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Once welcomed, Syrians in Egypt now face hostility

Syrian refugees arrive at Turkey from Cilvegozu crossing gate at Reyhanli, in Antakya, on August 30, 2013.

Syrian Refugee Mayyas El-Shamy works in his family's shop in the Cairo suburb of Sixth of October City. He says at first he felt welcome in Egypt, but now many Egyptians are hostile to him.

Mayyas el-Shamy and Ayman El-Nasser are two young men in their 20s. Both work in the same neighborhood in the Cairo suburb of 6th of October City. It's a bustling shopping district full of cafes, fast-food restaurants, and clothing stores. But they are part of two increasingly divided communities.

Twenty-five-year-old El-Shamy is Syrian refugee. His family transplanted its sandwich shop from war-ravaged Dara'a in southwestern Syria to a busy street here in this busy Cairo district.

"As soon as we came to Egypt,” he says, “the treatment was really good and we were happy and we didn't feel homesick. But after June 30, everything turned upside down."

June 30th was when massive street protests started that led to President Mohamed Morsi being booted from office. Morsi was a strong supporter of the Syrian opposition. But, when he was deposed, there was a backlash against Syrians refugees in Egypt. Some of that backlash was political, but some was economic.

Twenty-six-year-old Egyptian Ayman el-Nasser works just around the corner from el-Shamy's sandwich shop. He says his perspective on Syrian refugees working in Egypt has changed. "The situation is different now. The Egyptian people don't get any benefit from them. Syrians have started begging here in Egypt & they want any kind of job they can get. Now Egyptian shop owners are hiring Syrians instead of Egyptians, so the percentage of unemployed youth like me increases."

El-Nasser has a college degree, but he can't get any work other than a part-time job carrying charcoal for water pipes at an outdoor cafe. The Egyptian government estimates there are at least 300 thousand Syrian refugees here right now, increasing competition as the country struggles with more than 13 percent unemployment. That tension is making things harder for those trying to help the refugees start a new life.

According to Mohamed Dayri, the regional representative for the United Nations refugee agency, it’s getting harder and harder to get work in Egypt now. He says he hopes the backlash against Syrian workers is just temporary. 

"We've got to see things cooling down and that hopefully the environment would change favorably in Egypt so that the Syrians would recover the open arms and support that they had enjoyed."

Many Egyptians in the 6th of October district still do support the refugees. They point out how they boost the real estate market and open new businesses. But part-time coffee shop worker el-Nasser doesn't see that as a good thing. His hands are covered in charcoal dust from his low-wage job keeping the bubbling water pipes hot, and he resents the competition the Syrians have brought, in jobs and in business. El Nasser says the coffee shop he works in used to be the biggest in the district. No more.

“Look over there”, he says, “where the Syrians opened one, and all of them are there."

Meanwhile, as he makes sandwiches nearby, Syrian refugee Mayyas El-Shamy complains that Egyptian customers have become more hostile, and he faces discrimination in the streets. He says he's done with Egypt.

"We left our country because of dignity -- to preserve our dignity, not to be offended. And even here! We came with our money, but we will find a country that respects us."

Once, El-Shamy planned to settle in Egypt and get married. Now, he says, he doesn't know where he'll go. Most of his family have already left Egypt already and gone back to Syria.

Syrian Refugee Mayyas El-Shamy works in his family's shop in the Cairo suburb of Sixth of October City. He says at first he felt welcome in Egypt, but now many Egyptians are hostile to him.

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