Abian Majok Dong has fled twice in his life – once in 1983 from his village in southern Sudan, when the government began a forced "Islamization" campaign for the region's mostly Christian and animist inhabitants, and again in 2001, when government charges of treason – a crime punishable by death – propelled him to Cairo.
Now Mr. Dong, a member of the Dinka tribe who says he's "about 48" but looks much older, is contemplating another move.
After six years, he says, he feels increasingly unsafe in a city in which he's allowed to stay but can't find a job or send his kids to government schools. One son got mixed up with a Sudanese gang and is now in jail. "I need to move on. We're in limbo. The UN won't resettle us; no one can guarantee my safety if I go home, and and the Egyptians will never let us become legal residents," he says, sitting in a dingy office that serves as a community center for Dinka tribesmen in Cairo. "We know how dangerous the trip to Israel is, but I understand why some of the boys are attempting it."
That trip is one that has lured thousands of Sudanese in recent months to cross the Sinai Desert and try to penetrate one of the most heavily patrolled borders in the world in search of work and, they say, security from persecution in Egypt.
Some have been shot by Egyptian border guards, others robbed by unscrupulous smugglers and left in the desert. Recently, about 50 of the Sudanese who had made it across were deported by Israel to Egypt.
The trend of Sudanese seeking to flee what is considered to be relatively safe Cairo is putting a spotlight on a forgotten and neglected community of some 30,000 refugees. Some, like Dong's family, are from the south of Sudan, where about 1.5 million died in a conflict involving separatist groups and the government in Khartoum.
More recent arrivals are from the western region of Darfur, where at least 200,000 have been killed in fighting that the US has described as a genocide.
The story of Mr. Dong and others like him illustrates not only what thousands of Sudanese have endured at home, but the hardships that have come with their flight to Cairo. It's been years since Sudanese in Cairo have been able to get an appointment with the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), since few countries are willing to take them and because of a UN policy that favors a return home.
Abeer Etafa, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR in Cairo, says Sudanese from the south like Dong haven't been considered for third-country resettlement since 2004, when a peace agreement was signed between the south and the central government. Though refugees from Darfur are still theoretically eligible for resettlement, Ms. Etafa says, they generally have to demonstrate some added vulnerability in Cairo – for instance, a need for medical care that's not available in Egypt – before being recommended.
How it began
In 1983, with his village "razed to the ground," Dong headed north to Khartoum, where he chafed at the government-imposed Islamic law, but where his family was relatively safe. Eventually, he got a job with international aid agencies dealing with the flow of refugees from southern Sudan into the central Sudanese town of Babanusa.
Babanusa was a chosen destination for thousands, particularly members of the Dinka tribe, because it was on the rail network. But in 2000, Dong became aware of a human trafficking network, run by Sudanese who identify as ethnically Arab, which targeted children and women coming into town on the train.
He says he was particularly concerned because his eldest son was captured and enslaved for two years in 1990, though he eventually escaped to Khartoum. When his son's owners came to Khartoum looking for him, the family smuggled the boy to Cairo. At the time, resettlement was easier; that son is now living and studying in Melbourne, Australia.
Because of his past experience, he says, he became an informant to aid agencies seeking to expose the problem at Babanusa. Allegations of treason followed from the central government, which alleged he was fabricating the reports, he says. That prompted the whole family to flee to Egypt in 2001.
Though his story could not be independently confirmed before going to press, UN reports from the mid-1990s noted the practice of taking slaves off the train to Babanusa, and a US State Department report in 2002 said the practice continued.
"They say there's peace in the south and the only answer for us is to go home," says Dong. "Well, I made a lot of powerful and wealthy people very angry. Why would I gamble my family's life on the chances they'd forgive me?"
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.
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.