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Eyes on the Sea: Syrian Refugees Flee Egypt

Eyes on the Sea: Syrian Refugees Flee Egypt

[Ali, 14, is from Douma, near Damascus. His family left their home after repeated raids and in very difficult circumstances. They moved within Syria more than eight times, fleeing gangs, attacks, and humiliation. Photo by Ebrahim Elmoly] [Ali, 14, is from Douma, near Damascus. His family left their home after repeated raids and in very difficult circumstances. They moved within Syria more than eight times, fleeing gangs, attacks, and humiliation. Photo by Ebrahim Elmoly]

In June 2014, photographer Ebrahim Elmoly started a project to document the lives of Syrian refugees in Egypt. He spent one month each following three families. Below are their stories. Where possible, Ebrahim has followed up with the individuals to find out what happened next.

After Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was removed from power in July 2014 and the military took over, some NGOs supporting Syrian refugees in Egypt were closed. State security ordered other NGOs, by phone, to stop supporting Syrians, who now face additional restrictions. Food aid has been reduced and they often have difficulty obtaining it from UN offices in Egypt, which has made living conditions significantly worse for many families.

Ali, 14 in these photos, is from Douma, a city about ten kilometers outside of Damascus. His family left their home after repeated raids and in very difficult circumstances. They moved within Syria more than eight times, fleeing gangs, attacks, and humiliation. During the war in Syria Ali’s brother-in-law Yasser was hit with shrapnel in his chest and legs and his infant daughter was killed in front of him. Yasser became the main breadwinner for the family when they arrived in Egypt.  

“Our children have seen in Syria what any human being in the world couldn’t handle,” says Ali’s father. “Some of them scream at night from nightmares. Some of them are losing hair.” After experiencing air raids in Syria, the children are terrified when planes fly over their house, he says.

Ali and his family shared an eighty square meter apartment with twenty-one other people. Due to the number of people at home, he could not study well before 3am. Given the difficult circumstances in Egypt, Ali and Yasser tried to flee to Italy but were stopped by police before boarding the smuggling boats. Afterward the Egyptian authorities gave them thirty day residence permits that are not renewable. Since Yasser was then not allowed to work he stayed at home due to fear of arrest and deportation to Syria. Ali could not continue his education after the permit expired.

Asked whether he can swim, Ali hesitated and said he never had the chance to learn. The smuggling boats have no life vests, and if they do there are not enough for all the passengers. Ali and Yasser attempted to leave Egypt a second time and managed to board the boats. However, rough seas broke them up and as they seemed near to peril Greek coast guard forces rescued them. They were again detained, this time in Greek prisons, and faced deportation back to Egypt. But instead of being deported they were able to pay bribes and were released to continue their journey.

Ali and Yasser eventually made their way to the Netherlands. Ali is studying and Yasser is working with other Syrians there and sending money back to the family in Egypt. The rest of the family is waiting for reunion papers so they can leave Egypt and join Yasser and Ali.

When I met Fouad he was sixty-four years old. He had spent forty years of his life in Libya and four in Egypt, where he attended university. He was an artist and an arts teacher in Libya where he lived with his wife, who is Palestinian, and their two sons and daughter. However, the family was separated when Fouad traveled to work in the Gulf in the hopes of saving enough money for a house in Syria. At that time, his wife took the children to live in Nablus, Palestine.

When Fouad returned to Syria to find a place to settle with his family the revolution broke out and the children were unable to find their father there. He could not join them in Palestine because he does not have Palestinian nationality. Fouad was scared that if he went to Lebanon, members of Hizballah, which supports the Syrian regime, might hand him back to Syria. His best option was to go to Egypt, which required no entry visa. However, Egypt requires a security clearance for the children and they would have had to be under a certain age to join him.

Now he was stuck in Egypt, while they were in Nablus. He hasn’t seen his sons for nine years. Fouad calls his wife and children every day but he won’t speak to them through video, as it would hurt too much.

Fouad had gone to Egypt hoping to find a point of passage to Europe after he heard from acquaintances that the Egyptian authorities let smuggling boats go during former President Morsi’s rule. He was shocked to find a completely different situation after 30 June 2014. Nevertheless, he didn’t hesitate to gamble with his life twice. He failed both times to get to Italy by sea. He was detained for long periods. Fouad is claustrophobic and so he describes prison as hell.

Fouad has stopped praying. He said he cannot raise his head toward God because he has let him down. When asked what he would do once he reaches the other shore, he said, “I will take to the sea one more time and let seven waves hit me until I purge myself from my Arabness.”

In August 2014, Fouad called me from Germany and said he had travelled there illegally. He fled through the Egyptian border to Libya and from Libya to Italy then onward to Germany. I do not know if he has been reunited with his family.

Nora, 15 in these photos, is from the countryside around Damascus. She came with her family by road around the time of the 30 June 2014 protests to oust Morsi, En route they were delayed in Jordan, which prevents many Syrians from crossing through its territory to get to Egypt. Nora and her family fled to Egypt hoping for safety, but immediately upon arrival they say they were shocked by news of the attempted kidnapping of a Syrian girl.

Nora often experiences harassment in the street, which she says terrifies her as she is not accustomed to facing it in Syria. She was a good student and always had good grades in Syria. Her father began paying bus fees so that she would not have to walk and would pursue her education. The sheer act of leaving the house is troubling for Nora. She is filled with fear of what she may encounter on the street. One of her family members says that the situation has become extremely difficult, that living conditions have worsened. They feel they can’t adapt to Egyptian society and they are mistreated by many Egyptians who have heard rumors that Syrians support the Muslim Brotherhood. “Here in Egypt we die every day,” says Nora.

Nora’s father suffered from a health condition for which he needed surgery. He was treated in a private hospital in Egypt where the family says that due to a medical error he went into kidney failure. He had to have ongoing dialysis and also contracted a virus from this process, they say.

Leaving Egypt is their only hope at having a better life as they have been stifled and restricted, particularly after 30 June. However, her father’s health and also the family’s lack of resources prevented them from attempting to relocate. Her brother left school to work to provide for the family. Their mother also works. They are still saving money to leave Egypt. Their plan is to travel to Turkey and then go by sea to Greece.

Nora’s father died as their lives were being documented for this story. Now nothing shields Nora and her family from the sea. These images are the last ones of her father.


I wish to thank the following for their assistance with this story: the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), Radwa Adel, Refaa ُElrafaa'e, Rasha Eldeeb, and Mahienour El-Massry, as well as the families I met who do not want their photographs published for fear of their own safety.

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