ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

Finding a Place for Egypt’s Sudanese

With civil war always a memory and daily survival an ongoing challenge, the people of Sudan still prefer to smile.

In a schoolroom in the Egyptian city of Alexandria multicolored table linens drape the walls and woven handbags fill the shelves.

About 100 southern Sudanese women have come to the school to make the items or discuss ways to market them. But day-to-day survival is probably the most important issue on their minds.

These women have no home, few friends, meager jobs at best and little money. Civil war has twice ravaged their native country since independence in 1956. The current civil war, which not only sets north against south, but also rival southern militias against one another, broke out in 1983. Tens of thousands of noncombatants have been deliberately killed or displaced from their homes and their country.

Despite these hardships, I was greeted with a song when I visited some of Alexandria’s Sudanese residents. While speaking with them, they presented me with a pen that was tightly wrapped in red, blue and yellow yarn. Somehow my name had been woven into the pattern.

I did not feel right accepting their gift. In my culture, if I visit someone I bring a gift to express my appreciation – not the other way around. Besides, I have everything I need. The Sudanese scramble for food and shelter, and they give me a present?

Africa’s largest country in area, with an estimated population of 25 million, Sudan is one of the world’s most ethnically diverse nations. Its nearly 600 ethnic groups and tribes speak more than 400 languages and dialects. The majority of the population in the north is Arab and Muslim, while in the south most people are black and tribal. Ten percent of those in the south are Christian. The remainder follow traditional tribal religions.

Sudan is ruled by a repressive Muslim regime. After independence, the country’s leaders sought to homogenize their nation by imposing Arab traditions and Islamic law. This led to civil war in the 60s. By 1972, the south, which wanted autonomy, succeeded in forming an autonomous government with the blessing of Sudan’s central government.

After the cessation of hostilities, there were efforts by Sudanese and Egyptian leaders to integrate the two countries. Throughout history, the destinies of Egypt and Sudan have been entwined. Not only do the two nations share the Nile River and a common border, but Sudan has been within Egypt’s sphere of influence since Pharaonic times.

In 1974, the Sudanese leader Ja’far an-Numayri signed an agreement with Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat to coordinate development projects and plan combined cultural and religious institutions.

This bond was further strengthened in 1982 when Numayri signed an integration charter with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The following year laws were approved allowing free passage of people and goods across the border, reinforcing the charter’s preamble, which recognized the historical and cultural unity of the Egyptian and Sudanese people.

Today the number of Egypt’s Southern Sudanese is estimated to be between 3,500 and 25,000 people. They may enter Egypt without entry visas. And technically they have the same rights: free education, medical care, guaranteed government jobs and low housing costs.

But the southern Sudanese have found that what is on paper may not necessarily translate into practice.

“We are supposed to be just like the Egyptians,” observed Veronica Kuei, one of the Sudanese women at Alexandria’s St. Jeanne Antide school. “But it’s not true. They treat us like foreigners.”

Akol Warwien Dhieu, a 31-year-old father of three, shares his family’s apartment with six other men. They must pay about $103 in rent, while his Egyptian neighbor pays only two dollars.

Often the only jobs that southern Sudanese men can find are menial. Riel Benjamin Bil, 25, said he worked for about $1.50 a day building houses in the desert. Yull Akaishah said he worked in the salt mines, sometimes for 18 hours a day, for about $.45 a day.

“After you get a job, you go to the job, then you go to the hospital,” Bil said.

The Sudanese are in a legal limbo. War and human rights violations have forced them to flee their homes in Sudan. Because they are in Egypt, they are referred to informally as refugees. However, they are legally described as displaced persons.

Many must turn to relief organizations for help in meeting their rent, their children’s tuition, medical costs and food. This is where the Catholic Church has stepped in.

“All the [southern] Sudanese come to the church for help,” noted Bishop Egidio Sampieri, Latin Apostolic Vicar of Alexandria. “We do what we can. Now we have to appeal to the good will of other groups. Someone may help us this year, but we don’t have the security [of knowing that the same group] will help us every year.”

Because Egyptian public schools are crowded – sometimes with up to 80 pupils per public school classroom – very often there is no room for Sudanese children. In Alexandria and the Nile delta, Bishop Egidio pays for the education of 126 children in private schools. Another 450 children in Cairo and upper Egypt receive private lessons.

The Christian churches disbursed about $65,000 this year for lessons and examination fees. Much of this comes from individual Catholic and Coptic Orthodox bishops, and collections from Catholics in the United States and Ireland.

“Quite often education is not considered an important part of development, but in actual case it is,” said the Rev. Kevin O’Rourke, M.H.M., the chaplain to the Sudanese in Alexandria. “People give you money for everything except education.”

Because they do not receive free medical and maternity care, the Sudanese must rely on donations from a variety of sources, including grants from CNEWA. Even the basic food needs of the Sudanese – rice, oil and sugar – are provided by groups like Caritas Egypt and Catholic Relief Services.

In 1974, Egypt and Sudan implemented an agreement allowing Sudanese students to enroll in Egyptian universities. Under the terms of agreement the Egyptian government would pay tuition and the Sudanese government would take care of rent and food. But in 1990, relations between the two countries soured. Sudan stopped paying the students’ living allowance.

Responding to the plight of students in Alexandria, the Latin Vicariate began, in 1991, to support 1,000 students. For living allowances, each student received $30 a month; $44 if the student was married. Today, the program is winding down as the students graduate.

Housing is the biggest problem facing the Sudanese. Overcrowded apartments often cause domestic disputes among family and friends. And even though apartments are shared by a number of people, it is hard for most to pay the rent.

In Alexandria, 80 Sudanese – in a space meant for 60 – live in an old school behind St. Catherine’s Cathedral. Bishop Egidio, with CNEWA assistance, converted two floors of the unoccupied building into apartments for the students.

Those who graduate from university confront yet another dilemma: return home to live in a war zone or try to eke out a living in Egypt. Most stay. So the Latin Vicariate has made some preparations to provide additional training. In Alexandria, it has an arrangement with the Don Bosco Institute (also supported by CNEWA), which trains the Sudanese in welding, electrical engineering, hydraulics, electronics and computers. In 1992, there were 10 graduates of the program. In 1995, 70 will graduate. Because of the program, some have found jobs in other countries.

Similarly, in the Abbassiya district of Cairo, Sacred Heart parish is providing job training and employment: 10 Sudanese are supporting themselves at a tailoring and knitting center, stated the Rev. Cosimo Spadavecchia, M.C.CJ., Episcopal Vicar for Africans. About 75 women meet at the church every week for spiritual direction and dialogue. They also make a variety of handicrafts, embroidery and silk-screened T-shirts. They share their successes and failures, discuss ways to sell their items and promote exhibitions.

“We carry the weight of their losing experience of the war,” Father Spadavecchia said. “They need to come together and start thinking about their future.”

In Alexandria, the women who make the colorful table linens and purses also create V neck and crew neck sweaters. They have tried to market their items by selling them to retail stores, or presenting them at bazaars, but they cannot compete with the larger and more established Egyptian textile industries. They are out-marketed and pushed aside.

The atmosphere in their meeting room at St. Catherine’s Cathedral in Alexandria is remarkably positive. Part of a wall is covered with pictures of students graduating from universities. Many smile and look proud. Other pictures show some Sudanese performing various tasks. Small signs next to the pictures say: “We enjoy working. How about you?” “No problem. We are working.” “Pray and do something.”

It is in the Sudanese people’s nature to be happy, to smile, these Alexandria women explained. They know they have difficulties, but they still smile, “No matter what you are doing, you cannot go around gloomy every day,” said Angela Todo.

Yet last October, the women staged a three-day hunger strike, demanding refugee status and asylum in another country. But the hunger strike failed and some Sudanese lost hope. One man was so despondent he jumped from a fifth-story window. He barely survived. Father O’Rourke visited him at the hospital. The man, although broken and bruised, apologized to the Irish priest for not being able to sit up and shake his hand.

Father O’Rourke chuckled at this story. Although tragic, he found a bit of humor in it. His reaction to this and other tribulations of the Sudanese is persistent cheeriness. He attributes this to having a good group of Sudanese to work with and a successful program.

But I suspect that a lot of it, too, is a reaction to a chronically discouraging situation. When faced with a predicament that would make one want either to laugh or to cry, the priest usually chooses laughter.

Without the support of the local churches – and generous donors abroad – many of Egypt’s southern Sudanese would be hungry, homeless and bereft of education and medical care.

I will remember their welcoming song and keep their pen.

Dale McGeehon is a freelance journalist formerly based in Cairo.

Get to know us and stay informed about the impact your support makes.

Nous constatons que votre préférence linguistique est le français.
Voudriez-vous être redirigé sur notre site de langue française?

Oui! Je veux y accéder.

Hemos notado que su idioma preferido es español. ¿Le gustaría ver la página de Asociación Católica para el Bienestar del Cercano Oriente en español?

Vee página en español