours. …Sisi—the president, commander-in-chief and leader.”

Sisi Cult Paraphernalia 09

As more time passes, Sisi’s image is cropping up in more and more incongruous settings. In some cafes, your coffee may be accompanied by some Sisi sweets: his face smiling eerily up at you from a bed of fine milk chocolate.

Sisi Cult Paraphernalia 04(Amanda Mustard)

At recent rallies supporting the current government, masks of Sisi’s face were sold in the hundreds. A black band across his eyes and an unfortunate distortion of his face combined to create a bizarre resemblance to the McDonald’s Hamburglar.

Sisi Cult Paraphernalia 11

In the touristic area of Khan el Khalili, vendors display Sisi ID cards—under Sisi’s profession it states “Savior of Egypt”—next to their own business cards. More entrepreneurial jewelers have started selling Sisi-themed necklaces and earrings. One businesswoman tells me that she has actually sold out of her “Sisi collection.”

“But don’t worry,” she says. “I’ll be getting some more in soon.”

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