Our Week in Cairo, Egypt

Nancy Sotomayor and Zoë McKinney
J.D. Candidates 2016, UCI Law


Over Spring break, we had the opportunity to travel to Cairo, Egypt, on behalf of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project (“IRAP”).

When we think back to our first impressions of the city, we think of chaos. Looking out over the city from our rooftop hostel, we saw an expanse of gray-brown buildings covered in layers of sand and dust from the Sahara, punctuated by satellite dishes and the occasional dot of color from a billboard or clothesline. From the sidewalk, we saw streets jammed with traffic in every direction. The constant honking of horns competed with the calls to prayer emanating from the city’s thousands of Mosques. All of these factors, plus the inability to speak a word of Arabic other than “hello,” “good-bye,” and “thank-you,” made our first moments on the street overwhelming and disorienting.

Since we arrived on a weekend, we had some time to explore the city before we our first day of work. Our hostel was located relatively close to the Egyptian Museum, so we decided to explore there first. We had to look directions up on Google Maps since the employees at our hostel informed us that Egypt had stopped making maps after the revolution. We were weary of this information but either way did not have time to go out in search of a map anyway. So we took some screen shots on our phones, figuring that it would not be too complicated to find such a famous place.

As we arrived at Tahrir Square, a sense of panic washed over us as we tried to take it all in. It was very clear that we were foreigners. When men on the street started staring and catcalling, we were grateful that we could not understand what they said. We managed to cross the street by weaving through traffic and miraculously avoided getting hit by any cars. The museum does not have a sign to alert tourists that they are in the right place, and the row of army tanks, barbed wire barricades, and soldiers surrounding the entrance also threw us off. We kept walking past the building, thinking that we should ask for help but simultaneously being afraid to let people know that we were lost. We finally walked into a travel agency office to ask. They laughed at us a bit and pointed to the building that could be seen from any part of Tahrir Square and which we had been staring at throughout our whole ordeal. Upon further examination, we realized that visitors to the museum were walking right around the tanks to the museum’s entrance.

If you were to explore only one part of Cairo, you would not experience the vast differences that the city has to offer. On our first day, walking around downtown Cairo as two American women made us feel vulnerable because it was rare to see women walking by themselves. As American women, it was also hard to act inferior, especially when we were told to avoid looking men in the eyes because it would be interpreted in a sexual manner. Walking around looking at the ground makes it rather difficult to know where you are going. If this adventure to find the museum had been our only experience we would have left with a very narrow interpretation of just how complex Cairo is.

Luckily, our friend Show, who has dual citizenship in the US and Egypt, was spending time in Cairo and agreed to take us around the city. Spending time with Show and his friends was a completely different world from the one that we were exposed to during our IRAP meetings. During our IRAP meetings we learned about the very limited options and vast discrimination that refugees are faced with. On the other hand, Show’s friends came from very privileged backgrounds. Many of them had been educated in various parts of Europe and had done their fair share of traveling.

On the surface it appeared that the instability that was going on around them was not something that they were concerned with. Granted, we avoided the topic of the changes in the Egyptian government, but it was clear that they were living a life that was less affected by the instability in their government and were unaware of the challenges that thousands of refugees living in Cairo were experiencing. When we explained to them the purpose of our trip to Cairo they did not quite understand why it was so important for us to be there and learn about the many issues facing refugees. This became even more apparent when we went to an open mic night with Show and some of his friends. Walking into that venue felt like a completely different world from the Cairo streets. It could have easily been mistaken for a night out in Southern California.

We realized that many of the young people from the upper classes had a very “Western World” mentality. Although it may seem incredible that these young people appeared to be disconnected from what was going on in their country considering all of the media reports that we in America have seen about Egypt, we in the US are really no different than they are. Too often, we as young people brush things off when it does not have a direct impact on us.

That is why the most impactful and valuable part of our trip was our meetings with the service providers in Cairo. On our first day of meetings, we went to St. Andrews Refugee Legal Aid Program (“RLAP”) with our IRAP point person (also the Legal Director at St. Andrews RLAP). We were greeted in a pleasant courtyard area amidst the noise and chaos of the city, where clients socialized while waiting for their appointments and children played between their classes (offered by RLAP). A majority of the clients at RLAP are Sudanese, Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Somali. It turns out that at this point, Iraqi clients constitute just 3% of RLAP’s caseload. Most of the Iraqi clients have either resettled to the United States already or are in the late stages of appealing rejected settlement applications.

While it was interesting to meet with one of the organizations that assist IRAP’s clients earlier along the resettlement pipeline, it was impactful that the Iraqis are just 3% of the caseload. This is indicative of just how serious the refugee crisis is. The larger framework that organizations like IRAP are a part of, namely the United Nations and resettlement organizations, are completely inundated. While the population of Iraqi refugees has declined, other refugee populations continue to grow. These organizations are seeing the first waves of Syrian applications for refugee status to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (“UNHCR”). Meanwhile, the UNHCR is still backlogged on cases of refugees who continue to arrive from Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia. The result is that new arrivals to Cairo are being assigned refugee status determination interview appointments in 2019. In the meantime, they live without the protection of any state and without any legal recourse to provide for themselves or their families.

At RLAP, we each observed an intake interview of Sudanese refugee men who had already been residing in Cairo for years. Both were hoping to have their cases re-examined so that they might be resettled to the United States. This experience highlighted the challenge that lawyers in these positions face. After hearing a long testimony filled with hardships, these legal aid attorneys still must often turn away clients for the reason that despite their suffering, their case simply does not qualify for special consideration or resettlement.

We had additional meetings with African and Middle Eastern Refugee Assistance (“AMERA”) and the International Organization for Migration (“IOM”). Both of these meetings were primarily educational and solidified that the refugee legal aid system in Cairo is reaching a tipping point at which the legal aid organizations are taking as many cases as they can, the UNHCR is constantly fighting against its backlog, and yet the refugee population in Cairo continues to grow.

Our trip reminded us that it is a privilege to have a nationality and the benefit of the protection of one’s country. Without the experience like the one we had in Cairo, it would be easy to take this privilege for granted, especially because, for those born and raised in the US, this privilege has never been threatened. We realize now that the hundreds of thousands of refugees in Cairo probably face the same feelings of being disoriented, overwhelmed, and out of place as we did our first day in the city, but without the freedom to return to safety. Our nationality allows us to carry a little blue book that gives us the liberty to go to almost any country with little difficulty and then return to Orange County where we are working towards becoming lawyers. We look forward to using our degrees to bridge the gap between these vulnerable populations and their fundamental human rights.