Syrian Emigrant Stuck In Belarus Refuses to Return to 'Hell'...As Another Reaches the 'European Dream'

Two migrants at the Belarusian-Polish border on Wednesday (AP).
Two migrants at the Belarusian-Polish border on Wednesday (AP).
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Syrian Emigrant Stuck In Belarus Refuses to Return to 'Hell'...As Another Reaches the 'European Dream'

Two migrants at the Belarusian-Polish border on Wednesday (AP).
Two migrants at the Belarusian-Polish border on Wednesday (AP).

I would rather die here than go back to hell. Even the police officer at Damascus airport asked me about my destination, and whether it was Germany or the Netherlands, and then said to me: Lucky you. I wish I was with you.”

Those are the words of “Fouad”, a young Syrian man, who has been stuck in Belarus since his arrival in Minsk on Oct. 28.

The fear of this young man and five of his “new friends” prompted them to contact “Arab brokers” in search of a “way out of this trap” between the inability to cross into European Poland, and the fear of “falling” into the hands of the Belarusian authorities who would send them back to Syria.

As for “Rafik”, he was among the lucky ones who left the “Syrian nightmare” and reached the “European dream”. When he arrived at the border, “six great soldiers of Belarus came and raised the barbed wire for us, while one of them pointed to Poland, and told us: "Go, good luck.”

Indeed, “Rafik”, his father, and others arrived in Germany. “The risk is worth it,” he says. “I will never return to our country.”

How did it all start?

“Fouad” is a young man who lived in Damascus. He graduated from university years ago and worked for a short period with a salary that did not cover the minimum cost of living with the deterioration of the Syrian pound rate against the dollar. But then he lost both his modest job and hope and began dreaming of travelling abroad.

He contacted a government-licensed travel and tourism office in central Damascus, borrowed money from his relatives and paid $3,600 to obtain his visa to Belarus. The deal included a visa, flight fare through the Cham Wings airlines, and a reservation in a hotel in Minsk for a few nights.

Meanwhile, “Fouad” called a relative to arrange contact with a smuggler from Minsk to the Polish border. For this purpose, he paid the amount of 2,500 euros. He says he was lucky because others paid the smuggler 10,000 euros per person.

He collected his basic needs in a bag, and put a mobile phone and $1,000 in his pocket. At nine o’clock in the morning of October 27, he received the visa at the tourism office, which was crowded with dozens of applicants looking for the “European dream”, or “exit from the Syrian nightmare.”

They took the bus to Damascus airport.

“Fouad” recounts: “We got to the window of the border security official… who then asked me: Where are you going? Germany? Then he added, “Lucky you, I wish I was with you.””

On board were about 200 people, mostly young men, and some families. They arrived in Minsk around seven o'clock in the evening. When the plane landed, a bus came and took them all to the terminal building. They went upstairs, where the shock was.

“All the world was here. Young people and families from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Lebanon,” he says.

Many hours later, a security man came and “led us like cows. He was walking at the head of the queue, in front of about 200 people. He was leading us left and right, until we reached a hall,” according to “Fouad.”

He adds: “There they took each person’s mobile phone. They recorded his serial number with the passport, most likely to monitor us.” After that, each person goes alone to the checkpoint to confirm the passport, phone and visa, with an eye print. The process took a long time.

Upon leaving the airport at the dawn of Oct. 28, a bus transported the arrivals to their hotels. While few of the people spent the night in the hotel, many headed straight to Poland’s borders, according to prior arrangements with smugglers, he recounts.

The Borders

When Fouad arrived, the Belarusian mood changed from “raising the wires to facilitate the passage of migrants into Poland, to beating them and returning them to the capital.”

Rafik had better luck. He says: “There, the Belarusian army men lifted the barbed wire and encouraged us to cross to Poland…A big soldier raised the wires, and another hit the Polish soldiers with stones so that we could cross without them seeing us.”

Some migrants crossed, while about 1,000 people gathered at the border, amid the worsening political crisis between Belarus and European countries.

On his way back to the capital, “Fouad” contacted another “Arab broker” whom he had known in front of the hotel. He arranged for his group to rent a basement in a building and promised to try to smuggle them again.

Fouad says: “We heard that a plane belonging to Cham Wings will come to Minsk on Nov. 28 to return a group of us to Damascus. We all decided that we would not go back to Hell.”

He adds: “We rented an apartment for a month, for $1,000, waiting for one of two solutions; either we cross to Poland, or we go to Moscow, and from there we take a taxi to Finland and then Europe, according to what one of the Arab brokers promised us.”



Egypt... An ‘Alternative Sudan’ for those Fleeing War

A café in Giza popular with displaced Sudanese (Asharq Al-Awsat)
A café in Giza popular with displaced Sudanese (Asharq Al-Awsat)
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Egypt... An ‘Alternative Sudan’ for those Fleeing War

A café in Giza popular with displaced Sudanese (Asharq Al-Awsat)
A café in Giza popular with displaced Sudanese (Asharq Al-Awsat)

With the influx of hundreds of thousands of displaced Sudanese into Egypt over the past months due to the ongoing war in their country, Egypt has turned into an “alternative Sudan” that embraces more than 5.5 million regular and irregular refugees.

“We live in an integrated Sudanese society in Egypt,” Musaab Hamdan, 33, told Asharq Al-Awsat.

Hamdan, a cleaning worker at a private company in the Mohandiseen neighborhood, said that the country was a haven for thousands of displaced people fleeing the war.

The Egyptian government estimates the number of Sudanese at about 5 million out of 9 million refugees on its territory, while President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi describes them as “guests of Egypt.”

The large inflow of Sudanese since the outbreak of the war in their country in 2023 has put pressure on the International Commission for Refugees in Cairo and Alexandria, where about 3,000 refugee applications are received daily. This has increased the number of Sudanese registered with the Commission to 300,000 persons, which represents 52 percent of the total number of refugees registered in Egypt with UNHCR until April.

The Sudanese features and traditional attire are distinctive on the streets of Cairo and Giza, where Sudanese vendors and citizens are now seen practicing business activities that were limited to Egyptians for decades, including driving taxis and small buses in popular neighborhoods. Hamdan said that this reflects the rapid integration of newcomers into everyday life in Egypt.

Mohamed Abdel Majeed, a taxi driver in Giza, speaks the Egyptian dialect so fluently that many locals do not realize he is from Sudan.

He told Asharq Al-Awsat that he has adapted to driving on Cairo’s streets and now knows the names and locations of stations by heart.

Alternative haven

Social networking sites are monitoring this heavy Sudanese presence in Egypt, as some videos have focused on the idea of an “alternative Sudan in the country.”

Among them was a comment made by a Sudanese influencer who joked about the heavy presence of his countrymen in the Faisal neighborhood in Giza, saying: “If you are Sudanese living abroad and want to see your family and your country. All you have to do is go to Giza, Egypt.”

Tens of thousands of Sudanese fleeing the war in Sudan consider Egypt the “best haven.” Fatima Hassan feared that her daughters would be “raped by armed militias in Sudan,” and decided to enter Egypt irregularly, she told Asharq Al-Awsat.

Extreme heat and thirst exhausted Fatima and her three daughters during a long trip, before she succeeded in reaching Giza to join her sister who had preceded her there several months ago.

Last month, the authorities announced that they have prevented the illegal entry of buses carrying displaced Sudanese. However, Abdullah Qouni - who has lived in the Maadi neighborhood in Cairo for 15 years and helps many newly displaced to find housing or a job opportunity - told Asharq Al-Awsat that around 11 buses from Aswan enter Egypt daily. He added that each irregular migrant pays about $500 to smugglers in exchange for the trip.

Education

One of the most important features of “Alternative Sudan” is the sight of dark-skinned students on their way to dedicated schools. Their number has increased steadily in recent months, forcing the Egyptian authorities to close some of them in order to “legalize the situation.”

Sami Al-Baqir, spokesman for the Sudanese Teachers Syndicate, estimates the number of Sudanese schools in Egypt at about 300 basic and intermediate schools.

The Sudanese embassy in Cairo, which moved its headquarters years ago from Garden City to the Dokki neighborhood, thanked the Egyptian government for its cooperation in making the Sudanese primary certificate exams a success in June, through six educational centers affiliated with the embassy. ​​

On the academic level, Ayman Ashour, the Egyptian Minister of Higher Education, estimated the number of Sudanese students who enrolled in Egyptian universities last year at more than 10,000.

Egyptian sensitivities

With the Sudanese “jilbab” dominating Egyptian streets and neighborhoods, and videos of large Sudanese gatherings in Cairo being circulated on social media, in addition to reports about the expulsion of Egyptian tenants to house displaced Sudanese, concerns have mounted over their presence in the country.

Moreover, news have emerged about some Sudanese families performing circumcision on their daughters in Egypt, prompting activists to call on Egyptian authorities to enforce the law that criminalizes female circumcision.

Egyptian media professionals joined in criticizing the Sudanese presence. Qaswa Al-Khalali expressed “concern” about the presence of refugee clusters in popular areas, considering this matter “extremely dangerous.” Meanwhile, journalist Azza Mostafa warned of “some refugees taking control of entire areas in Cairo,” pointing to bad consequences on Egypt.

Egyptian parliamentarians responded to calls to legalize the status of refugees, including Siham Mostafa, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee in the House of Representatives. In television statements, she said: “Egypt hosts millions of foreigners and provides them with services at the same prices provided to citizens without any increase, despite the current economic crisis.”

Reducing burdens

Due to the economic crisis, Egypt has called on the international community to support it in “bearing the burdens of refugees.”

Former Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said, after his meeting with the Director-General of the International Organization for Migration, Amy Pope, that the support Egypt receives from the international community was not commensurate with the burdens it bears, especially as the Egyptian economy suffers from the consequences of global crises.

The Egyptian government recently launched a process to count the numbers of refugees residing on its territory, with the aim of calculating the cost of hosting them and determining the financial burdens.

In a statement issued in April, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Egypt requested $175.1 million to meet the most urgent needs of Sudanese refugees who have fled to Egypt since mid-April 2023.