Sudan Refugees Bring Off-season Tourism to Egypt's Aswan

Around 310,000 people have crossed from Sudan into Egypt since war broke out on April 15 © ASHRAF SHAZLY / AFP
Around 310,000 people have crossed from Sudan into Egypt since war broke out on April 15 © ASHRAF SHAZLY / AFP
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Sudan Refugees Bring Off-season Tourism to Egypt's Aswan

Around 310,000 people have crossed from Sudan into Egypt since war broke out on April 15 © ASHRAF SHAZLY / AFP
Around 310,000 people have crossed from Sudan into Egypt since war broke out on April 15 © ASHRAF SHAZLY / AFP

Thousands fleeing war in Sudan have taken refuge in the Egyptian city of Aswan on the Nile, where families are helping keep the tourism industry afloat far from the horrors they left behind.

"We finally made it to Aswan," said Hisham Ali, 54, who reached Egypt after an odyssey that took his family south of the fighting in Khartoum, before heading over 1,000 kilometres (600 miles) north again to the Egyptian border.

Thousands of people have been stuck there since Egypt tightened its visa rules in July.

"Aswan is beautiful, its people are kind," the former government employee told AFP from a rest house in the popular holiday destination.

During the winter months, the city fills with Egyptian and international travellers -- drawn by the abundance of Pharaonic sites, views of the Nile River and warm weather.

When Sudanese families began arriving in April, the city's many boat captains and business owners were winding down for the low season in the summer heat.

They did not expect an influx of refugees, or the much-needed business they have brought to Egypt's struggling economy.

"I've taken my family for a fun day out, I want them as much as they can to forget the days of war and bombs and air strikes and gun shots," Ali said, as the sound of children playing rang out around him.

Around 310,000 people have crossed from Sudan into Egypt since war broke out on April 15 between the forces of army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, led by his former deputy Mohamed Hamdan Daglo.

"We fled Khartoum three months ago," said Zeinab Ibrahim, 30, after two months of sheltering from constant air strikes, artillery fire and street battles.

"I was pregnant and there were no hospitals left where I could give birth," she told AFP of the situation in Sudan, where 80 percent of hospitals are out of service, according to the United Nations.

After crossing the Egyptian border, many continued the journey north to the capital Cairo, while others like Ali and Ibrahim stayed in Aswan, Egypt's southernmost major city and one of its most popular tourist destinations.

In the middle of an early September heatwave, when many boat captains would have laid anchor in past years, their flat-bottomed vessels weaved through Nile islands instead, blasting music while daring teenagers dove into the water from the upper decks.

Families cooled off from the sweltering heat on a sandy bank where tour guides told visitors to go for a dip in the river between sips of Nubian coffee.

"I've been doing this for five years," said Mahmoud al-Aswany, 19, perched on the deck of his boat.

"Since our Sudanese brothers came from the war, work has started to get better and there's been more work in tourism."

Egypt is currently going through its worst-ever economic crisis, which has devastated purchasing power across the country.

Inflation hit a record high of 39.7 percent in August, and the pound has lost half its value against the US dollar since early last year.

The response to the influx of Sudanese refugees has been mixed. In Cairo, those fleeing the war have complained of housing discrimination, soaring rent prices and racism.

In Aswan, where local Nubian communities have strong historical links across the border, early arrivals were met by volunteers offering hot meals and warm messages of welcome at bus and train stations.

But many arrive from arduous journeys in dire need, only to find limited humanitarian operations. Cairo does not operate refugee camps and insists new arrivals are instead given the right to work and move freely.

Those trying for some reprieve in the Aswan sun are among a million people who have fled across borders, in addition to four million who have been internally displaced within Sudan, according to the United Nations.

The UN expects these numbers to rise further, as the violence shows no signs of abating.

By September, the war had killed at least 7,500 people, according to a conservative estimate from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.



Bedwetting, Nightmares and Shaking. War in Gaza Takes a Mental Health Toll, Especially on Children

A Palestinian child plays next to empty ammunition containers in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on May 16, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. (AFP)
A Palestinian child plays next to empty ammunition containers in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on May 16, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. (AFP)
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Bedwetting, Nightmares and Shaking. War in Gaza Takes a Mental Health Toll, Especially on Children

A Palestinian child plays next to empty ammunition containers in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on May 16, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. (AFP)
A Palestinian child plays next to empty ammunition containers in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on May 16, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. (AFP)

Nabila Hamada gave birth to twin boys in Gaza early in the war, in a hospital reeking of decaying bodies and full of displaced people. When Israeli forces threatened the hospital, she and her husband fled with only one of the babies, as medical staff said the other was too weak to leave. Soon after, Israeli forces raided the hospital, Gaza’s largest, and she never saw the boy again.
The trauma of losing one twin left the 40-year-old Hamada so scared of losing the other that she became frozen and ill-equipped to deal with the daily burden of survival, The Associated Press said.
“I’m unable to take care of my other, older children or give them the love they need,” she said.
She is among hundreds of thousands of Palestinians struggling with mental health after nine months of war. The trauma has been relentless. They have endured the killing of family and friends in Israeli bombardments. They have been wounded or disfigured. They have huddled in homes or tents as fighting raged and fled again and again, with no safe place to recover.
Anxiety, fear, depression, sleep deprivation, anger and aggression are prevalent, experts and practitioners told The Associated Press. Children are most vulnerable, especially because many parents can barely hold themselves together.
There are few resources to help Palestinians process what they are going through. Mental health practitioners say the turmoil and overwhelming number of traumatized people limit their ability to deliver true support. So they’re offering a form of “psychological first aid” to mitigate the worst symptoms.
“There are about 1.2 million children who are in need of mental health and psychosocial support. This basically means nearly all Gaza’s children,” said Ulrike Julia Wendt, emergency child protection coordinator with the International Rescue Committee. Wendt has been visiting Gaza since the war began.
She said simple programming, such as playtime and art classes, can make a difference: “The goal is to show them that not only bad things are happening.”
Repeated displacement compounds trauma: an estimated 1.9 million of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have been driven from their homes. Most live in squalid tent camps and struggle to find food and water.
Many survivors of the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas in southern Israel that precipitated the war in Gaza also bear the scars of trauma, and are seeking ways to heal. Hamas killed more than 1,200 Israelis and took around 250 hostage.
Sheltering near the southern city of Khan Younis, Jehad El Hams said he lost his right eye and fingers on his right hand when he picked up what he thought was a can of food. It was an unexploded ordnance that detonated. His children were almost hit.
Since then, he experiences sleeplessness and disorientation. “I cry every time I take a look at myself and see what I’ve become,” he said.
He reached out to one of the few mental health initiatives in Gaza, run by the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA.
Fouad Hammad, an UNRWA mental health supervisor, said they typically encounter 10 to 15 adults a day at shelters in Khan Younis with eating and sleeping disorders, extreme rage and other issues.
Mahmoud Rayhan saw his family shattered. An Israeli strike killed his young son and daughter. His wife's leg was amputated. Now he isolates himself inside his tent and sleeps most of the day. He talks to almost no one.
He said he doesn’t know how to express what’s happening to him. He trembles. He sweats. “I’ve been crying and feel nothing but heaviness in my heart.”
A relative, Abdul-Rahman Rayhan, lost his father, two siblings and four cousins in a strike. Now when he hears a bombardment, he shakes and gets dizzy, his heart racing. “I feel like I’m in a nightmare, waiting for God to wake me up,” the 20-year-old said.
For children, the mental toll of war can have long-term effects on development, Wendt said. Children in Gaza are having nightmares and wetting their beds because of stress, noise, crowding and constant change, she said.
Nashwa Nabil in Deir al-Balah said her three children have lost all sense of security. Her eldest is 13 and her youngest is 10.
“They could no longer control their pee, they chew on their clothes, they scream and have become verbally and physically aggressive,” she said. “When my son Moataz hears a plane or tank, he hides in the tent.”
In the central town of Deir al-Balah, a psychosocial team with the Al Majed Association works with dozens of children, teaching them how to respond to the realities of war and giving them space to play.
“In the case of a strike, they place themselves in the fetal position and seek safety away from buildings or windows. We introduce scenarios, but anything in Gaza is possible,” said project manager Georgette Al Khateeb.
Even for those who escape Gaza, the mental toll remains high.
Mohamed Khalil, his wife and their three children were displaced seven times before they reached Egypt. His wife and children arrived in January and he joined them in March. Their 8-year-old daughter would hide in the bathroom during shelling and shooting, saying, “We are going to die.”
Their 6-year-old son could sleep only after his mother told him that dying as a martyr is an opportunity to meet God and ask for the fruits and vegetables they didn’t have in hunger-ravaged Gaza.
Khalil recalled their terror as they escaped on foot down a designated “safe corridor” with Israeli guns firing nearby.
Even after arriving in Egypt, the children are introverted and fearful, Khalil said.
They have enrolled in a new initiative in Cairo, Psychological and Academic Services for Palestinians, which offers art and play therapy sessions and math, language and physical education classes.
“We saw a need for these children who have seen more horror than any of us will ever see,” said its founder, psychologist Rima Balshe.
On a recent field trip, she recalled, 5-year-old twins from Gaza who were playing and suddenly froze when they heard helicopters.
“Is this an Israeli warplane?” they asked. She explained it was an Egyptian aircraft.
“So Egyptians like us?” they asked. “Yes,” she reassured them. They had left Gaza, but Gaza had not left them.
There is hope that children traumatized by the war can heal, but they have a long way to go, Balshe said.
“I wouldn’t say ‘recovering’ but I certainly see evidence of beginning to heal. They may not ever fully recover from the trauma they endured, but we are now working on dealing with loss and grief,” she said. “It’s a long process.”