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Sudanese fleeing to Egypt face challenges despite deep ties and interwoven histories

A small motorboat cruises down the Nile River in Aswan, Egypt, past domed Nubian structures.
Aya Batrawy/NPR
A small motorboat cruises down the Nile River in Aswan, Egypt, past domed Nubian structures.

ASWAN, Egypt — Sudan and Egypt are neighbors with deep ties and interwoven histories, and they share a common lifeline: the Nile River. So integral is the Nile to life in these countries that Egyptians and Sudanese commonly refer to themselves as abna' el-neel, children of the Nile.

Egypt, a country of more than 100 million people, includes than 4 million Sudanese migrants. Its proximity and familiarity has made Egypt the most-sought refuge for people fleeing the fighting in Sudan that erupted in mid-April between the Sudanese armed forces and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces militias.

The exodus of more than 210,000 people from Sudan to Egypt in the weeks since highlights the deep ties that bind the two countries, as well as Egypt's mixed legacy in Sudan and the challenges refugees face.

The view from a small motor boat on the Nile River in Aswan, Egypt.
/ Aya Batrawy/NPR
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Aya Batrawy/NPR
The view from a small motor boat on the Nile River in Aswan, Egypt.

Until recently, Egypt had been granting visitor visas to Sudanese at the border that could be extended. (Those who register with the U.N. refugee agency may eventually be granted official refugee status).

Over the past week, however, Egypt confirmed it had imposed a new measure requiring all Sudanese to obtain visas from Egyptian consulates before they can enter the country, expanding a rule that had already been in place for Sudanese males of a certain age.

Egypt's Foreign Ministry insists the new visa requirement is not intended to prevent or limit the numbers of Sudanese citizens arriving in the country, and says the entry requirements are in response to the detection of some forged visas on the Sudanese side of the border.

A man sits outside a building with a traditional Nubian domed entrance in Aswan, Egypt.
/ Aya Batrawy/NPR
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Aya Batrawy/NPR
A man sits outside a building with a traditional Nubian domed entrance in Aswan, Egypt.

The decision comes as Egypt faces economic headwinds. Inflation is rising, particularly for basic food items. The country is struggling to feed its poor amid an economic crisis that's seen the local currency steadily plummet since March 2022.

Ties between Egypt and Sudan run deep

The first major city Sudanese fleeing the war pass through in Egypt is Aswan. Here, families wade near the Nile River's banks to cool down as the sun shimmers off its dark ripples.

Small motorboats in this region, known as Nubia, blast Sudanese songs and beats as they cruise along the Nile, making this part of Egypt momentarily indistinguishable from parts of Sudan.

A Nubian woman sells handmade trinkets like beaded bracelets, necklaces and colorful wooden dolls in Aswan, Egypt.
/ Aya Batrawy/NPR
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Aya Batrawy/NPR
A Nubian woman sells handmade trinkets like beaded bracelets, necklaces and colorful wooden dolls in Aswan, Egypt.

That's because for many people in Aswan, there is little distinction between "us" and "them." Many identify as Nubian, in addition to being Egyptian. The region's tribes span southern Egypt and parts of Sudan.

For several decades in the 8th century B.C.E., the ancient Kush Dynasty of Nubia ruled over parts of modern-day Sudan and all of Egypt. Its rulers are commonly referred to as the Black Pharaohsof the 25th Dynasty.

"The relationship between Sudan and Egypt is not just about water, but blood," says Ibrahim Mudasir, whose father is Sudanese and whose mother is Egyptian Nubian.

Mudasir runs an organization that helps Nubians in Egypt. He came to Aswan from Cairo in May to help Sudanese families fleeing the conflict.

Nubians in this region speak the Kenzi dialect of the Nubian language, in addition to Arabic. A Nubian village in Aswan is popular among tourists, including Egyptian visitors from Cairo and northern Nile Delta cities. Nubian homes and buildings have domed roofs and bold patterns painted on their doors and walls.

A restaurant in Aswan's Nubian village displays colorful murals depicting Nubian faces and traditional patterns.
/ Aya Batrawy/NPR
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Aya Batrawy/NPR
A restaurant in Aswan's Nubian village displays colorful murals depicting Nubian faces and traditional patterns.

Nubians have been in this stretch of land for thousands of years. The Nile has served as a lifeline for its traders, herders, farmers and rulers. Their monuments, including pyramids, still exist in Sudan.

Egypt has a complicated legacy in Sudan

Cairo's historical dominance — its Pharaonic civilization, its control over Khartoum during different periods of the 19th century and its attempts in recent years to influence Sudan's political transition after the country's 2019 uprising and ouster of longtime ruler Omar al-Bashir — has left a mixed, sometimes bitter legacy in Sudan.

Many Sudanese, though, continue to see Egypt as a second home. People from both countries speak Arabic and are largely Muslim. Many Sudanese have vacationed in Aswan or studied in Cairo. Sudan's top military brass, including Sudan's de facto leader and the head of its military, Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, have trained in Egypt's military academies.

Nubian men stand outside a restaurant in Aswan, Egypt. The walls are painted in bright colors and patterns unique to this region.
/ Aya Batrawy/NPR
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Aya Batrawy/NPR
Nubian men stand outside a restaurant in Aswan, Egypt. The walls are painted in bright colors and patterns unique to this region.

Calm in Sudan is in Egypt's interests. Any instability poses risks to Egypt's national security.

Having an allied government in Khartoum is important to Cairo, particularly to advocate against diminishing water rights as a result of a massive dam Ethiopia is building further south. Most of Egypt's residents live along a narrow strip of land around the Nile's banks, relying on its waters stretching from the southernmost tip of Egypt to the Mediterranean Sea in the north.

Sudanese face challenges in Egypt

Many Sudanese find their own way once they arrive in Egypt, renting apartments in Cairo and receiving support from Egyptian charities, volunteers and the large Sudanese diaspora already there. They often arrive with just a few suitcases. Most of their belongings and money are still back in Sudan, where there are widespread cash shortages and limited banking services.

Yasser Abuelgasim fled Sudan with his wife and newborn son in the first days of the war. They've settled for now in a rented apartment in Cairo, in a neighborhood where power cuts are not uncommon. He's angry that after saving up enough to finally start a family of his own at the age of 50, this war erupted and destroyed the life he'd built in Khartoum.

Neither the military nor the paramilitary forces represent the people of Sudan, he says.

"It's a military killing its people," he says. "In the end, we the citizens are the victims."

Last month, Sameh Hassan traveled on his own to Aswan to see how he could help. The Egyptian travel operator living in the Red Sea city of Sharm el-Sheikh joined other volunteers passing out water bottles to people crossing the hot, dusty border separating the two countries. He assisted Sudanese seeking temporary shelter in a Sudanese-run school in Aswan and met with officials in the city to coordinate efforts.

"These are people who are very close to us and we could find ourselves in the same situation. It's Egypt and Sudan," Hassan says. "They woke up one day and found their homes destroyed from the war. Any one of us could be in that position because Sudan's close to us."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Aya Batrawy
Aya Batraway is an NPR International Correspondent based in Dubai. She joined in 2022 from the Associated Press, where she was an editor and reporter for over 11 years.