We speak to founder of the Instagram account Refugees in Egypt to get insight on the initiative that aims to share the stories of African refugees in Egypt.
Escaping from cities pillaged and wrought with violence and abuse, those leaving their African abodes inbound to Egypt, have fled their homes (or whatever's left of them) in pursuit of a dream that never seems to materialize. Refugees in Egypt is the photography initiative looking to shed light on the plight of those African refugee. The initiative started out as a Capstone project about African Refugee integration in Egypt, by founder, Reem Akl. However, having wrapped up the project, Akl had gone through a sort of transformation. She couldn't simply go back to ignoring a neglected social issue after having gotten absorbed in the stories of these refugees.
Having turned the project into an a movement, Akl tells us of what prompted her photo-documentary initiative.
“Most of my interviews were at a school for refugees and a refugee clinic in a church in Zamalek,” Akl tells us of the university project that took four months to complete. “ The school was mainly children who don’t really understand at that point the severity of the situation. But the clinic was something else. I was shocked at the things I heard from people about getting shot, to losing family to rapes and murders. It got so real all of a sudden. I just wasn’t ready”
Having spoken to several African women and getting a dose of reality didn’t halt Akl though. She decided to turn the university project into an initiative for the African victims that are faced with straining circumstances and cornered into a wall. Akl wants to spread awareness on their situation by sharing through her photography the struggles of this persecuted and undermined community. She shared with us the one story in particular that stuck with her, even months after it was recounted to her.
She told me how on her way to Egypt, she lost her husband on the trip to Aswan. Once in Cairo, she was raped and got pregnant and I remember feeling frustrated because I was so helpless in helping her. What could I do to alleviate that kind of pain?
“I was leaving the clinic where I was running the interviews for my capstone project. And this Ethiopian woman stops me and pleads for me to listen to her. She told me how on her way to Egypt, she lost her husband on the trip to Aswan which is the initial destination they escape to before making their way to Cairo. Once in Cairo, with no money and no one to turn to, she was raped and got pregnant. I was shocked," exclaims a disheartened Akl. "And she told me that she was looking for a job to support the child which she decided to keep. She had no one to turn to and no way to provide for herself or her kid. And I remember feeling frustrated because I was so helpless in helping her. What could I do to alleviate that kind of pain?”Refugees worldwide are already taking a huge risk in traveling illegally from one country to another, by boat or by car or by foot. In a lot of cases, they end up losing loved ones on their journey towards their “host” country. And sometimes go for days on end with no water or food and are unsheltered in unforgiving weather. The perils of the trip seem to beg the question, what was so horrible that anyone would go through such miserable conditions? And like refugees from all over the world, the case is no different for African Refugees coming to Egypt.
"I want people to know exactly what these refugees go through in coming to Egypt. And what they've been through and what they're still going through" says Akl passionately.Having fled to seek safety and a better standard of leaving, many of these refugees run into a whole other breed of abuse in the country. Egypt hosts around 72,000 African refugees (and that's only the ones registered) according to a 2017 report released by UNHCR. Those are the ones that made it out, the ones that managed to elude corrupt political systems and poor living conditions, only to be faced with a whole other scope of social injustices: racism and discrimination. And Akl wants to awaken our dormant conscience into action.
"The help doesn't have to come in the form of money. These are people running away from areas filled with violence. And so they come here hoping to find a way out. But they’re faced with another oppressor. And their health is a whole other story. They don’t get the proper healthcare,” Akl tells of the refugees she interviewed. “But we can help with our time, with finding them jobs. It's not money they want, it's a life or in their case a semblance of a life at the very least. And what happens with them is that they meet people that promise them things and take their numbers. But these people never call back. There is so much hope for them in that one gesture and it's completely shattered when nobody even calls them.”
The majority of these refugees come from Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea, among other African nationalities. With thousands of refugee registrations still pending, their journey is far from over once they’ve reached Egypt.
“I want to give them a fighting chance, and for them to get at least an inkling of what they came for. But in Egypt they're faced with so much discrimination. And I chose photography to do it specifically so I can get a wider reach. People are more receptive to visuals It has a wider reach than writing because not everyone is able to read. But everybody can look at a picture.” Explains Akl.Seeking refuge from war stricken areas, economic collapse and political instability, many of these Africans are forced to accept the crumbs offered to them out of a lack of choice. And with many of them not being able to afford rent due to unemployment, they’re forced into destitution. For them, Egypt is just the lesser of two evils.
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All photos courtesy of Reem Akl.