For Sudanese refugees, a cycle of flight
In Cairo, once thought to be fairly safe, many consider fleeing again – to Israel.
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Today, Dong's youngest son is in an Egyptian prison, serving a six-month sentence because of allegations he got into a brawl while a member of a Sudanese street gang called the "Lost Boys," named after the hundreds of Sudanese orphans who made their way on foot out of the country in the 1990s.Skip to next paragraph
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The Lost Boys and another Sudanese gang, the Outlaws, emerged here in Cairo about two years ago, after the Egyptian police killed 26 refugees participating in a sit-in strike outside the UNHCR's offices in central Cairo. That incident resulted in a suspension of meetings between the UN and Sudanese community leaders in Cairo. The UNHCR also moved their offices to the Cairo suburb of 6th of October City, which is much more difficult to reach.
Members of both gangs say their focus is on self-defense against Egyptian gangs, though other Sudanese, who asked that their names not be used, say they're mostly involved in brawling over girls and petty crimes, including mugging fellow refugees. Dong says his son wasn't really a member of the gang, but since he lived in the neighborhood they controlled, he was viewed as an enemy by the Outlaws.
He says a member of the Outlaws lied to the police to get his son arrested. At his trial, the boy couldn't face his accuser, who had fled across the border to Israel.
"He's never had a chance at an education, but he's a good boy," Dong says. "The real reason he's in jail is because the Egyptians don't want us here."
From prosperity to prison
Ahmed Khader, a refugee from Darfur, says he's safer in Cairo than he was at home, but still feels at risk. In 2003, he was a reasonably prosperous minibus driver in El-Fasher and owned his own vehicle. But that year, he was accused of supporting Darfur rebels and ended up spending six months in prison. His arms are covered with burn scars that he says are the result of torture during his incarceration. "I was actually a lucky one," he says. "I knew one of the guards from before the war and he got me better treatment."
When he was released from jail in February 2004, he fled to Cairo. Here, he's been attacked on three occasions. The first time, Egyptian men knocked on the door of his one-room apartment. He let them in, and they picked him up and threw him out the window. Fortunately, he lived on the second floor. While he was lying on the sidewalk, they came out and kicked him.
"Why? I can't really say," he says. "Maybe the Sudanese government wanted this … we know they have good relations with the Egyptians."
About a year later, on his way home from his job as a store clerk, he was jumped by a gang of Egyptians and Sudanese, who beat him severely. He thinks this group may have been purely criminal, but he isn't certain. "I went to the Egyptian police. They weren't interested," he says. "I tried to report my situation to the UN, but they won't talk to us anymore."
Afraid, he says he tried to flee through the Cairo airport to Syria. But his passport identifies him as a student, and only Sudanese with occupations listed as "businessmen" are allowed into that country. So, he says, he dabbled in a little forgery.
He was caught at the airport and spent 32 days in an Egyptian detention center during which, he says, he was often beaten. "This is no life here," he says. "If I could find any way out of Egypt, I'd take it."
For the moment, there are no legitimate ways out. The US is not accepting Sudanese refugees because it's hoping that the peace process there will work. Most of the traditional refugee-receiving countries have followed suit.
Mack Riak, a young Dinka from southern Sudan, says that leaves no options for Sudanese who hope to make the case to the UN that they need resettlement for safety reasons. Mr. Riak says his father was a southern Sudanese rebel and was killed in 1985, but that his own problems are only loosely connected to that conflict.
While living in Khartoum in 2002, he convinced a Muslim friend to convert to Christianity, a capital offense. When the police came to arrest him, he fled.
In August 2004, he had a refugee processing meeting set up at the UN. But when he arrived, he was told the meeting was postponed because of peace negotiations in the south. He was told to come back in December. He did, and was then told to return the following June. He kept that appointment, but was told that all interviews were indefinitely postponed.
"Do I believe my life would be in danger if I went home? Yes," he says. "Does any peace agreement, which is only a peace of paper, change that? No."
• Part 1 of 2. Tomorrow: Growing numbers of Sudanese refugees in Israel.