Photo Credit: Akram Abdo
Young Sudanese refugees are turning towards gang membership as a form of support network — with depressing results
By: Ethar El-Katatney
It’s hard enough being jobless and poor, but being jobless and poor without a solid social network and with nothing to do? That doesn’t exactly make for happy people, as many a Sudanese national who has moved to Egypt seeking refugee status in recent years has found.
There are some one million Sudanese living in Egypt, according to a recent estimate by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). But only 12,402 were granted formal refugee status in 2006. At least 200,000 Darfurians are believed to have died as a result of fighting and 2.2 million more have been displaced since 2003.
Those fleeing the war between the (largely Arab) government in Khartoum and the (largely Christian and animist) rebels in the South were initially told to expect resettlement to a Western country. But after the peace agreement and power-sharing deal between the Sudanese government and the rebels in 2005, the UNHCR’s policy shifted to voluntary repatriation with no refoulement (forced repatriation).
The result: Sudanese aren’t being shipped back home, but they’re not being given the chance to move on or to seek gainful, legal employment and education in Egypt.
Nearly everyone involved — everyone who isn’t a UN employee, that is — is pointing the proverbial finger of blame at the UNHCR. “The [Sudanese] embassy and resettlement countries started to look at [the Sudanese refugees as] unable  to adhere to [the] 1951 refugee convention, which is really the guiding principle on refugees status. [And so] we decided to stop the Refugee Determination Process (RDP),” says Abeer Etefa, spokesperson for UNHCR and senior regional public information officer for North Africa and the Middle East.
Instead, they are given ‘temporary protection’ instead of blue or yellow cards, the former meaning they are allowed residence and protection against refoulement, the latter the same but not allowing them to apply for a work permit until they are accepted as refugees. Temporary protection offers them an asylum-seeker card, which facilitates residency and access to other services offered by the UNHCR.
Protesting the new regulations, several hundred Sudanese nationals camped in Mustafa Mahmoud Square sit-in in December 2005 and refused to move until their issue was resolved. Four months into the sit-in, authorities used force to break up the protest, killing at least 23 and detaining 627, all of whom were later released. Following the deaths — and after attacks on its building by furious Sudanese —the UNHCR moved its offices to the much more inaccessible Sixth of October City.
Caught between the classic rock and a hard place, some Sudanese youth in Cairo have since formed armed gangs — a youth culture previously unknown in the nation’s capital. The gangs are loud, violent and determinedly territorial. They are armed and dangerous, admit community officials, who say there have been five gang-related deaths in the past year. But with Egyptian police taking a light touch after facing heavy criticism from the international community over the Mustafa Mahmoud violence, the gangs’ movement continues largely unchecked.
Also helping cloak their activities is the fact that the two primary gangs tend to operate in wealthier areas of town with high percentages of foreigners, including the upscale Maadi district.
Although they are very visible on city streets, convincing gang members to speak is no easy task. Top leaders are in hiding. Others are being deported; some have been picked up by police. We finally made contact with Mathok, a popular 25-year-old leader of the Lost Boys. The day before our scheduled interview, Mathok was stabbed to death by members of the rival Outlaws gang while he was going home witha friend in Abassiya.
Insiders say the killing was retaliation for the murder of a member of the Outlaws outside The American University in Cairo(AUC) on World Refugee Day.
No national newspaper or television channel carried news of Mathok’s death.
The Lost Boys and the Outlaws have perhaps 400 members between them, say community representatives who spoke on condition they not be named. The gangs’ names are those of rap groups from the United States, a country that to them represents a common dream. They are also references to the status of their members in Egypt.
Gangs are predominately southern Sudanese tribes fighting each other, namely Dinka and Nuer, although they claim to be territorial, grouped according to neighborhoods and not according to religious or tribal affiliation. The Outlaws hold territory in Abassiya and Maadi, while the Lost Boys claim Heliopolis and Ain Shams. Smaller gangs include Steel Dog, Five Girls, California, Notorious B.I.G., P2K and the Big Twelve.
The defining feature of the gangs is their mimicking of African-American rap culture — baggy low-waisted jeans, sports shoes, baseball caps, chunky jewelry and rap music. In essence, rejecting the Arab and African cultures they perceive have rejected them and finding an alternative as a means of self-assertion against social and economic despair, believes Jacob Rothing, a researcher at the Forced Migration and Refugee Studies (FMRS) department at AUC.
A humanitarian worker who taught at the London School of Economics and whose extensive research on gangs in Egypt will be published this month, Rothing feels that because these youth adopt the “bad boy hip hop image,” the identity of the gangs is transnational.
Gang members are usually males aged 16-28. Females are part of the gang culture too, though playing the role of gang trophies. Many members are recognized refugees, with the right of protection in a foreign country. It is interesting to note that, according to Rothing, gang members are “almost without exception religious beings, attending the mosque or the church several times a week. [However], religious difference does not play an important role within the gangs.”
What does play an important role in their lifestyle is money. One theory is that they are funded by Sudan-based political organizations. A spokesman for the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) in July accused“another Sudanese political organization” of “supporting and financing gang violence” among the southern Sudanese refugee community in Egypt to “foment tribalism” among the southern Sudanese, including the Dinka and Nuer.
This ‘divide and rule’ strategy is also noted in an AUC study from 2005 and 2006, which expressed the notion of Sudan-based political organizations encouraging gang violence and trying to manipulate the refugee community in Egypt. Titled “Youth Violence Among Southern Sudanese in Cairo,” the study mentioned that the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SLPA) had previously accused the National Congress Party (NCP), based in Khartoum, of “interfering in the problem through co-option and financial support of one of the gangs [Lost Boys].”
The studies have found that although gang members say their goal is self-defense against Egyptian baltageya (thugs), in reality they are usually involved in brawling over girls and petty crimes, including mugging fellow refugees. Violence is escalating rapidly, and members of opposing gangs attack each other with knives and bottles. According to Akram Abdo, another researcher at the FMRS department who assisted Rothing with the research, the gangs have not yet started to use firearms.
A recent development in this past year, he says, is in gang members’ hiring of local microbuses when they are heading to an attack. “They attack people,” he says, “to take their money or phones but they don’t have a clear [goal][One gang] attacks, and then [the other] retaliates.” There are no figures available, but community members say many Sudanese have fallen victim to this meaningless violence. Some have been stabbed, others have had their limbs broken. Others still have died in attacks.
The most well-known attack resulted in the death of 24-year-old Maliah Bekam outside AUC. Members of rival gang the Lost Boys hacked at his skull with machetes in retaliation for the Outlaws giving the names of some members of the Lost Boys to authorities three days earlier.
According to Rothing’s studies, when someone dies as a result of an attack, gang members don’t blame themselves and instead blame it on the person killed, reasoning that he shouldn’t have been fighting against them.
Police are taking a largely hands-off approach, say the researchers, a fact they say has emboldened the gang members. Investigators tend to become involved only when the gangs’ activities become very public or target Egyptians or non-Sudanese foreigners.
According to FMRS findings, Sudanese youth opt to become gang members either to avoid getting beaten up by or to avenge injuries received from another gang. Others follow friends or family into the fold.
“Youth gangs and their members are entwined with other refugee tribal groups and social networks. Due to this interconnection, youth gangs will often get labeled or targeted with violence that was not caused by them in particular but by tribal disputes, family feuds or individual threats,” explains Rothing.
“Neighbors, family members, school friends, etc., are at risk of being affected by violence and thus tend to become associated with the gangs. Many believe that they have to become [a] member of a gang to protect themselves from the other gang although this is a logic which in practice is wrong. Those that join the gangs are at a higher risk of being victims of violence than those that do not become a member of a gang.”
But being in a gang is not all about aggression. Rothing believes that,“Gangs provide crucial elements of psychosocial well-being such as a sense of belonging, acceptance and perceived security.” He notes that there are many youth groups who do not get involved with violence and are therefore not gangs, but provide the groups with the same benefits as being a gang member does. With many fathers dead and mothers often working as live-in maids, many young Sudanese lack a sense of familial belonging. That’s when gangs become an attractive option, giving them a surrogate support network as members often live together in shared flats, share food and money, and socialize.
Many gangs have capable and charismatic leaders who organize parties, field trips and football tournaments.
Gangs also exhibit solidarity by protecting each other from racially motivated attacks by Egyptians, community leaders claim. Ibrahim El-Batout’s documentary I am a Refugee Living in Cairo, screened at Cairo’s Townhouse Gallery in July, showed the anger and alienation Sudanese feel as a result of what they say is Egyptian racism.
One scene is of a Sudanese national talking about how Egyptians set his flat on fire while he was inside — he survived, but suffered severe burns. Other young Sudanese men talk resentfully about their lives in Egypt, some even describing them as worse than the ones they had in Sudan.
Living in Egypt
Even before the 2005 policy change, Sudanese refugees hadn’t found it easy to move to the West. The new regulations, though, made many finally feel as if they had lost. Rumors of sex and drugs at the park sit-in tarnished the image of the refugees, who were already looked down upon by many Egyptians. The vast majority of men cannot work, and the few who can face stifling competition and are seen as foreigners trying to steal jobs from locals.
Sudanese women are more in demand as maids, thrusting them into the role of breadwinners. Frustrated Sudanese men have to seek jobs as drivers, cleaners, or workers in factories — and sometimes take their anger out on their women.
The lack of cash inflow is crippling. According to the UNHCR, the outfit is supposed to “assist the [neediest] refugees by providing them with living expenses, education, medical assistance, vocational training and some limited income-generating activities.” But because of the increased number of refugees and the decreasing budget, “Assistance is now only provided to vulnerable cases and even then amounts to less that $20 per refugee per month.”
Those Sudanese who try to pursue an education are faced with bureaucratic and financial obstacles, eventually having to rely on unaccredited church-run schools. They have insecure housing, and consequently live in the slums, with limited access to health services. This despite both Egypt and Sudan signing the Four Freedoms agreement in 2004, which theoretically grants Sudanese as well as Egyptians four reciprocal rights: freedom of movement, residence, work and ownership in either country.
Abandoned by the UNHCR and both governments, desperation has set in, and many Sudanese have been trying to illegally cross the border to Israel, believing that there they will have better job opportunities and living conditions. The number of those trying to cross shot up to 50 per day in September, eventually leading to clashes with Egyptian border police. Israel started sending the refugees back, calling the refugees “economic migrants,” since they had spent years in Egypt.
The Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has issued a statement denying the country has any obligation to re-admit those that had crossed to Israel.
Almost 100,000 Sudanese refugees from neighboring countries have accepted the inevitable and gone back home, with approximately 1,500 from Egypt leaving this year, according to Etefa.
Finding a Solution
Etefa believes Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers have three options. The first one is return, which she believes is the more practical, durable and more easily applied solution for any refugee. The second solution is resettlement, but unfortunately it is “an intervention mechanism [only] for the most vulnerable of the refugee population and for those who do not have any option of going back to their country.” The third solution is local integration. To aid the Sudanese who choose the third solution, having rejected the former and having no control over the latter, Etefa says UNHCR can offer a vocational training program, health care and similar services.
“Unfortunately,” she concludes, “we cannot continue this support for the rest of their life.”
Even so, it does seem like the last option is the one most Sudanese would choose, given that the chances of them resettling are almost nonexistent. The majority do not want to go back home, especially with the recent political tension in Sudan — the political bureau of the southern SPLM recently withdrew its ministers in the National Unity Government to protest what it saw as stalled progress on certain clauses of the 2005 agreement relating to the redeployment of troops and the separation of the North-South Sudan border.
Work opportunities are rare, as is education, with most teaching taking place in church-run schools such as the Sacred Heart Community Church, which offers kindergarten and primary schools at a number of locations throughout Cairo, and even some adult education courses. But they are non-accredited, and students cannot get into public schools or universities.
When volunteers at AUC gave English classes last year to Sudanese refugees (including gang members), both Abdo and Dr. Barbara Harrell-Bond, the retired founding director of Oxford University’s Refugee Studies Center and currently adjunct professor at AUC, pointed out that violent incidents fell dramatically — then rose when the American volunteers who had been teaching the classes had to leave Egypt after the semester ended.
In an effort to limit the ‘gangster’ culture, a new organization headed by Amin Jalloh, a Sierra Leone national who has lived in Egypt since 2003, started up A-441, a rap band, last year. To many of the Sudanese gang members, hip-hop is an identity and not just a way of life. Most of them have seen terrible things — whether in their own countries or here in Egypt — and so they relate to that type of music, which is mostly about tragedy and suffering.
Community activities might also help in creating a sense of belonging. The Sudanese Development Initiative (SUDIA) offers Sudanese children aged 6-15 creative educational opportunities to reinforce Sudanese culture and traditions. It also participates in promoting and preserving Sudanese culture by supporting events like the Festival of Sudanese culture.
As for violent gang members, Abdo suggests the establishment of rehabilitation homes where gang members can learn about science, sports and art away from gang life.
As for funding for such a home? As with most things involving Sudanese refugees, that’s another matter all together. et