In the wake of regional strife, Cairo has served the Sudanese people as a generational vacuum, displacing educated youth with an unsettled life of perversion and isolation. One young man bounced back and forth between Turkey, and Sudan, while not in Cairo. The youth began to submit falsified testimonies to the bureaucratic infrastructures imposed by NGOs, and UN agencies providing refugee services in Cairo. Abdel Rahman met the youth briefly in Cairo, as he had a month previously in Khartoum. The money the young man received was genuinely for survival. However, youth, and truly anyone willing to risk cheating the system, often use the funds for illegal migration to Turkey, where they risk entry into Europe. The journey can be fatal, and often is for desperate fathers who have left behind their families in Cairo.
A common means to cheating the NGO service provision network is by submitting a false testimony on grounds of immediate medical emergency. Assistance funding is then issued following an interview approval process. In the case of this particular youth, he received 200USD. While rumor spreads quickly among people whose main activity is communal gathering, and daily discourse, the youth was not especially involved in the community, which is why he was able to cheat the system without greater, community-based repercussions.
Barbara Harrell-Bond, the world-renowned scholar, and founder of the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University has had more experience in the field of refugee research than perhaps anyone else today. In 2010, during a seminar at the American University in Cairo, she confirmed that forced migrants, asylum seekers and refugees will, and do take advantage of bureaucratic mechanisms meant to help them. There is often a history of misunderstanding and mismanagement, which prefigures corruption, and worse, ineffective service provision. Truly, the policies of NGO organizations that espouse working on behalf of refugees, and in their interest have created more problems than they have solved.
While the young man was said to have used the corrupt money he attained to travel to Turkey, an older Sudanese salesman of Turkish descent stood outside of the Sudanese Restaurant in Cairo every single day, as he had for over fifteen years. While living out a more honest example of the refugee experience in Cairo, a life in limbo, service provisioning had required that he stay in Cairo, based on his medical condition.
The foreign is deeply embedded within Sudanese society, as in the ancestral memory of the people. The same is true in Egypt. Roman, Greek, Turkish and English elements comingle in modern Egypt and Sudan mutually, and presently, as the earliest autochthonous cultures of the Nile. One of their most commonly shared experiences is a dependency and frequency of interaction with foreigners. In the Sudanese Restaurant, an apt microcosm for the Sudanese diaspora, an Egyptian face was rare enough. Still more rare were the tourists, journalists, and students of the West.
From June to August of 2010, despite frequenting the same Sudanese Restaurant every day across the street from the statue to Ibrahim Pasha, foreigners arrived to the restaurant on only one occasion. Curiously, they also arrived all at once, and not even to watch soccer the year Africa hosted the FIFA World Cup. They were four Americans, of Iranian, and European descent. A couple spoke about the deplorable conditions of South Sudan, about rampant drunkenness and the need for escorts. A young man from Connecticut remarked about the difficulties of learning Arabic after four years of formal study. The couple then went on about their globetrotting, the man about Iraq, and the woman about Zanzibar.
The Sudanese looked on perplexed. The lemon juicer wore a particularly vexed expression, as all noted the ostentatious volition of such privileged citizens of the Global North traveling to the ends of the Earth, only to witness matchless depravity. Unlike the removed objectivity of the Western voices, two Sudanese UN workers then struck up a lightning-fast, heated conversation with Abdel Rahman. Five hours later, they had exhausted every last perspective of its substance, and will.
The crux of their arguments were initially communicated in Arabic, and with time, introduced more English. They discussed the need to mount humanitarian intervention in Darfur, and the best practices available to the international community, as locally. Personal responsibility, and safety were ever present in their eyes, as they listened to each other, and argued with intensive and exacting resolve. They were not merely speaking to be heard, but to learn from one another, in the most sincere of searches for rational alternatives to an ongoing conflict that had affected them, and would affect them into the immediate future.
Through a series of overtly impassioned speeches, the trio talked Sudanese politics up and down, and from side to side, integrating anecdotes on recent trips through conflict zones in Sudan. Unpacking small to large-scale development and participation rhetoric, the idealism of UN strategic planning was there laid bare for its lack of respect, and appreciation for the rural livelihoods of local people. The people of Darfur are affected by both UN humanitarian intervention, and the destructive nature of the civil war, both often antithetical to Indigenous leadership.
On that night, in the café adjacent to the Sudanese Café, in the shadow of the stone-laden image of Ibrahim Pasha, the deepest convictions and shared experiences of the Sudanese found an air in which to move, and breathe, while representing a mere fragment of the staggering numbers of perspectives, and truths existent in the region on the issue of Darfur. Personal experience, and media representation are often at odds for various reasons, and chief among them is the lack of context in the frames of Western, and foreign media, over an issue blanketed by problematic humanitarian intervention, ongoing military strife, and millions displaced to obscurity and isolation.
Then, with respect to personal experience, horror and trauma can be silencing, and deafening with instantaneous simultaneity. As in South Sudan, so in Darfur, modernity often knocks by the explosion of a shell. Sudanese political commentary, and social activism, and its accompanying attention by Western advocates, is steeped in a culture of denial. The step towards recognizing an ongoing genocide, and its international manifestations in the appalling neglect of refugee rights in Egypt, obliges the international community to reciprocate responsibility on behalf of the innocent lives lost, and the growing value of reparations due.
The representation of peoples, and places, whether by journalism or politics, either personal or collective, obliges a social agreement, wherein truth, as justice, survives in the light of a people’s history. The international community, by witnessing the tragedy of Darfur, tends to act rashly, and heavy-handedly, while indifferent to the challenges and compromises which Sudanese people face on a daily basis. A relevant philosophy says that witnessing without intention leads to effective change, if only from within.
In the book “Emma’s War: A True Story” by Deborah Scroggins, the author recounts a scene where she is so greatly affected by witnessing the fate of ravaged and starving motherless children. She shouts a command for the first time in her life, asking for her truck to stop, as she picks up a boy weighing just over four kilograms. She then brings him into the feeding center only to find that motherless children cannot be cared for in a place where only two foreign aid workers fed thousands of children.
The emotionally dramatic story that Scroggins tells is only natural, especially for a foreigner from the West. Juxtaposing her traumatic reaction to that of the Central African aid workers in her anecdote, the truth of perspective is clear, that only Africans are equipped to solve their local problems. As she noted in her book, one Central African man walked through the same crowd of starving infants, many of whose families were subject to slavery and bitter war crimes. Puffing a massive joint, the man separated children into queues and handed them supplies offered by Oxfam.
The Central African aid worker represented the local way of doing the work, without self-sacrificing. In this case, the African man simply rolled up his sleeves and moved bodies according to the humanitarian service mandates. The journalist, as representative of the West, sought experience in the manner of gathering information, and was thereby further abstracted from the lived reality, and more, from the mutually horrifying tragedy by a sojourn that distanced home, and thus personal responsibility.
The individual is at a loss, and is then transformed, in the domain of the foreign. Yet, in such conflict zones as in Sudan, and more subtly among refugee communities in Egypt, the foreign is pervasive in the experience of tragedy. Without the psychological bearings of having grown up local to a pre-conflict warzone, with memories of daily life as lived in such places as Darfur, foreign intervention becomes all too easily misplaced.
Back in the Sudanese Restaurant of Cairo, Abdel Rahman taught a young man a lesson learned by a UN humanitarian agency: the world-class wash. With comic abandon, he satirized both the traditions of the Sudanese people, and UN oversight by the mundane activity of washing before supper. The world-class wash necessitates scrubbing the better part of the arm with soap and water, as well as the hands, and face. As typical to the Sudanese prior to dining, oral health by rinsing, and spitting, was practiced liberally.
Bottled water, and soft drinks are mostly untouched, not very trusted by the Sudanese patrons who would prefer to dip a hand into the bowl of an acquaintance. Dishes are prepared and served quickly, often in less than five minutes. A complementary green salad of sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce and lime follows, with bread stacked amply in a basket. Abdel Rahman attested to the quality of the bread in Egypt. In Sudan, the bread did not have the weight, the substance, none of the girth. Patrons ripped, and beat the bread against their hands, and against other pieces of bread, enjoying the nutritive firmness. In minutes, their mouths and shirts are covered in granules of unbaked wheat. The bread is absolutely the centerpiece to the meal, also serving as a utensil, and essential to the many makeshift sandwiches that ensue in the course of a meal.
The communal generosity that people enacted during mealtimes at the Sudanese Restaurant seemed a throwback to a bygone era of relative prosperity in Sudan, now transplanted to Cairo in the migrant imagination. It’s as though when hungry, anyone can act as family, where sincere invitations are only matched by successive invitations, and without any of the apologetic niceties of Western etiquette.
After dinner, a man dressed in more urbane clothing than most sat down outside the restaurant for tea. He was an NGO worker for AMERA (Africa and Middle East Refugee Assistance), one of the chief NGOs in Cairo, located in a trendy, multicultural office in Garden City, complete with worldly employees working to provide pro-bono legal aid to refugees in Egypt.
Abdel Rahman proceeded to criticize the NGO openly, and unapologetically. They then spoke with a force only known to popular Sudanese discourse, as they pressed their fingers at one another vehemently, quickened by eyeball stares, and responses that were emotionally intelligent. The man finally admitted that AMERA was not perfect. Though relative to the available services for refugees, AMERA was practically the only organization offering the kinds of services that refugees truly needed to transition soundly from Egypt to a more hospitable host state. Refugees are politically vulnerable, unable to represent themselves in the greater society, and that has major legal repercussions.
At once, Abdel Rahman and the NGO worker ended the argumentation and critique with amiable agreement, although the issue remained unresolved. At least the small verbal conflict did, at least then, end. He then asked Abdel Rahman of his work. His turn towards respecting interest was surprising. “Dissemination of information to the refugee communities of Cairo,” Abdel Rahman said, caught off guard. Firm and positive feedback followed from the NGO worker. “That is good, rare and needed,” he said. After which, Abdel Rahman personally invited him to teach an informal course at El-Wafaa to prepare students for certificate-granting schools.
The tea parlor outside the Sudanese Restaurant maintained a positive air, of mutual recognition, as the unlikely pair then sat quietly, sipping tea. The internal politics of refugee rights, and service provisioning among NGOs, the UNHCR, the Egyptian state, and community-based efforts are too often at odds. In that instance, civil progress in the midst of an ensuing tragedy was possible. The man then spoke of how Egypt is not even truly Africa. Kenya, Southern Sudan, Senegal, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa, they are in Africa.
In Part 4, Sudanese Refugees and Civil Rights in Egypt.
Crossposted from Nation of Change.
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