Ever since I can remember, I have witnessed different forms of racism directed against people of color living in Egypt. Riding on a bus from Cairo to Alexandria, I remember seeing a Sudanese woman in her 30s board with her child. She walked toward the back of the bus and asked the passengers if they could use the two remaining seats. Suddenly the backseat passengers started arguing, rudely and loudly refusing to allow the woman and her child to sit next to them. I was stunned. No one objected to this abhorrent behavior, including my teenage self. Such incidents of bullying, discriminating, and skin shaming of darker-skinned people are normalized in the Egyptian public sphere and in movies and television series. It unfortunately is quite common to watch a movie with scenes in which people of African descent are sarcastically called “Chocolate.” These examples only scratch the surface of the many more racially motivated bullying incidents I’ve witnessed, which especially target darker-skinned refugees and migrants. But after that incident on the bus, I vowed to take action against discrimination in my home country.
I have since worked with a number of International NGOs, which has allowed me to have a better understanding of refugees’ lives, needs, and challenges in Egypt. With four years of experience in the development field, I have had the opportunity to get to know many refugees and migrants of diverse national, socio-economic, and religious backgrounds. In time, I came to learn that mockery is hardly the worst form of bullying, and refugees have had to navigate severe discrimination and exclusion from certain jobs that, from the perspective of business owners and managers, require ‘good-looking’ people. The stories further revealed a systemic exclusion of refugees and migrants, and prevalent reactionary attitudes in Egyptian society that migrants, such as Syrians, have come to take their jobs. As a result of these barriers to inclusion, I have worked to amplify refugee voices in my hometown of Alexandria through various initiatives.
One such initiative is OHANA. OHANA is a youth-led community initiative that works to integrate refugee children in Alexandria, and Egypt more broadly, through artistic mediums. Through OHANA, I have sought to combine my passion for art with social change and to use this platform to cultivate a culture of peace and empathy that may contribute to ending racially-motivated bullying in Egypt. This is how the idea of OHANA was born. In 2019, I participated in the “Young change makHERS” competition organized and funded by Ashoka Arab World. The competition aimed to support young female entrepreneurs to start their own community project. There, I received the seed funding to start OHANA.
OHANA provides a safe space of peaceful coexistence for refugee children of different nationalities to learn, grow together, and express themselves through art workshops alongside Egyptian peers. Youth engaged in workshops for drawing, coloring, folkloric dancing, and interactive theater shows. The activities work on educating children about peace, acceptance and diversity, and combat all forms of racial, ethnic or color-based discrimination practiced against refugee children in Egypt. Art can be a powerful tool to communicate a message to anyone, regardless of their language, nationality, religion, education or social class. OHANA encourages children to share their thoughts, feelings, needs, and aspirations and to speak up about their experiences with bullying and discrimination.
Egypt has been a refuge for many. According to UNHCR, Egypt hosts more than 270,000 registered asylum-seekers and refugees from 65 countries. The majority are from Syria, followed by Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Yemen, and Somalia. Following their flight from war and poverty, refugees sought protection and safety in Egypt. However, living in Egyptian cities has brought many other dangers, such as being exposed to bullying, discrimination, verbal assaults, and, in many cases, physical violence. For refugee children, especially those of African descent, there are painful stories of racism, faced on the streets or at schools, that have been reported in many refugees-concerned platforms.
Throughout my experience in working with NGOs, I built connections with refugee communities as well as several refugee hosting centers in Alexandria. These connections opened up collaboration and partnership opportunities. “Asrab Alyamam”’ is an educational center based in Alexandria hosting a lot of Syrian children who live in the same area. They granted us free training rooms where we could hold our workshops and helped us reach many Syrian families. Later, to accommodate Sudanese children, we managed to collaborate with the Sacred Heart church, one of the few Catholic churches in Alexandria, which has hosted the biggest number of Christian South Sudanese families. The church opened its door to us and gave us free access to their halls in order to organize our workshops for the children every Friday. I am grateful for the support and encouragement as we continue to grow.
My personal hope is for initiatives such as OHANA to grant refugees and migrants to be able to find joy and make Egypt their home away from home. With OHANA, and hopefully many more projects such as this, I hope to have made a small step toward ending racism and discrimination and build a more accepting Egypt. OHANA, active since 2019, has managed to organize more than 20 interactive workshops for about 100 children from Sudan, South Sudan, Syria, Libya and Egypt.
Further information about OHANA can be found below:
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Amira Elmasry was a Writing Intern with Egypt Migrations during summer 2022. She studied Economics and Political Science at Alexandria University and has been working in the development field for three years in areas related to Gender, Refugees and Migrants, and Education. Amira aims to promote a culture of dialogue, the value of acceptance of others, and peaceful coexistence through her initiative “OHANA” which educates refugee and Egyptian children about peace and non-violent communication.