The Nile river hugs refugees from 58 different countries along its banks mostly living in urban areas. The UNHCR registered 256,632 refugees and asylum-seekers in Egypt by February 2020. Sudanese and South Sudanese consist of a large number of them: 48,343 and 19,382 respectively, besides other nationalities.
Sudan and South Sudan’s conflict and political upheaval, like many parts of Africa, have led thousands of refugees to flee their homelands, hoping to find better and safer lives for them and their families elsewhere. They leave behind them bad memories of rape, disappearing or killed relatives, religious persecution, tribal conflicts or imprisonment due to political reasons. After a long journey of fleeing tainted with human trafficking risks, Sudanese and South Sudanese refugees head to Egypt just to get a chance to live.
Working as domestic workers, Sudanese and South Sudanese belong to the informal sector lacking any form of social insurance. This work is among the jobs that are hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Due to the outbreak, many organizations have suspended their services as part of the social distancing measurements. Consequently, all face-to-face interviews with refugees were cancelled. However, CARE International in Egypt, among other organizations, continue to provide support services to beneficiaries suffering from sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), including housing allowances and psychological counselling by phone.
To support female survivors of gender-based violence among refugees, CARE International in Egypt provides housing assistance, food vouchers and psychological support services to refugees. Three helplines are available during the regular working hours of CARE team. For emergencies, one emergency hotline is dedicated to answering refugees calls after working hours, weekends and official days off.
CARE aims to serve around 800 refugees per year. The number of participants has routinely increased in comparison with some 600 in 2019 and 500 in 2018.
Photo: Noha El-Dessouky, a psychologist at CARE Egypt
Aya Safwat, Youssef Anas and Noha El-Dessouky, caseworkers and psychologists at CARE International in Egypt, tell stories they encountered on their mission of protecting refugees.
Youssef Anas encounters midnight calls and praises solidarity spirit among refugees
“I work as a caseworker at CARE International in Egypt for a year now. People used to ask us for housing assistance. Now, they ask for food, medications and more help that we did not use to provide before COVID-19”, Youssef says.
“I have not received midnight calls asking for food and cash assistance before the COVID-19 pandemic. Midnight calls are usually made by refugee women in emergencies, seeking immediate shelter. With more refugee women losing their jobs and sources of livelihood nowadays, food and cash have become a pressing matter more than ever before”, Youssef adds.
During these times, most families send domestic workers away. A fewer accept keeping them employed on that condition that they live in with them. “Being single mothers and sole caregivers to their children, the majority of refugees cannot accept these conditions. Suddenly, they find themselves unable to paying rent and feeding their children. Soon, they risk to being evicted from their homes too”, he says.
Aya Safwat, case management supervisor at CARE highlights: “others have complied with the new conditions. Amina Mohamed, one of the Sudanese refugee women in her 30s, separated from her husband with four children, accepted to stay at the house of the family she was working for. But, she is not allowed to visit her family. She is locked down in the house. She did not visit her children for over a month now”.
Refugee families are at risk of leaving their places: they cannot afford to pay rents anymore after they lost their incomes. Besides housing allowances that now expanded from 1 month to 3 months, CARE recurs to hosting families to ensure the safety of refugees. Hosting families are part of the refugees’ communities in Egypt who might have lived the same risk of losing their places once before. However, their response to hosting requests has been controversial.
Some hosting families, although gaining money from the service they render, are concerned about social distancing issues and adding more financial burdens by hosting guests at their places. Other families, due to the current economic crisis resulting from the COVID-19, are eager to gain any sort of income, even by risking being in direct contact with house guests.
Regardless of the social distancing issue, many hosting families showed great sympathy and solidarity and agreed to host refugees despite the attaining risks. When he asked her to host a refugee family at her house, Youssef says “Wessam Mohamed, a 34-year old refugee Sudanese woman working as a housemaid and married with 2 children who hosts refugees at her house, told me we are all brothers and sisters. We all risk being in the same situation”. Wessam with little resources is willing to host refugees at her place despite knowing that the coming persons might not have necessarily the means to support themselves.
To help them overcome stressful moments, “first, I validate their painful emotions (…). Then, I advise them to do a daily routine,” Noha, a psychologist at CARE Egypt explains.
The psychological toll of COVID-19 has been apparent among African refugee women, mostly Sudanese and South Sudanese. Aware of such situation, CARE International in Egypt provides psychological counselling to its beneficiaries.
“As one of the psychologists and technical advisors on CARE’s team, I undertake phone calls with refugees daily to offer them the psychological support needed at times of crisis,” Noha El- Dessouky says.
With many jobless refugees, most women live under continuous threat and constant fear of not being able to feed themselves and their families. “The lack of cash money and loneliness, lead many to retrieve violence-related memories and allow more negative thoughts to infiltrate to their minds like taking their own lives,” Noha adds.
Noha explains: “When I asked Eman, a 25-year old Sudanese refugee who was once imprisoned in her country before coming to Egypt, about her feelings, she simply said that Loneliness is worse than imprisonment. Many women are looking desperately for an exit to the current situation but in vain. We are trapped. There is no turn back. Yet, we cannot survive the current crisis. So, she started to consider committing suicide”.
According to Noha, Eman says: “I am lonely. I have no one to support me; no family, no friends, nothing at all. I was a victim of human trafficking. I was at risk of selling my organs. Under this threat, I risked my life as well”. “As a refugee in Egypt, I depend on donations to survive”.
To help them overcome stressful moments, Noha explains her approach: “First, I validate their painful emotions to calm their frustration. Then, I advise them to do a daily routine, starting with waking up at a certain hour, talking to a relative, friend, neighbour and recalling good memories, etc”.
“I wish people do not forget that there are refugees living amongst us and that through donations, we could help out many of them, during those difficult times,” Noha adds.
Nevertheless, Noha and other psychologists and caseworkers are in a challenging situation. While phone calls are a perfect solution to the current lockdown situation and to ensure the safety of beneficiaries as well as caseworkers, many refugees live in areas with poor phone networks, which makes communicating with refugees an even bigger challenge.
During those trying times, many people have lost their jobs and are feeling a heightened sense of insecurity. However, others show great sympathy and solidarity towards their community members. Through this crisis, CARE is committed to protecting, supporting and empowering vulnerable people, including women and children.
Note: Names have been changed to protect identities.