There are a number of reasons among them its location as a gateway to Europe, better living standards compared to some other countries and even its accumulated heritage that make Egypt a very attractive destination to the rest of Africa.
Even after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, a good number of the black Africans living in the city by the Nile are still around struggling to keep going despite the hurdles.
Last Friday, somebody threw a party that once again brought together the community plus their friends to receive the newest African country. It was the Cairo-based South Sudanese community that was celebrating its newly attained independence came out of their cocoons.
Dressed in their finest were Sudanese, Ethiopians, Ugandans and other African nationalities mingling, chatting, eating and drinking in celebration. Just like their cold relationship with their hosts, the party was far removed from the realities outside the Ace Club where earlier another million man protest took place in Tahrir Square. Egypt’s significant African community was having fun in their world.
In recent years, Egypt has become home away from home for a big number of Africans migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. Though the majority of these are Sudanese from both sides, Ethiopians, Eritreans and Somalis also make up the numbers, with a mixture of other African nationalities.
Despite their numbers here, there are no reliable statistics of African migrants in the country, but most organisations quote a figure between 250,000 to a few million. Among this number, a sizeable majority of Africans have made their own little sub-communities within Cairo, opting to live close to each other in certain areas such as Zahraa El Maadi, Imbaba and New Cairo, and holding onto jobs particularly in the services sector.
There is little or no intermingling with Egyptians.
How did Africa fall in love with this country with an Arab orientation? Or did the continent really fall in love? It was during the Mubarak regime when Egypt opened its doors to hundreds of Africans seeking refuge. Compared to many other destinations, here was a country offering easier student or tourist visas and allowing them to stay on long after their studies.
When organisations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and International Organisation for Migration (IOM), as well as favoured resettlement nations such as Canada and the US, set up their headquarters in the capital Cairo, the city moved to become the centre for African immigrants.
A little Africa
In Cairo were several Anglican and Protestant churches that offered hospitality to Africans; these even became their ‘social hangouts’ and the locations for their annual fetes and bazaars. Later, schools popped up to cater for this community and bit by bit, Africans began to carve out their own little world – a Black city of sorts in Cairo.
But though it may appear ‘perfect’ from the outside, Africans in Cairo have faced a myriad of challenges, which some say have gotten worse in post-revolution Egypt.
On top of the list is racism. Furthermore, the economy has taken a strong hit in the aftermath of the January revolution with rising food prices and a loss of revenue from tourism and foreign investment playing a significant part in how the locals treat Africans, who they often perceive as ‘job thieves’.
Deng Kali, a 24 year old Southern Sudanese, has been living in Egypt for ten years and works in the service sector but come December, he’s packing up to move back to South Sudan.
“It’s lonely here, life is tough, we get no help from the Egyptian government and we regularly face racism, It’s very tough and now that we’ve got our independence I’d rather face the hardships in my own country than here,” says Deng.
Ishraqa Hamoda, a 40-year-old Northern Sudanese female has lived in Egypt for nearly 20 years having first come to the country as a student. According to her, the problems some Africans face in Cairo are partly due to ignorance by the host community. Though she has never faced harassment or racism, she knows of others who have.
Mimi, a 28-year-old Ethiopian who works as a beautician, says keeping out of the hosts’ way is the solution. “If we keep to ourselves it’s generally okay for us,” she says.
‘Shoot to stop’ order
There have always been media reports of African immigrants getting attacked, mistreated and even killed though not in the mass level of what occurred in Libya for example in 2000.
The most memorable incident in Egypt was in 2005 when some 3,000 refugees, mainly Sudanese, held a sit-in demo in front of the UNHCR building. For three months they called on the UNHCR to resettle them in other countries, protested against frequent harassment and imprisonment by the Egyptian police, demanded access to public schools and healthcare, and called for the right to legally work in the country.
The response of the Egyptian authorities was brutal with some 4,000 police sent to scatter the protest. In the end, more than 2,000 refugees were arrested and 27, including a toddler, were killed at the hands of the police.
Recently, incidents of mistreatment and killings of migrants at the Egyptian-Israeli border have increased after Egyptian border authorities adopted a”shoot-to-stop” policy in remote border zones, according to a 2008 Human Rights Watch report.