AUB City Debates: Living Refuge

This is a synthesis of the panel “Living Refuge” given by at the AUB City Debates 2016 (other reports are listed here). The panel was composed of Pr Anita Fabos (Clark University, United States of America), and Dr Kamel Doraï (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, France and Institut Français au Proche-Orient, Jordan).

The Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, c. English Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Housing unit in the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, c. English Foreign and Commonwealth Office

1. Anita Fabos, Refugee NGOs, “Social Networks and Urban Homemaking, Ethnographic Observations from Cairo”

This presentation focuses on the 1989 – 2002 period in Cairo, which is marked by an important presence of Muslim, Arabic-speaking Sudanese refugees in the Egyptian capital, in a total absence of humanitarian policing of this presence. The main topic will be to explore how these people have recreated stability and belonging in a hostile context, Cairo, and the role of pre-existing social networks in this reconstruction.

a. The context

The relation between Egypt and Sudan, the two countries being united by the Nile river, has been a long and ongoing one before and after the independencies. The unity around the Nile has been for a long time at the core of a discourse of solidarity between the two countries. This solidarity of the Nile Valley has transpired in official discourses in the two countries and in practice through cross-border relations and the facilitation of human mobility by the establishment of a permanent visa right for both nationalities. This relation has not been hampered importantly by the Sudanese independence and the water issues which accompanied it. As a result, neighbourhoods of Cairo such as Al-Shams are marked by an ongoing Sudanese presence.

In 1989, as Umar Al Bashir seized power in a coup in Sudan, an important quantity of his opponents have therefore fled to Cairo as the most logical location and easiest to reach. These persons were from the beginning not treated as refugees by the Egyptian regime, because they fell under the category of Sudanese nationals and because Egypt did not want to meddle with Sudanese politics. Nonetheless the visit of the Egyptian president Husni Mubarak in Sudan in 1995 and the unsuccessful assassination attempt on Mubarak in Addis Ababa, quickly associated to the Sudanese regime. This led to a more conflictive relation between the two countries and, in particular, the hardening of ressidency laws in Egypt, which became immediately a problem for the Sudanese refugees in Egypt, threatened to be sent back to a country where they were endangered.

Therefore we have a situation of both protracted refugees, police treatment, and almost ni relief. In the meantime at that period a certain bias in research targeted urban refugees as “illegitimate” because not living in camps.

b. Recreating stability: NGOs and spatial practices

There is not a Sudanese quarter per se in Cairo and, when we observe the dispersion of refugees in the city, we can see that no such thing emerged in exile. A probably exaggerated estimate by the government stated the number of refugees to be 3 million at that time in the city.

One of the first actions was the development of a vibrant NGO scene among the refugees. These NGOs were mostly tools for Sudanese “elite” refugees to continue certain relations and functions they had in Sudan, and therefore focused less on humanitarian relief than on cultural, social, and political maintaining if the Sudanese society in exile, such as in the case of the Sudanese Studies Centre. They quickly became sites of belonging for a population which feared for its decency and sense of the self. NGOs provided a framework around nationalism, dignity, a sense of return – despite obvious divisions around class, gender, power, and so forth – to the community.

Second, more discreetly, the practice of visits which was prominent in rural and popular communities in Sudan was reactivated in the Cairo context. There is not, it has been said, a single place for Sudanese to live, but there were strong social networks pre-existing exile. Visiting practices – consisting in meeting at a person’s place, having coffee or other drinks, asking for news, and leaving – were essential in keeping them active. Events such as arrival or departure, to and from Cairo, were particularly important, but the visits in general remained a daily practice in any case: sometimes certain persons could spend more time on the transport to go from a visit to another than in the visit itself. More interestingly, the visits were also realised with people who were originally disconnected from the network, in particular on arrival.


These visits and the production of a “safe space” in NGOs marked the negotiation of a non-territorial space for Sudanese refugees. Visiting worked as a home-making activity, and were necessary in maintaining social relations. It is important to consider how the Sudanese refugees have invested the city with their meanings, practices, and mobilities, reactivating previous place-bound networks.

2. Kamel Doraï, “From Tents to Temporary Shelters: Coping Strategies with and Forms of Resistance to Constraining Settlement Policies of Refugees from Syria”

This presentation presents the early findings of a research project recently started on the geography of refuge for Syrian refugees, in particular in Jordan [The “Lajeh” project has its own diary which is advertised in the “Links” catalog of this one – AM]. The objective is to work on housing and shelter, and the project has for its particularity to be associated to architects. Its main question is what is the role of housing and self-construction  in securing residency rights? Is self-settlement a form of resistance to the humanitarian government? How do refugees appropriate houses? How do they use and transform humanitarian material? What is the geographical role of previous traditional networks in these phenomena?

These reflections come from the fact that most workers used to work and live in Syria and noticed the proximity of shetlers to the Syrian forms of housing. Another question was the relation between mobility and settlement in the case of refugees, how these dynamics may or may not change depending on the encampment or non-encampment of the actors, the role of humanitarian relief in these phenomena, and overall a question on the shapes of dwelling units. The main entry was neither the government or the NGOs, but the refugees themselves.

a. The context

Approximately 639.000 Syrian refugees are registered in Jordan, no explicit camp policy from the state, with an estimate of 20% of refugees living in ad hoc camps or self-settled in informal settlements. Here scientifically the situation presents no exceptional dimension, but for the possibility it gives to observe as it happens a phenomenon which has been described regularly, the urban transformation of camps into cities.

b. Analysis

The two studied cases were the Zaatari camp and the Azraq informal settlement in Jordan:

  • Zaatari camp began with tents, and later on caravans were provided to the refugees. These humanitarian materials are important to consider because the refugees are forbidden, out of fear that they would settle, to import any construction material inside the camp itself. Showing a succession of maps and pictures, Doraï highlights how families have gathered and, from the original tent and caravan, have reproduced traditional Syrian housing by dismantling the humanitarian materials and producing new arrangements. Therefore, from an original single caravan, the family gathering leads to several rooms and more importantly an inner courtyard to be produced by the refugees. At the mesosocial level, what is striking is the coherence in terms of architecture and the slow grouping of previous social andd spatial networks and forms of power (especially religious and traditional authorities, with the appointment of street directors) in the camp.
  • In Azraq, there is a revert phenomenon to the one in the camps in terms of materials: while the Jordanian state does not tolerate concrete building in the camp, it does not accept temporary building outside. Therefore the units were made of concrete blocks and bricks in the settlement, also securing the families from eviction. Other than that, the dynamic is suprisingly similar, with the same architectural shapes emerging from settlement.

Of course different housing models and processes can be identified, and from these experiences several other methods of humanitarian management of the refugees are attempted by the humanitarian organisations, by making caravans impossible to dismantle or burying them partly in order to prevent the refugees from moving them. This is not only a question of “rationale” but also of concrete management of the camps in terms of following the populations or providing electricity or water. Nonetheless in the facts these “solid” camps are deserted and as soon as the refugees can flee from them, they do so. What this study starts to show is that kinship and architecture matter, and networks are important in the way refugees settle and inhabit a place.

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