Life in the Garden: The Daily Struggles of Sudanese Refugee Women in Cairo

Jihad Abaza

October 19, 2018

Almost every morning, in the seventh district of the 6th of October city in Giza governorate, a long line of refugees wait for appointments at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office. The area largely empties out by sunset, but a few remain. Most are refugees from Sudan and a few other African countries such as Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea with nowhere else to go. Many are mothers who face layered obstacles of racism, sexism, and economic struggles within their day to day lives in Cairo. Out of necessity, these women have formed a supportive community through which they care for and spend time with one another despite the lack of care from the city and the UNHCR.

The UNHCR estimates that by 2017 approximately 35,737 Sudanese refugees reside in Egypt. According to the UNHCR media spokesperson, Christine Beshay, a significant amount of the funding that the UNHCR receives from donors is earmarked to Syrian refugees, given that they constitute 56 percent of the UNHCR’s “population of concern in Egypt at the moment.” Yet, the UNHCR has taken measures to address the funding gap for other refugees by recently launching an appeal stating that: “Funding to humanitarian agencies working with the sub-Saharan African, Iraqi, and Yemeni populations has been limited and has led to inequality in assistance provided to the different refugee population groups in Egypt.”

This photo essay focuses on the everyday lives of a group of Sudanese refugee women who have lived, or still live, in front of the UNHCR building in Egypt. These photos trace their day to day lives, as they work, care for their children, and navigate Cairo.

In this photo, a group of refugee women have placed a mattress in the small garden across from the UNHCR building in 6th October, where they and their kids will sleep for the night, and for many coming nights. As the summer night creeps in, some women fall asleep while others sit nearby and talk, drink tea, eat, or crochet. (July 6, 2018)

“We met here in the garden,” Abadeya said as she recounted how she met Sa’eeda, another Sudanese woman who had by now managed to find an apartment for herself and her children. “That is how most of us met... here, sitting in this same way,” she added, surrounded by a few other women and their children on a small mattress.

Sa’eeda, a single mother of five childrenldren through henna a, left Sudan for Egypt in 2014. In Cairo, she provides for herself and her chirtwork. However, “life in this country is tough,” she says. She has had to move between apartments a handful of times and spend at least six months on and off the street in front of the UNHCR. At one point the situation became so difficult, that Sa’eeda decided to seek asylum in Europe by boat from Libya. “We are drowning here anyway,” she had said at the time.

Eventually Sa’eeda decided to return to Cairo. She had left her children in hopes that she would eventually be able to them meet her in a better place. Moving around constantly has been tough on the children. Between living on the streets, moving between three different families while their mother was in Libya, the children are tired, she says. They are gradually getting into a routine going to school everyday, and Sa’eeda herself has been trying to come back home from work earlier to spend more time with them. Sa’eeda is hopeful that they will begin to have some stability. (July 8, 2018)

In 2017, Sa’eeda’s children lived with another Sudanese family for several months while their mother was away in Libya. She left to find a way of migrating to Europe with the intent for her children to follow her there. But her attempts failed and she returned to Cairo in order to be with her children. In this photo, Sa’eeda’s children were living with a Sudanese woman named Lamees, and her children and grandmother. (December 7, 2017)
One of Sa’eeda’s five children, Maqboola, sleeps in the corner in front of the UNHCR building. After her failed trip to Europe, Sa'eeda was back on the streets with her children. After noticing the family across the street, officers from the UNHCR intervened. They offered a caretaker for her children temporarily until Sa’eeda was more financially stable. “They told me that it would be temporary, and that as soon as I was more stable and could rent an apartment they would join me,” Sa’eeda said. Unfortunately, she later found her children were staying with a very abusive caretaker and eventually managed to reunite with them. (January 9, 2018)
Sa’eeda makes sandwiches for her children's dinner as they get ready to sleep in front of the UNHCR. After spending months in the street, and later getting separated from her children, Sa’eeda finally managed to leave the garden in 6th of October by around May 2018 to live in Ard El Lewa neighborhood, where she now rents an apartment for herself and her children. “Some days are better than others. There are days when you’ll make no money or go back home with just 20 EGP, and there are days when you’ll make 100 EGP or more.” Making their way back home so late in the night can also be risky. Sa’eeda was assaulted and robbed once at two am, close to her house during the summer of 2018. (January 9, 2018)
Sa’eeda’s youngest daughter Ikram sleeps on blankets on the floor in the newly rented apartment after her first day back in school. After months away from school, she and her siblings have started attending a Sudanese school close to their new home. Going back to school has been fun for them. Although, especially for the older children, they have a lot of school work to catch up on. (July 8, 2018)
Sa’eeda in her newly rented, unfurnished apartment with her five kids. Sa’eeda has been trying to teach her two oldest daughters, Amoona, 13, and Maqboola, 11 to take care of the household chores, such as cooking lunch and keeping an eye on their younger siblings while she is at work in Khan el Khalili. Sa’eeda’s plan is to gradually save up money, and buy a new piece of furniture each month. (July 8, 2018)
Abadeya and her nine children spent several weeks camping out in front of the UNHCR headquarters before they managed to move back to Madinet Nasr, where they had initially been living. “I came here because I wanted get away from my husband. He is an abusive alcoholic who beats me and does not treat the kids well.” Abadeya had a difficult time finding an apartment to rent, “because they would always tell me I have too many kids and worried about the noise level in the building.” The oldest of Abadeya’s children is seventeen and the youngest is three years old.

There are people that have asked me, ‘why do you have so many kids?’ and I just think, God gave them to me. I can’t complain. (July 10, 2018)

Nawal, a single mother of three, fled the Nuba mountains in South Sudan for Egypt at the end of 2014. She and her children spent at least four months in 2016 living in front of the UNHCR until she received financial aid to be able to rent a small, unfurnished apartment close in the Giza suburbs.

“This country is tough,” Nawal told MENASource, “it’s like we fled our country, but we’re dying here anyway.” She added, “Egypt is still safer than Sudan, but everything here is tough.”

Nawal relies primarily on drawing henna tattoo art on the tourist filled streets of al-Hussein in Old Cairo. Nawal was arrested shortly after her arrival from the Nuba Mountains in Sudan in 2014. “I remember it was my first time going to al-Hussien and I went there all dressed up,” Nawal said as she recounted her first memories of the neighborhood that she would come to frequent on and off for the next several years. “I didn’t know how things worked back then and I stood in an area that a street vendor had already marked. Then a fight started, and the police came and arrested us,” Nawal told MENASource. Since then, she has been arrested a handful of times, usually for a few hours, sometimes overnight, on charges of “begging and mendicity.” With the tough economic situation in Egypt at the moment, Nawals asks, “What are we supposed to do? How are we supposed to live or feed our kids?”

Many of the women are always ready and packed with henna in case they get sudden henna customers, or in case they get the chance to work with a recent bride. Passersby often approach the refugees in the garden to ask about the prices of the henna tattoos, as Sudanese women are famous in Egypt for their henna art. One henna tattoo usually costs somewhere between $15-20 depending on its size. In this photograph a passerby asked one of the women for a henna tattoo and got her contact information in order to have her come in as the henna artist in her bachelorette party. Henna brings many of the women together as they attempt to learn from and admire one another’s work. (July 10, 2018)
In this photograph Sa’eeda and Fatima are drawing henna tattoos on two tourists in the Khan El Khalili area of Old Cairo. “I usually start coming here at 2:00 pm and have to stay well into the night in order to make a good amount of money. I usually leave after 1:00 am,” Sa’eeda said. (April 17, 2018)
Fatima and Sa’eeda sit around waiting for henna customers in Old Cairo’s al-Hussein neighborhood. Tens of Sudanese women walk around the area with their henna, and often sit next to each other, talk, and observe each other’s work. The policing of vendors in Old Cairo is customary, but Nawal and other Sudanese henna artists have pointed out that police indiscriminately target the Sudanese women, often making racist comments such as “you’ve turned it into the Sudanese embassy here.” Sometimes the women are also put in a position where they have to pay what little money they make in fines and bribes to the policemen. (April 17, 2018)

“One of the hardest and worst things I had to face here is sexual harassment,” Mona, a Sudanese woman who came to Egypt with her three children in 2014, told MENASource.

“I was on my way back from al-Hussein in a microbus and a man sitting next to me grabbed my chest. I decided to take him to the police station and file a report against him, and I did. But at the police station, all these people told me not to, and that he would have to go to jail. He cried, and his wife and family came. His wife asked me not to go ahead with the report, and that it would ruin their children’s future. She was mad at me, but not her husband. I told her that he should have thought of his children's future before he did that.” Mona did file the report in the end, but she expects that it will take time for the case to go through. In the meantime, she has been pressured to withdraw her case. (August 24th, 2018)
Most of the children live with their mothers in the garden and spend their days playing, eating, and sitting together. For Abadeya, staying in front of the UNHCR is the most secure choice. “We wouldn’t really be allowed to stay anywhere else,” she told MENA Source. “Here, the children can play, they are outdoors, and the place is generally safer.” (December 1st, 2016)