Syrian Refugees in Egypt: “We Need to Help Healing”

Syrian Refugees in Egypt: “We Need to Help Healing”

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Sandra Azmy, Women’s Rights Program Initiative Manager at CARE Egypt, talks about the situation of Syrian refugees in Egypt, gender-based violence and how psychosocial activities can help start the healing process.

What is the situation of Syrian refugees in Egypt?

The situation of Syrian refugees in Egypt is very difficult. Most of them live in run-down apartments; they have difficulty finding a job, face a dramatic rise in the cost of living as well as inflation. Around 136,000 Syrians have registered with the United Nations in Egypt, but the government estimates that the actual number of Syrian refugees in Egypt may be as high as 300,000. 

At the beginning of the crisis, most of the Syrian refugees who came to Egypt had family ties there or business connections. At first, many were able to rely on their personal savings, start their own businesses or find work. But three years after the beginning of the crisis, their savings are depleted and they do not know how to pay for their rent, medication and their children’s education. Since the beginning of 2013 the influx of refugees arriving in Egypt rose dramatically, with a lot of them having initially fled to other countries in the region, but then relocating to Egypt for various reasons such as the lower cost of living in comparison to Jordan or Lebanon. After the removal of former President Mohammed Morsi, some Syrians are perceived to support the Muslim Brotherhood. Anti-Syrian sentiments have put additional strain on the psychological well-being of Syrian refugee families.


How does CARE support Syrian refugees in Egypt?

CARE raises awareness about sexual exploitation and other forms of gender-based violence to protect refugees from any and all forms of abuse in Cairo, the country’s capital. Through our psychosocial programs, we are assisting Syrian refugee women, men and children in coping with their experiences of war, violence, flight and the loss of family and friends. 

We offer psychosocial support groups, various recreational activities and also provide individual psychological counseling. Our psychosocial sessions are focussed on trying to find solutions, developing problem solving skills and stress relief techniques, identifying the source of the pain and trying to ease it. That which the refugees have lost is nothing we can give back to them, but we can help them to heal and to walk the long path to recovery step by step. Women can talk freely about their challenges in the new environment, threats they are facing and about the difficulties of bringing up their children while on the run. Our groups offer them a safe space for them to talk about their sorrow and violence they have been or still are experiencing. 


Why has CARE decided to focus on psychosocial assistance for Syrian refugees in Egypt?

Refugees do not only need a roof over their heads, food and medication; they also need to heal. They have fled the war and are safe, but the memories of what they have seen, what they have suffered and what they have lost still keep their heads spinning. In Egypt as in other countries to which they have fled, they are facing new challenges: they do not find work and cannot afford their rent, food and medication. They are constantly worrying about how they can survive in a country that is not their home, where they are strangers and often times still living in constant fear for the lives of their loved ones who still remain in Syria. These fears and worries do not allow the old wounds to heal, but instead plant new wounds in their hearts over and over again. For women, the situation is particularly difficult.  Many have lost their husbands in Syria and have fled alone with their children. Without support they face a constant struggle to survive all by themselves. CARE in Egypt has extensive experience in psychosocial support for women, men and children, and particularly in addressing gender-based violence.


How does CARE address gender-based violence amongst Syrian refugee families? 

Domestic and gender-based violence against Syrian refugee women can never be seen as something separate from the experiences of flight. Imagine you have lost everything you ever possessed; friends and family have been killed or injured by bombs and bullets. You have fled to a country you do not know, your husband does not find work, your children cannot go to school and you cannot afford more than one meal a day for your family. That is exactly the situation confronting many refugee women in Egypt. When their husbands or someone else starts treating them badly they do not realize that they are facing domestic violence, but see it as a “part of my new life”. 

In many cases, men have become violent against their wives as a result of depression or trauma. They are angry and frustrated that they cannot provide for their family and this depression and stress then leads to violence towards wives and children. Often, mothers who are facing violence from their husbands start beating their children or yelling at them. Being a refugee has negative effects on the family as a whole. 

Before we start our psychosocial sessions and therapies, we organize recreational events for the entire family. Mothers, fathers and children attend sports and team building activities. We want to “set the stage”, break the ice, build trust and thereby encourage them to register in our psychosocial activities. We need to improve the psychological wellbeing of refugees as a whole and tackle the root causes which lead to the violence to be able to truly address sexual and gender-based violence. 

We have also started running a telephone helpline. We have distributed brochures and put up posters in local organizations, UN registration offices and other places Syrian refugees go to. We want to make sure that they know what gender-based violence is, that this is nothing they should tolerate and that we are there to help. Sometimes it helps them to just talk to one of our staff; in other cases we make appointments with one of our psychologists for them. In community theaters both Syrian and Egyptians teenagers change their behavior, learn about gender-based violence and engage various audiences.


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Sandra Azmy, Women's Rights Program Initiatives Manager CARE Egypt. (Photo: CARE/Johanna Mitscherlich)