It’s Sunday morning in Beirut, and it’s quiet except for the bells of the church down the street. This is normally a bustling, noisy neighborhood, and it’s a nice change to be sitting here in a café when the day has not yet begun in earnest.
Like most buildings on the seafront in Alexandria, Egypt’s second city, the Nady el Togoreen or “Accountants Club” has seen better days. The concrete is crumbling, the paint is flaking, and the club’s two outdoor swimming pools have long since been emptied of water. Now they are filled with broken deck chairs and sunloungers.
Today, I spent the afternoon with a group of Syrian refugee women living here in Cairo. Some of them were considered vulnerable by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and were able to get small amounts of aid for food and rent. Many had children who dropped out of school in Egypt in order to provide for their families. Most had husbands in Syria whom they worried about constantly. All were hoping to go somewhere besides Egypt, but were losing faith that it could really happen.
The image of a crowded, dusty camp – full of tents and largely devoid of plant life – is probably what comes to mind immediately when you hear the word "refugee." You might think of Kenya’s Dadaab camp, which is currently the largest refugee settlement in the world, or of 80s-era photos of the Sudanese who fled to Ethiopia. You might even picture recent scenes from Zaatari, the camp in northern Jordan that is home to almost 100,000 Syrians who arrived in the past couple of years.
While a great deal of international attention has been given to the massive number of Syrian refugees who have crossed into Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, it is often forgotten that many Syrians – up to 300,000 according to some estimates – have made the somewhat longer journey to the nearby state of Egypt.
Last week saw the start of a fourth year of conflict in Syria. Some of the primary markers of this event include a death toll approaching 150,000; fully half of Syria’s entire population in need of humanitarian aid; and 2.5 million Syrian refugees living in nearby countries, afraid to return, with more arriving every day. In addition, the UN’s financial requirements for providing lifesaving assistance to Syrians – both inside and outside the country – have risen to an astonishing $6.5 billion for 2014 alone.
In the second half of 2013, Bulgaria, the poorest member of the European Union, saw an unprecedented influx of asylum seekers, most of them Syrians fleeing conflict through Turkey. The pace of arrivals quickly picked up, and by the end of the year the country, which usually sees less than 1,500 asylum seekers a year, was confronted with more than 7,000.
Refugee resettlement is in the news. At a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last month, speakers from both ends of the political spectrum called on the country to admit some of the 2.3 million Syrians who have become refugees. “While the United States has led the world in resettling and providing humanitarian assistance to refugees from conflicts around the globe, we’ve not done enough to address the current Syrian crisis,” said Senator Dick Durbin.