ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Alexandria’s Struggling Sudanese

A small church in an ancient port city sustains refugees

On a quiet February day in Ibrahimeyya, a residential neighborhood in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, a group of Sudanese women arrives at the wrought iron gates of Sacred Heart Church. While some Sudanese families live near the church, most of these women come from all over this sprawling seaside metropolis. Every two weeks, they travel long distances to pick up groceries, upon which they have come to depend.

Life as a refugee is especially difficult in Egypt, a resource-poor nation that struggles to provide for its own citizens. For many, the biweekly food bank at Sacred Heart helps keep their families afloat.

“If it weren’t for these rations, I wouldn’t be able to feed my family,” said Florence Mandera. “It would be so hard because food is so expensive.

“It would cost 55 Egyptian pounds [$10] to buy all this myself,” she continued, holding her baby daughter, Gloria, in one arm as she balanced a grocery bag against her leg.

Each package includes a two-week supply of essentials: baby formula, beans, bouillon cubes, canned tuna, macaroni, milk powder, rice, soap, sugar and tomato paste. Though not exorbitant, the cost of these items is simply too high for most Sudanese families living in Alexandria.

“We have to struggle,” said Mrs. Mandera, who moved to Egypt in 2007 from Juba, the capital of southern Sudan, with hopes of studying business in the English division of Alexandria University. But since becoming a mother, she has had trouble supporting a family and attending school.

“It’s hard to make money here [and] the little bit of money we do make always goes right to our children, and that’s why the church works so hard to give us food,” she said. “Even if we have nothing, they make sure we have something.”

Still, the young mother manages to make it to class and is completing her first year of coursework. She hopes to graduate in four years.

“After I finish I have to go back to Sudan,” Mrs. Mandera added. “I have to serve my people.”

Father Jal Malith greeted the food bank’s visitors from the steps of the church. A native of southern Sudan, he left it 17 years ago, seeking to escape the civil war that threatened his hometown of Aweil. Joining the ranks of the millions who fled the conflict, he packed up whatever possessions he could carry and traveled north to Egypt. Arriving in Alexandria, he enrolled at Alexandria University and later embraced Catholicism. After earning his degree, he entered the Franciscans, becoming the community’s first Sudanese-Egyptian novice.

As a student, he had hoped to return to Sudan after graduation to serve his country. Now serving the Latin Apostolic Vicariate in Alexandria, he is helping his countrymen who have chosen to leave their homes in Sudan to eke out a better life in Egypt.

Among Alexandria’s Sudanese community, Father Jal is a larger than life figure. Under his direction, Sacred Heart parish provides aid to 58 Sudanese families — more than 700 individuals — throughout Alexandria and the Nile Delta.

But a lot has changed since Father Jal first left Sudan 17 years ago. In 2005, a comprehensive peace agreement formally ended the war between the Arabic-speaking, predominantly Muslim north and the animist and Christian south. The accord brought together the central government and its rebel foes, created a semiautonomous region in the south and arranged for it to achieve independence after a period of home rule. In addition, refugees were urged to return.

“Since the treaty, people are more optimistic,” explained Father Jal, though he does not think many people in Alexandria feel confident enough to return.

“Now that war between the north and the south is over, some people are returning to the south,” he said, especially those, he added, who are young and unmarried or those who left behind large families.

But there are families who find the scars of war too fresh.

“There is still a war in Darfur [a region in western Sudan], and a lot of reconstruction in the south still has to be done,” the priest added.

“There are no good schools or hospitals, so a lot of people don’t want to return yet.”

For Sudan, war is a tragic norm. Since achieving independence from Great Britain in 1955, civil war has consumed the country for most of its years. Nearly two million southern Sudanese civilians died in the fighting between 1983 and 2005, the highest number of civilian war casualties since World War II.

For those Sudanese who sought refugee protection in Egypt between 1994 and 2005, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees registered more than 58,000 people. But experts believe the number of Sudanese fleeing their country for Egypt during this period was far greater. Independent estimates place the number of Sudanese who have fled to Egypt on account of the civil war between 750,000 and four million.

Many in Egypt’s Sudanese community remain skeptical about the current calm between north and south. Still, peace has introduced a question few ever expected to ask themselves: Should we go home?

As exiles, most Sudanese live on the fringes of Egyptian society — their lives are marked by high unemployment and extreme poverty. They do not qualify for Egyptian citizenship and its benefits. But for a handful, the newly established peace has raised hopes for a new, more prosperous life in Sudan.

Father Jal recently traveled to Sudan, visiting Khartoum, the nation’s capital, as well as Juba and the large southern towns of Wow and Aweil. Members of his parish and community in Alexandria eagerly awaited his return, desperate to hear about their homeland now that some measure of peace has been restored.

“But what I saw was not good,” he said. “There were no schools, no hospitals, no clean water. Sanitation was zero.”

Since his return to Egypt, he has been telling members of the Sudanese community that, for now, life in southern Sudan remains much the same as what they remember, minus the fighting: ruined infrastructure, unemployment and an uncertain future.

“In Khartoum, there are schools. But in southern towns like Wow and Aweil, there are no schools or anything,” he said. “In the war, everything was destroyed.

“The government has started to build, but it is slow. And anyone with money is sending their kids to Uganda or Kenya for school,” the priest added. “If you have no money and you have no education, you have nothing.”

Thanks largely to the efforts of Father Jal and the vicariate — which receives financial support from the worldwide Catholic community, including CNEWA — there is a glimmer of hope for a stable life, at least for Alexandria’s Sudanese refugees.

In addition to providing Christian and Muslim Sudanese families with food, the vicariate contributes about $268 a month toward medical expenses. The church also helps families enroll their children in school, usually underwriting tuition costs.

The biggest challenge for most of the city’s Sudanese is paying the rent. Not only is the rent in the metropolitan area high, but many heads of household cannot find work. For this reason, several families often share housing, with as many as 15 people living in the same apartment — typically three rooms.

In many Sudanese families, the women have supplanted the men as primary breadwinners, working as maids in Egyptian homes. Such work pays around $35 a month, though rent is usually three times as high.

These meager wages often help support several extended family members. Victoria Polo Aked, for instance, is an out-of-work single mother. Fortunately, her sister, Eliza, has taken her in, along with her 18-year-old son, Emanuel. Unable to afford college, Emanuel spends most of the day job hunting. In the meantime, mother and son depend almost entirely on Eliza, who works only two days a week as a maid.

“My sister has a job with an Egyptian family,” explained Ms. Aked. “She spends the whole day cleaning their big house, and they pay her 20 pounds [$3.50]. It’s just enough to buy a bottle of milk for her baby, Marina.”

But the family knows it will always have enough to eat — as long as the vicariate manages to keep its food bank stocked.

“Getting food is no problem,” Ms. Aked said, with a tired smile. “Father Jal helps us out with things like that.”

Sudanese families must also meet the additional expense of enrolling their children in private schools. Under Egyptian law, non- Egyptian students do not have guaranteed access to public schools.

Fortunately, the vicariate goes to great lengths to fill the gap, locating and paying for suitable private school programs for Sudanese children in Alexandria. Last year, it put 113 Sudanese children through school, from kindergarten through the last year of high school, at a cost of $25,626.

Father Jal keeps a record of every student supported by the vicariate — as well as his or her school registration and receipts — in a crisp manila folder in his desk. It bulges with slips of paper.

“The public schools are cheap, but they are for Egyptian children,” explained the priest. “[The vicariate] has some places in those schools, but only a few.”

Among the private schools where children are placed is Yed el Hesshan, located near the seashore in downtown Alexandria. A high wall encloses an adjacent schoolyard where children play games, sing songs and talk about the popular American show “Hannah Montana.” It could be anywhere in the world.

At present, 26 Sudanese are enrolled, all of whom are sponsored by the vicariate. Most of them were born in Egypt and know no other life. One student, 9-year-old Kristina, identifies herself as Sudanese.

“I am Sudanese, from Aweil,” she said, “but I was born here in Alex.”

Since kindergarten, the vicariate has underwritten her tuition.

The clean concrete facility offers children a well-rounded elementary school education, including classes in Arabic, English, math, science and art. Egyptian and Sudanese students work side-by-side in the classroom and play and sing together in the schoolyard. In a world where relations between Egyptians and Sudanese can be tense, the schoolyard at Yed el Hesshan is a hopeful sign.

“I love school, and I really love English class,” Kristina said excitedly. “I have a lot of friends here. I have Egyptian friends too.”

Based in Cairo, Liam Stack reports regularly for numerous publications, including ONE.

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