American dream turns into nightmare for Sudan youths

A group of illegal immigrants shout slogans asking for residence permits, during a demonstration in Paris on Tuesday. Many youths leaving Africa hope to start a new leaf in Europe or the US but do not always succeed.

CAIRO, Wednesday

Marc wears a New York Yankees cap, loves rap music and has “Los Angeles” scrawled in black ink across his forearm, but he will probably never step inside the US.

A group of illegal immigrants shout slogans asking for residence permits, during a demonstration in Paris on Tuesday. Many youths leaving Africa hope to start a new leaf in Europe or the US but do not always succeed.Photos/REUTERS

The 21-year-old is one of an estimated one million Sudanese refugees living in Cairo. Poor, jobless and subject to racist abuse, he has few aspirations other than to leave Egypt.

“I will go anywhere. Maybe Australia,” he said, standing on a rooftop in the Cairo slum where he lives with other refugees, mostly from south Sudan.

Marc, who was reluctant to give his full name, is a member of the Outlaws, one of Cairo’s biggest Sudanese street gangs, a new and violent phenomenon that has emerged in the past two years within Cairo’s impoverished Sudanese refugee community.

A month ago, Marc watched a close friend, Maliah, die in the street after the rival Lost Boys gang hacked at his skull with machetes.

Community leaders and experts say about five Sudanese have died gang-related deaths in the past year but there is no official record.

In two decades of war between the Sudanese government in Khartoum and the Christian and animist rebels in the south, more than two million people died and four million were displaced.

Many of the refugees fled to neighbouring countries such as Egypt before a 2005 peace deal was reached.

Before the peace agreement, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) helped to resettle a stream of south Sudanese refugees in Europe and North America.

But now the focus has shifted to voluntary repatriation to Sudan or integration into Egyptian society, said Marwa Abdel Fattah, a senior UNHCR official.

“The war is over, so we cannot give them refugee status any more,” she said, because resettlement was no longer a UNHCR priority for south Sudanese as about 100,000 have already returned home from neighbouring countries including Egypt.

The policy shift, which sparked a mass protest in December 2005 in which 23 Sudanese were killed, has dashed hopes for many in the refugee community who believe they cannot go home because of insecurity, unexploded ordnance and the lack of infrastructure.

“I cannot return to my country. Is the south Sudanese government building camps for the returning refugees? No, there is nothing in the south,” said Christopher Albino, and father of two and a former fighter in south Sudan’s rebel SPLA.

But in Egypt, Albino, 42, and other refugees live in limbo without rights or work, he added, displaying an Egyptian visa with the words “work not permitted” stamped across it.

“What are we supposed to do?” he asked.

Many young people, including Albino’s 17-year-old son, dealt with the situation by joining gangs, said Akram Abdo, a gang researcher at the Forced Migration and Refugee Studies department at the American University in Cairo.

Gang membership

With gang membership now estimated in the hundreds, many young Sudanese living in gang-dominated neighbourhoods feel forced to choose between one gang or the other.

“The way it is, you need to choose a gang to be in. If you don’t, they might see you in the street and attack you,” said Marc.

“I am not an Outlaw,” said Albino, “I am a father. But if the other gang knew that my son was an Outlaw, they would attack me, too.”

The gangs, whose members are typically in their late teens and early 20s, base their membership not on tribe or religion, but on the Cairo neighbourhoods that they claim to defend, Abdo said.

Community leaders say fellow Sudanese are often the victims of muggings and robberies, which pay for the gangs’ lifestyle of expensive clothes and parties.

“A lot of the guys in the gangs have been here for six or seven years, and they don’t study or work,” said Andria, 24, who said he has friends in both gangs.

“They all just sit around with nothing to do,” he said.

“I tend to think these youth are a people without a culture,” said Father Simon, whose Sakakini Church has seen numerous young people absorbed by the gangs.

“On the television, they see these American gangs with baggy trousers and they try to imitate that.”

Many gang members left their parents behind in Sudan and came to Egypt expecting to be sent to the US or Europe, said Richard Allhusen, director of St. Andrews school for refugees.

Bring suitcases

“The leaders told them ‘bring your suitcases because the planes will pick you up here and bring you to America’,” he said.

When that prospect evaporated, the resulting frustration had “a ripple effect” in the community.

“The gangs became attractive then, to join, to be part of a group. These are poor misguided boys,” he added.

“Still, the answer can’t be ‘all of Sudan let’s move to a Western country’, it’s got to be ‘let’s find peace at home’.” 

- Reuters