In the 6th of October satellite city that lies on the suburbs of Greater Cairo, 45 kilometers away from the city center, you can find one of the many manifestations of the Syrian diaspora. Six years of war have produced various iterations of this exilic presence, whether in refugee camps or through a vibrant cultural presence.
In Egypt, this presence takes the form of “Little Damascus”; a miniaturized version of Syria cohering in it the majority of the country’s displaced population in Egypt. The city, in many ways, retains the characteristics and atmosphere of a Syrian town, and stays somehow protected from the crowded Egyptian capital.
With streets are wider than most in Cairo, and with graceful greenery—a rarity in Cairo, Little Damascus recalls to its inhabitants the cities they left behind: Aleppo, Damascus, and many more.
The Syrian dialect can be heard on every corner, and cafés overflow with customers smoking their argileh. Syrian restaurants and shops line the streets, each with a Levantine touch to its name, advertising an array of products, from ice creams and juices, to spices and nuts.
Syrians in Egypt
Approximately 127,000 Syrians are registered as refugees in Egypt, according to the UN refugee agency. However, the Egyptian authorities estimate the actual number of Syrians to be much higher, with about 350,000 additional Syrians who are unregistered with the UN, according to official surveys.
This major discrepancy in the number of registered versus unregistered Syrians can be attributed to the lengthy and complicated process for registering under the UNHCR, which often takes years for refugees to be recognized as such. Many Syrians, therefore, chose not to register altogether.
Moreover, a large number of Syrians entered Egypt with a visa, and have been able to obtain residence permits, allowing them to work and start businesses, with the aid the UN or other agencies provides.
For the most part, Syrians have been able to assimilate to their new life in Egypt—their numbers remain comparatively small in relation to other countries neighboring Syria, and therefore, they have not been severely targeted to the same extent. They have, nonetheless, experienced difficulties with the political changes in Egypt.
Though Little Damascus in Cairo resembles a Syrian town in almost every way, its residents still dream of returning home.
The peak was during the summer of 2013, following the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi. After initially having been welcomed in Egypt, the Egyptian military regime turned its ire toward the Syrian community, and introduced new requirements for security clearance for Syrians moving to Egypt. This forced much of the community into isolation, with many choosing to pull their children out of schools and educate them at home instead.
Another persistent problem is one that affects Syrians and Egyptians alike, namely the inadequate health-care in an underfunded and understaffed public health-care system. With the poor standards of hygiene and overcrowded public hospitals, many are left with no choice but to turn to private health-care, which often comes with a high price tag. But with approximately 90% of the Syrian population in Egypt living in poverty, this too is an impossibility.
Difficulties in Obtaining Entry Visas
The major influx of Syrians to Cairo occurred in 2012, with the majority settling in 6th of October. It was then that Little Syria began to take shape.
At the time, it was relatively simple for Syrians to obtain a visa and enter Egypt. It wasn’t until the new procedures were introduced in 2013 that Syrians began to face major obstacles, echoing heightened restrictions imposed on Syrian refugees worldwide.
Amid difficulties in the bureaucratic procedures for obtaining residency, as well as the high costs, Human Rights Watch issued a report in November 2013, stating that the Egyptian government was coercing Syrians to leave the country by detaining them and subjecting them to other forms of harassment.
In this context, the majority of Syrians have decided to huddle together in Little Damascus, seeking a sense of belonging amid difficult conditions. However, the familiarity of the dialect, sounds, and smells of Little Damascus does not necessarily translate to a sense of welcoming.
The rising rental prices in the area, and the lack of job opportunities, forced many to leave the comforts of Little Damascus in search of more affordable housing in low-income neighborhoods in Cairo.
The Future of Little Damascus
Similar versions of these miniaturized Syrian towns have sprung up elsewhere, such as Turkey. With approximately two million Syrian refugees, much of the Syrian population in Istanbul resides in the Fatih district, which has come to be a Little Damascus in its own right.
And it is a little-known fact, during the period between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a Little Syria flourished on the island of Manhattan, though the Syria referred to in this case was the Greater Land of Syria, which includes Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine. Today, there are no remaining signs of the neighborhood, and its residents were dispersed across other boroughs of New York.
In Cairo, Little Damascus resembles many other ethnic neighborhoods around the world, with the difference that it developed out of the tragic conditions of the war. Perhaps due to this, many of the Syrians in Little Damascus view it only as a temporary refuge, rather than a permanent home.
Time will tell whether the neighborhood will become a fixture of Cairo, occupying a similar historical place to the the world’s various Chinatowns, or whether Syrians will ultimately realize their hopes of returning home after the seemingly endless years of war.