Helping Iraqi Refugees in Egypt

Iraqi refugee children

Iraqi refugee children

Tales from Egypt: Student Journal

By Katie Ball
Seton Hall University School of Law

“We killed your brother in Iraq, and now we will kill you, unbeliever.”

The threat came quietly, unobtrusively, with the gentle beep of a text message as I sat on a foam mattress upon the dusty floor.  Samir, ashen, read the SMS aloud to my Yemeni translator, and then turned to me: “Now you yourself can attest to the horror that is our lives.”  I looked over my laptop to the front door of Samir’s cinder block flat, and its simple push-button lock, the only measure of protection that he, as an Iraqi refugee, had.

My preparation of Samir’s legal testimony regarding his life in Iraq and his flight two years before had come to have critical importance:  His approval by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) for resettlement, based upon this testimony, was the only effective escape from the Shi’ia death list which had forced him to flee Iraq.  Just three weeks before, a phoned death threat similar to the text message had been traced to a public pay phone six miles away, in the heart of Cairo.

They say you never forget your first, but I had never imagined that taking the first deposition of my legal career would be quite like this.

I met Samir, his wife, Rajah**, and their young son Amer** through Seton Hall Law Cairo Summer Program Director Bernard Freamon’s ties to Barbara Harrell-Bond, a faculty member at the American University of Cairo.  In 2000, Ms. Harrell-Bond established the first and only Egyptian legal clinic providing pro-bono legal aid for the up to half a million refugees amassed in and around Cairo.  Yet while the clinic administers to the African refugee majority, the recent influx of Iraqi refugees into Egypt, mostly Sunni uprooted by sectarian violence, created a new vulnerable subgroup which infiltrated this ad-hoc office apartment.

Iraqi refugees selling goods on the street.

Iraqi refugees selling goods on the street.

They came, referred by word of mouth, to seek her and the handful of American law student interns who had committed their summer to huddling around her table, processing refugee cases and trying to keep the noise low enough to hear the Skype phone.  In this office, interns learned the basics of refugee law and were then thrown head first into the fire, learning from one another what worked and what didn’t when filing applications for a UNHCR refugee status interview or for the Department of Homeland Security.  I had not known stakes so high before.  As I interviewed Raja about the abduction and torture of her child Amer by Iranian militias and photographed the rippling scars on his tiny frame, I prayed privately to be worthy professionally of the trust which they gave me so readily.

Cairo, Egypt, as one can probably surmise by now, is not the typical summer abroad study program. Instead of European ivy, we settled in amongst the bustle and grime of sixteen million people living on less than $2 per day in cinderblock tenements cropping around a dingy European early 1900s era infrastructure, and city walls dating to the Crusades.  Foreigners don’t drink the tap water, and per-capita average drop in IQ among children from exposure to lead in fuel peaked in the nineties at four points per child. None the less, our program filled to capacity, with a waiting list.  The capacity, I later inferred, is the number of students who can fit in a single bus, and with good reason.

The odds of two busses successfully navigating Cairo traffic in tandem is about as high as the public perception of George Bush in the Arab world.

Despite the economic situation at home, the dollar traded high enough in Egypt’s recovering socialist economy that we students lived like sultans, enjoying $1.25 taxis, $11 five star meals, $7 manicures, and $0.17 for a falafel sandwich.  Yet the veneer of luxury was paper thin: bread lines formed across the street from our hotel for government-subsidized bread, and housekeepers scavenged the garbage to harvest any “good” items thrown out by Westerners with different senses of social abundance.

Our physical presence in Egypt perfectly complemented and greatly enhanced our learning.  Course offerings in Islamic Jurisprudence, International Human Rights, International Criminal Law, and International Petroleum Transactions all found contemporary relevance to our culture and daily routine.  Every few days, another planned extracurricular highlighted aspects of Egyptian culture, society, and economy which contributed to and built upon “conventional” classroom scholarship.  In Oil and Gas class, we visited the Suez Canal, received a lecture from an oil company attorney, and glimpsed off shore oil platforms in the Gulf of Suez.  International Human Rights and Islamic Jurisprudence both raised the issue of the cultural practice of female genital mutilation among 96% of Egyptian women, and the 2007 fatwa (religious edict) pronounced by Egypt’s Grand Mufti (religious leader) that this practice was haraam (prohibited) in Islam.  In Islamic Jurisprudence, we visited the Al-Azhar “the radiant” Mosque, a 951AD structure claimed to be the oldest university in the world.   We entered between prayers to hear a sheikh describe Al Azhar’s famous madrasa, one of the preeminent schools of Islam in the Middle East, while our corresponding classroom lectures with one of America’s most prominent Islamic mujtahids taught us ijtihad, the process of legal reasoning in Islam.

Despite good faith “best efforts” to study, the lure of Egypt was often insurmountable. Course load not withstanding, we took trips almost every weekend.  We traveled to a private Mediterranean beach in Alexandria, saw the Lighthouse (a wonder of the ancient world), Roman catacombs, and the famous Library of Alexandria, where philosophers and scholars of the ancient world had pondered for hours, much like ourselves. Our stay in Cairo was highlighted by program dinners at the best and most famous restaurants, as well as a city driving tour, a class trip to the Khan al Khalili bazaar, a Nile dinner cruise, and of course, a group tour of the Pyramids of Giza.

The crowning “vacation,” falling towards the end of our semester, was a group trip to the Sinai Peninsula to hike Mount Sinai, and then on to Sharm al Sheik.  The intense desert heat overcame our air conditioning, and we arrived exhausted at the tiny town of St. Catherine’s, tucked amidst a range of the most eerie mountains I have ever seen.

After dinner, we came together over water pipes, Bedouin rugs and a camp fire for reflection on our Cairo Program experience, and its role in the greater picture of who we were as law students and who we would become, professionally and personally.  Contemplating at the foot of Sinai was particularly meaningful because of the shared belief of the three Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – that the “law” itself was given to humankind upon this very mountain.  After our hosts brought out hot Arabic black tea with mint, the mood changed as our Sinai Bedouin hosts begin to perform music and dance for us! Apparently many Egyptians learn belly-dancing as children – our hot hosts seemed to have as much fun dancing as we did watching them and often managed to cajole us to join in.

A monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai, Egypt

Four hours later, we arose in the darkness to make the trek to the base of Mt. Sinai, and began what seemed a quasi-mystical experience. The moon’s brightness backlit the jagged mountains, and we climbed, first chattering, then falling to our own thoughts, finally emerging at the peak, drenched in sweat and huddling under musty rented blankets to await the coming dawn.  As I climbed, I remembered the ardor and stress of 1L, and recognized my own bodily weakness bred literally by sitting in study for a year.  I thought of what was ahead.  I thought of Samir and Rajah, my first clients, and how much I wanted to help them.  I thought about the stark dichotomy of our lives: free and rich by local standards, I vacationed while they waited, prisoners of fear, clinging to the thread of hope of resettlement. I thought of my choice to study law as the best way to make an impact in lives like theirs.  I bristled at the possibilities.  We watched the sun rise across the granite Sinai range, posed for photos, and descended, jubilant.

With our muscles shocked from their state of law school atrophy, our group then headed to a private resort in Sharm Al Sheik.  For the equivalent of $60 per night, we stayed at a five star hotel with four private beaches on the best coral reefs in the world.  Our group chartered a private yacht to go scuba diving, and took individualized dives with instructors in the pure waters.  In retrospect, the thought of having so much fun in the middle of what technically was a law school “semester” is absurd.

Upon return to Cairo, we tolerated a brief flurry of study before exams, after which our group dispersed across the globe, on to an optional Nile cruise down to Luxor, or elsewhere to vacation spots, international internships, second(!) study abroad programs, or clerkships back in the States.

Before leaving Egypt, a friend and I invited Samir, Rajah, and Amer for a night of shared friendship and recreation for Amer at the palatial Citadel Overlook Restaurant in Al Azhar Park, one of the few places in Cairo where there is green grass.  The park’s surcharge was fifty cents per person and the meals were $15, which was prohibitive for Egyptians, let alone Iraqi refugees.  In fact, there were no Iraqis there.  As Samir gazed upon Cairo’s famous Citadel while we dined on kabob, he told his wife, “For the first time in Cairo, I feel that I am relaxed.”  Young Amer, forced behind locked doors in the years since his torturous abduction from his Baghdad front yard, did not know how to approach the Egyptian children playing on a nearby hill.  Impulsively, I lay down and showed him an American childhood game – rolling down the grassy hill.  Wild with glee, we repeated it over and over while Rajah’s eyes glistened with tears of joy.  We left them with a gift: a framed photo of them as a family, the first such photo they had ever owned.

As I have moved into my second year of law school, Cairo remains as pictures on my desktop monitor, but plays out more vividly in my mind.  I think of Samir, Rajah, and Amer often – so often that I emailed the Cairo refugee aid clinic a few weeks ago to check on the status of their application, and to relay some much needed donations I had obtained.  I was told by the office that the UNHCR had not called them about their application yet – nothing had changed for them.  Stunned and upset, I was glad I had inquired.  Rajah called me briefly on her cell phone to say hello, and to say they had received the contributions I had gathered: “We are glad you did not forget us.”  Indeed, I won’t.  Rather, the memory illuminates my late nights, and reminds me of why I study.  Thank you, Cairo.

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