CAIRO — Before the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, Abu Abada,* 40, used to manage a clothing store in Damascus. But since escaping to Egypt five years ago, he has struggled to support his wife and three children.
Now employed as a shift manager at the popular and bustling Syrian restaurant “Rosto” in 6th of October City, a satellite suburb to the west of Cairo, Abu Abada works up to 14 hours a day and often still doesn't scrape together enough to pay rent and the rest of his expenses, which he points out have almost doubled since Egypt devalued its currency in November 2016.
According to Abu Abada, he has often had to borrow money from family and friends to cover his expenses and he also works as a driver and a teacher of chemistry and physics at a Syrian community school to make ends meet. At one point, he said, his wife’s jewelry and gold was stolen from his apartment in 6th of October City, taking away the only form of savings that his family had in Egypt.
“Jobs Make the Difference,” a multi-agency UN report released on May 15 by the United Nations Development Program, the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the World Food Program, compiled data from the countries that have taken the most refugees and asylum seekers from Syria: Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt.
The report reveals that since 2011, Syrian refugees living in Egypt have invested almost $800 million to the Egyptian economy — and probably more — since a high percentage work in the burgeoning informal economy, meaning it is difficult to record financial transactions.
While the report states that Syrian refugees who fled to Egypt are often perceived to be more affluent than those in countries that share land borders with Syria — as they came by plane — previous United Nations High Commission for Refugees statistics show that almost 90% of those in Egypt are considered to be very economically vulnerable.
Unlike those in other countries, Syrian refugees in Egypt are integrated into urban communities and are not placed in refugee camps. Coupled with the shared language and culture with Egypt, Syrians have largely been welcomed in their host country, with the government initially allowing Syrians to enter Egypt without a visa.
But at times, they have also been vilified in the media because of perceived support for the ousted Muslim Brotherhood and, according to the UN report, face poor working conditions in the informal economy that includes “exploitation, harassment, non-payment of low wages and abuse.” The report said that while some do receive acceptable salaries, “For most Syrian refugees in the informal sector, the income is too low to cover basic needs.”
“There are many Syrians suffering from bad conditions,” Abu Abada said in between managing staff, customers and constant phone calls while speaking to Al-Monitor. “Even though life is hard for many Egyptians, for Syrians it is more difficult and often we can’t get our basic, standard working rights.”
Although he holds a residency visa in Egypt, Abu Abada does not have a work permit, which makes it difficult for him as well as the many other Syrian refugees to register businesses, travel abroad and employ other Syrians.
But even for Syrian refugees who have been successful in Egypt, there are still restrictions and barriers that make it difficult for them to do business. And despite the significant financial contributions they have made, the report suggests that Syrians and the government would benefit more from clearer laws.
Kholoud al-Khaldi, a senior enterprise development specialist with the ILO, who contributed to the UN report, told Al-Monitor that there are currently no temporary laws and regulations that make it easy for refugees to access the labor market.
“Now the government is more open to promoting a livelihood and for humanitarian purposes but we are not sure if there is enough intention to change laws or even temporary legislation,” Khaldi explained. “They [the government] might be open for Syrians working, but they aren’t taking concrete measures.”
Mahmoud Alhisnawy came to Egypt in 2012 with his wife and three children. Although he lost everything in Syria, he still had some money in his bank account. After working hard for years, he has been able to buy a house in the upscale New Cairo, and he also now runs his own warehouse that manufactures plastic bags in the industrial zone of el-Abour on the northeast outskirts of Cairo.
Alhisnawy's story is largely one of success. Despite the odds and difficulties, he was able to start several successful enterprises and now employs about 30 people in his factory, making a comfortable living for himself and his family.
But still, getting the right paperwork has been a challenge. Because of the current visa status, he can’t travel abroad to do business, as Syrians can’t leave Egypt and re-enter the country. Until now, Alhisnawy hasn't received a business license despite starting the process soon after he arrived in Cairo, in part because of Egypt’s complex bureaucracy.
“It was very difficult at the start,” Alhisnawy told Al-Monitor. "Because there are certain rules here. It is a miserable routine. You have to bring paper from here, another one from the other side of the city … something from here, something from there. And also at first I had to put 100,000 Egyptian pounds ($5,530) in a bank account for 10 days to prove I had money.”
But Samer Marwan Oulabi, a Syrian business associate of Alhisnawy, argues that the problems run deeper than those of bureaucracy. Sitting in the office of his clothes-making factory in el-Abour, Oulabi told Al-Monitor of the difficulties he faces employing other Syrians and getting a work permit.
“I have about 24 or 25 Syrian workers, so when somebody from the social office or insurance comes here and finds any Syrian worker, they give you a fine and that starts from 500 pounds ($27.60) and can reach 10,000 ($553) and can also be prison,” Oulabi explained. “Even after two-and-a-half years of the process, my working visa is only 90% complete. I went to over 20 different offices and had to bribe so many people just to get this far.”
“Syrians have invested much more than $800 million here. All we need is land and licenses and there will be so many more success stories,” Oulabi said.
For Oulabi and Alhisnawy, doing business without the correct paperwork has still proved successful for them — they just wish for quicker procedures. But for those like Abu Abada, who constitute the majority of Syrians in Egypt, such restrictions can mean not feeding their family or paying rent.
*Abu Abada is a pseudonym to protect his identity.