Magdi is different from the other four million Iraqi refugees who have been displaced since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
That he has survived a kidnapping in which he was left for dead may not make him distinct. Magdi was born in Egypt and has returned there with his family. But it is the fact that his children attend Egyptian public school that he and his friends consider miraculous.
For Iraqis who have fled their war-ridden country to seek a secure life in Egypt, accessing education for their children is of high priority. An estimated 80,000 to 150,000 Iraqis now reside in Egypt, but the influx until recently was so persistent that accurate numbers are hard to come by. Most put their children in costly private schools because as far as they know, public schools are off limits to them.
“He made impossible things by putting them into government schools,” Rafi said in English of his friend Magdi, who spent six months acquiring the paperwork to prove that his two young children were also Egyptian.
“He got permission from the (education) minister himself,” another friend, Ahmad, added, also speaking in English.
From Iraq to Egypt
In May 2006, around noon in Iraq’s danger-laden Liberation Square, Magdi and his bodyguard brother-in-law were walking when they were kidnapped by what Magdi believes were Shia militia. Magdi, a Sunni, was hit in the back of the head with the butt of a handgun, tied up and thrown in the trunk of a car. His brother-in-law was put in the front seat.
While the car was in motion, the trunk popped open and Magdi threw himself from the vehicle. He survived with seven stitches and hid out for 20 days at a friend’s house.
His brother-in-law was not so lucky. He suffered from a weak heart and Magdi believes he died that day of a heart attack.
After 23 years in Iraq, during which he married an Iraqi woman, Magdi took his family to Syria for one week before moving on to Egypt, leaving behind a plastics factory and his adopted country.
But Magdi took with him enough savings to start his modest shwarma restaurant in the Cairo suburb of Sixth of October City and a joint venture with Rafi, who sells real estate. But Rafi said it was 43-year-old Magdi’s cleverness that earned him his success while in Egypt.
Magdi now lends a hand to fellow Iraqis, helping some pay for their children’s education.
“I don’t have much but I think I can afford to help them,” he said through his English-speaking friends.
Of a total of 4,209 Iraqi children in the kindergarten to secondary school system, 3,903 attend private schools and 306 attend public, according to Dr. Reda Abu Serie, head of the Ministry of Education’s general sector. The total number of Iraqi children in the country is unclear, as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has registered only 2,500 school-age children.
Abu Serie maintained that Iraqis are permitted to attend both public and private schools in Egypt if they have residency, and that the small number in public schools reflects only the common belief that private schools provide higher quality education.
But Iraqis there, many without work and living off dwindling savings, say they would prefer to attend the more affordable public schools.
“Most Iraqis hope they can send (their children) to the normal schools,” said Rafi, who has two daughters, both at university in Egypt, which at about 28,400 LE (USD $5,000) annually per foreign student, costs much more than Iraq’s free universities.
Searching for clarity in the rules
The policy of admittance to public primary and secondary schools is not clear, both for the Iraqi community and the agencies that serve them.
“What we want is clarification of policy with regard to access to public schools,” said Abeer Etefa, press officer for the UNHCR in Egypt. “It’s not really clear. Some refugees have access. Others don’t.”
Though Egypt is a signatory to a 1951 convention, which defines the status of refugees, Egypt “has made reservations on the access of refugees to public education and public health,” Etefa said.
In the country of 78 million, the Ministry of Education is responsible for 16 million Egyptian children in its schools. Egyptians pay 40 to 50 LE (USD $7-9) per year, while Iraqi children in the public schools pay 250 LE (USD $44), Abu Serie said.
The cost of private school can be anywhere from 800 LE (USD $140) to more than 6,500 LE (USD $1,140), which is the cost for one secondary school year at Egyptian Pioneer Schools in Sixth of October City.
At a recent community meeting at El Radwa language school in Sixth of October, one Iraqi woman, who chose not to identify herself, said 50 children in her part of the city were out of school this year.
“They prevent just the Iraqis” from attending school, she said. “They want just the Iraqis to pay.”
Etefa said the UNHCR is in talks with the Ministry of Education regarding education for all refugees.
Abu Serie said he was not aware of any concerns regarding the education of Iraqi refugees, but that if anything was brought to his attention he would address it. He added that because of the ministry’s policy of decentralization, issues might be posed to local authorities, who oversee a group of schools, rather than to the ministry itself.
“The only difficulty we have until now is some people coming from Iraq without any documents,” Abu Serie said.
Another hurdle to education
Magdi now has dual-citizenship in Egypt and Iraq, but proving he was born in Egypt was difficult as he was born in a small village and left the country in 1983 without papers.
For the Iraqi-born refugees, gaining residency is quite difficult.
“Official residency is a problem for Iraqis in Egypt,” said Dr. Abdul Jabbar, press officer for the Iraqi embassy in Egypt. “It’s so difficult for Iraqis to get residency.”
Those who intend to do so must go to the Ministry of Interior for a renewable six-month residency permit, a process that can take months.
Others choose to go to the UNHCR to obtain refugee status and with that, the renewable residency visa. But the UNHCR has registered only 7,000 refugees with plans to register 6,000 more by August 2007.
But now, fewer Iraqis are going to Egypt at all.
Until just over a year ago, Iraqis could obtain tourist visas, good for one month, from tourism agencies in Iraq, Jabbar said. But now, as there is no Egyptian consulate in Iraq, Iraqis must travel to the closest country where Egypt has representation, usually Syria, Jordan or Turkey.
“The number of Iraqis arriving – it has gone down, to almost nil now,” Jabbar said.
Rafi has struggled trying to obtain a visa for his brother, who is a doctor in Iraq. Rafi said both he and his brother have tried three times to get a visa, including a business visa, which meant Rafi had to set up a company in Egypt for his brother.
“There is no visa anymore for Iraqis,” he said. “It looks like immigration things for the Egyptian government are not like before.”
A total of 2.2 million Iraqis have fled their country as refugees and another 2 million have been displaced within their country since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the UNHCR has estimated. Syria has seen the largest influx of refugees, which the UNHCR estimates at 1.2 million, while Jordan has absorbed about 750,000 refugees.
Syria and Jordan are also working to educate the growing numbers of refugees there.
In Syria, Iraqi refugee children have access to public schools. The UNHCR there is working with the Ministry of Education to increase the number of Iraqi children enrolled in public schools from 33,000 this year to 100,000 next year, said Sybella Wilkes, the UNHCR’s information officer in Syria.
Only an estimated 1,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria attend private school, Wilkes added.
Jordan’s government estimates that it has 8,000 Iraqi children in its public schools and 8,000 in private schools, said Anne Skatvedt, head of UNICEF in Jordan. But a study commissioned by the Jordanian government seeks more accurate numbers of the children in and out of school, after which UNICEF and other organizations can plan accordingly.
“We don’t know how many children do not go to school,” Skatvedt said, but “there’s a very strong commitment of the government to ensure that children can go to school.”
Starting at the back of the class
In Egypt and elsewhere, Iraqi children arrive at an academic disadvantage, often having been out of school for one or two years for security reasons.
“(We are) first trying to help their children keep pace with the education system as a whole,” said Khaled Abdel-Raouf, a teacher of English at El Radwa.
Ahmad, a 44-year-old who left in Iraq all remnants of his successful life as a driver and security officer for a humanitarian organization, has been in Egypt since November 2006. He has been unable to find work and relies on his savings and the housekeeper’s income his wife brings in. Their two school-age children, 15 and 16, are still out of school. He hesitates to enroll them, not just for the cost of private school, but also because he is wary of Egypt’s schools.
“Even if I have the money to educate my children in the schools, I’m afraid the program is different,” he said.
Students arriving in Egypt, often in the middle of the school year, face an unfamiliar curriculum. Though in Iraq students begin learning English in the fifth grade, Egyptians begin learning English in kindergarten, Abdel-Raouf said. Iraqis must also make the switch to learning about Egypt’s geography and history rather than their own.
The Arabic spoken in Egypt is also of a different dialect than Iraqi Arabic. But many Iraqis say they have become familiar with the local language from watching Egyptian movies, and usually catch on quickly.
Another barrier to education in Egypt is the problem of overcrowding, which threatens to keep more children out of school.
Abdel-Raouf said the numbers of students enrolling in both public and private schools are rising. He said he cannot make allowances if a level is full, but that he has not yet had to turn students away. In public schools, classes may balloon to 60 or 70 students, Abdel-Raouf said.
Planning for an uncertain future
For Ahmad, who must decide in the next couple of months whether to register his children for a spot in private school next year, an unsure future also holds him back. Like most Iraqis here, he is waiting for a way out.
“The Iraqi people, the idea in their mind is they are waiting and observing the situation in Iraq,” Jabbar said. “Most of them have come here and they have left something. They are not stable here. They do not feel that they have come for a long time.”
Though Iraqis say Egypt is the most secure option for the time being, they say no Arab country is safe in the long run.
Ahmad dreams of fleeing to Sweden, maybe even smuggling himself there. Rafi’s wife, Sawsan, is looking for work in Europe and the U.S., though it means leaving her family in Egypt.
From the palm tree- and billboard-lined desert road to the nascent and still growing Sixth of October City, it would seem a fresh start awaits the thousands of Iraqis living there, but nothing is certain.
“We’re also afraid of the future,” Ahmad said. “Maybe one day we’ll wake up and they’ll say ‘everybody out.'”
Even their friendships, which for Ahmad and Magdi goes back to their school days in Iraq, are uncertain.
“I think in the future we must separate,” Ahmad said. “It depends on the chances, whenever someone gets a good chance, he must take it.”