Egypt, particularly its capital city, Cairo, became a major destination for Syrian refugees in 2012 after President Mohammed Morsi was elected the Egyptian president. Even though Egypt does not border Syria, many refugees moved to Cairo because President Morsi was a major critic of Bashar al-Assad policies in the Syrian Civil war. The population of Syrian refugees has increased since 2012, and as of 2016, there were 114,911 refugees from Syria living in Egypt. Syrians were briefly included in the Egyptian workforce under Morsi, but not allowed to work in exile. In fact, refugees in Cairo have the legal right to work, but this right is denied. However, Syrian refugees manage to get around this contradiction because Syria's culinary fame preceded the refugees themselves, and gave them a built-in market to make and sell Syrian food and sweets. As such, the purpose of the current paper is to answer the research question: how does food represent a cultural identity, and how are Syrians forced from their homeland able to find connection and comfort with cultural roots through food?
Syria Civil War and Refugee Issue in Egypt
Since Syrians are not allowed to work in exile, meaning that their right is denied, many capitalize on their culinary experiences. Essentially, Mercy Corps (n.d) reported that before Syria plunged into civil war, many of the Syrian families led productive, happy, and peaceful lives building homes, looking after pets, attending school, and pursuing their careers, but today, these are distant memories for many of the Syrians. For instance, according to Sirgany (2016), many had restaurants back in Syria, meaning that they had culinary prowess, but when the civil war began, they were forced to migrate to Egypt, and this provided them with an opportunity to showcase these experiences in exile. Kassah, along with other six Syrian refugees, who had a restaurant in Syria opened one in Cairo named Zeit Zeitoun, and they can cook a variety of dishes. Many of the Syrian women brought their signature dishes and recipes, and in Cairo, they put them together in a simple menu that is characterized by various popular foods: sambousek, a pastry that is filled with cheese stuffed grape leaves and kebba, a meat croquette (Sirgany, 2016). The women work on standardizing their recipes while also adding more Syrian influences. Kassah, one of the Syrians, articulates that the secret to Syrian food is caring and variety, achieved by balancing sour and sweet flavors. As such, due to culinary expertise, the Syrians in Cairo can capitalize on the black market in Egypt as there are many cafes where many unregistered Syrians work (Sirgany, 2016 Shahine, 2016). Even for the old, for example, Rakan Abul-Kheir, aged 52, arrived in Egypt after his house was destroyed, and Syrian police stole his cars only to open a clothes shop in an Egyptian neighborhood known as 6th October, which is situated in south-western Cairo and a second store for selling Syrian food, for example, spices, cheese, sweets, coffee, and olive oil (Emam, 2015). This implies that Syrian cuisine acts as a symbol of unity for Syrian refugees in Egypt, which is evidenced by the fact that they work together in restaurants and cafes (Sirgany, 2016 Shahine, 2016), as well as the fact that Syria localities, such as 6th October where Syrians live in Cairo, are emerging (Emam, 2015).
Other Syrians can run pharmacies, but according to Motaparthy (2016), those who are experienced in the field see no future in Egypt, which is why they prefer immigrating to Europe. Other Syrians in Cairo are skilled in making high-quality handicrafts (Ahram Online, 2018), and thus, this implies that they have a barrier in getting white collar jobs, which forces them to settle on informal employment in Egypts black market sector. Additionally, there is an increased engagement of Syrian adolescents aged between 12 and 18 years who participate in income generating activities compared to the pre-crisis period of Syria. Even so, they work on daily allowances of EGP 10-20, particularly in barbershops, restaurants, and supermarkets (Fayed & Khelidy, 2016). Therefore, despite the fact that Syrian refugees work in informal sectors in Egypt, they particularly capitalize on the hotel industry, which means that cuisine expertise is a common denominator for Syrian refugees in Egypt.
According to Cullen (2017), after the civil war commenced, many Syrians migrated to other countries. Cullen (2017) articulates that most of the Syrians headed to Europe, but their journey halted in Egypt owing to logistics going to Europe. Even though Europe is a direct boat-ride from Cairo and Alexandria where most Syrian refugees live, many Syrians fleeing the fighting in their country, Europe has never been so far. They only have one path of escape from Syria, which is Visa-free and affordable compared to other routes. Most enter Egypt illegally via the southern corridor where they first fly south to Sudan before they head to Egypt through the desert. As such, those refugees who pass through Egypt want to make it to the West, usually via smugglers (Cullen, 2017). Since all other routes to move to Europe are closed, they find it easier to move to Europe via Egypt, which is why many of the refugees go to Egypt. For instance, in 2017 alone, about 50,000 Syrians arrived in Egypt (Cullen, 2017), mostly to flee their homes and be reunited with their families. Many are stranded in Egypt and going back to Syria is not an option owing to the existential conflict, as well as the fact that they cannot afford money to pay smugglers for a boat and head to Europe (Cullen, 2017). The Syrian refugees living in Egypt are not forced into camps, rather, they live among Egyptian communities across Egypt, particularly in various governorates, which include Alexandria, Cairo, Qalyubia, and Giza.
Value of Work for Syrian Refugees in Egypt and Obstacles
The majority of Syrians who are registered with the UNHCR have a higher chance of being employed in Cairo as they are living in Egypt legally. However, it is not easy to be employed primarily because Egypt has a reservation on refugees' access to the labor market, as established under the 1951 refugee convention (Motaparthy, 2015). As such, refugees in Cairo have the same legal right to employment as nationals but are denied this right to work, which implies that they struggle with financial need and the trauma of exile as their homeland is destroyed. This is why many Syrians struggle with financial need, and the trauma of exile as their homeland is destroyed. For this reason, they opt to capitalize on their cuisine experience to earn extra cash. According to Chatelard (2017), popular cultural practices, for example, food preparation and the provision of hospitality, are vital social customs for the Syrian families and individuals, from which they can derive pride and identity while in exile. Even so, these have been severely altered by the war. However, there are several variations based on local produce and recipes, which are transmitted between women of the family. However, they face various problems while practicing their cuisine. For instance,
Additionally, Syrian food and the senses have overlaps in notions of taste as a distinction and recognition of culture. Additionally, sensory aspects of food are central to an understanding of lives and experiences of people living in diaspora or new regions (Sutton, 2010). The value of work in exile for Syrians is vital. This is not just for monetary purposes. If a market for Syrian sweets and cuisine exists, it helps them draw a distinction, a sense of social purpose, unity, and self-esteem from cooking meals (Chatelard, 2017). For instance, one set of items is the mune, which are the non-perishable cuisine provisions, which is vital for Syrian women as it shows a sense of responsibility towards the family (Chatelard, 2017). Also, Gupta (2017) articulates that culture in cuisine is an arena for transformation, which facilitates the winning of psychological and spiritual freedoms, which allows for mobilization of strengths and insights of a community, as well as offer an opportunity to change lives for people living in the diaspora. In addition, culture for refugees allows for psychological comfort, which is especially useful for displaced Syrians, as well as offers an opportunity for social support and cohesion, as well as a mechanism for maintaining identity and imparting a sense of belonging to those who are displaced (Chatelard, 2017).
As such, Syrian culinary practices, which highlights a sense of their culture, provides a sense of unity, support, cohesion, and psychological support for Syrian refugees in Egypt. Besides, as Chan (2010) articulates, imaginary reconstructions of the past are created if one cooks foods they used to prepare in the past as nostalgia for the extended family. Chan (2010) and Holtzman (2006) additionally suggest that nostalgic food remembrances often do reveal a contrast between a golden past and a present loss, in which psychological comfort is derived from remembering the past (Chan, 2010, p. 210). Additionally, the food also provides a nutritional source of life, but also beneficial in the community intersections of symbolism, sensuous, social, and psychological standpoints, which provide identity to communities (Holtzman, 2006). For Syrian refugees in Egypt also establishes that food traditions are a source of nationalism and consumer capitalism, which implies that food can be a source of economic activity for the community in a new environment. However, even though people believe that comfort foods are beneficial regarding improving moods, they do not provide comfort beyond what others do, or rather, when no food is used (Wagner, Ahlstrom, Redden, Vickers, & Mann, 2014). Essentially, moods do not change, and thus, they concluded that people give comfort food credit for mood effects that would otherwise occur even with the absence of food (Wagner et al., 2014).
There are obstacles that Syrian refugees face trying to cash in on cuisine practices. Funds are an example of the obstacles, which may be lacking in establishing restaurants. Another obstacle is the lack of recipe ingredients. For instance, Chatelard (2017) highlighted this obstacle, which as highlighted by a Syrian mother of four in a focus group, who asserted that:
Because of bombings, we fled our village in the region of Daraa and took refuges in Jordan. Against all the odds, I looked for the first opportunity to cross back the border to fetch the preserves I had left behind. I wanted to make sure I could provide for my family in a foreign country (Chaterlard, 2017, p.12).
Analysis and Conclusion
Before the Syrian civil war, many of the Syrian families led normal, productive, happy, and peaceful lives, but they were forced to flee to other countries, including Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq (Fayed & Khelidy, 2016). Therefore, it can be highlighted that as Syrian refugees pursue their interest in the sensual aspects of food, they have kept their cultural apparatuses which have allowed them to live their everyday life even in exile in Cairo. Syrian culinary practices are an essential part of the culture of the Syrian people, which allows them to capitalize on it for financial gains since they cannot work in Egypt owing to the country's reservation on refugees' access to the labor market (Motaparthy, 2015). In fact, refugees in Cairo have the legal right to work, but this right is denied. As such, for survival, Syrian refugees manage to get around this contradiction because Syria's culinary fame preceded the refugees themselves, and gave them a built-in market to make and sell Syrian food and sweets.
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