CAIRO — Soon after hearing about the government’s decision to ease COVID-19 restrictions as of June 27, Ahmed al-Deeb called some of the workers he laid off three months ago and asked them to return to work.
Deeb, who owns a Syrian restaurant called al-Rayes Fawaz in the crowded Giza neighborhood of Faisal, had dismissed two-thirds of his workers in March.
“Things will apparently go back to normal,” Deeb told Al-Monitor. “This will open the door for the Syrians to go back to work.”
Syrian refugees are hopeful that Egypt’s easing of COVID-19 restrictions will help them recoup some of the losses they have sustained in the past months.
On June 23, Egyptian Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouly decided to allow the nation’s restaurants and cafes to receive and serve diners and clients at 25% of their capacities as of June 27, ending an early April ban.
“Like Egyptians, the Syrian refugees were hit hard by the COVID-19 restrictions,” said Syrian community leader Tayseer al-Najjar. “But unlike them, most of the Syrians had to fend for themselves in the absence of any kind of support,” he told Al-Monitor.
Though only 130,074 Syrians are registered at the United Nations refugee agency in Cairo, independent estimates put the number of Syrian refugees in Egypt at over 250,000.
Many Syrians have found work in the food and service sectors and some others work in industry, agriculture and tourism. Syrian restaurants are ubiquitous on the streets of Cairo and the greater Cairo region.
Syrian chefs and barbers are outperforming their Egyptian peers as their businesses surge in popularity. Syrian foods such as shwarma, makdus, hummus, haloumi and baba ganoush are winning over diners in Egypt, despite Egypt’s rich and diverse culinary culture.
Come COVID-19, however, the Syrians started to lose. Some business activities had closed down altogether. Business owners like Deeb had to do without most of their workers.
A ban on serving diners at the restaurants had killed over 50% of the business, they said.
“Most of my clients used to come here and enjoy the hot meals we served,” Deeb said. “With the diners prevented from coming because of the COVID-19 restrictions, I did not need all the workers I had.”
Deeb had 15 workers in all. He kept only five and asked the remaining ten to stay at home.
Those staying at home suffered the most. They had rent and bills to pay and food to put on the table for their families. However, they came short of doing all this.
On June 2, the network Syrian Investigative Reporting for Accountability Journalism published a report about the effects of COVID-19 on the conditions of Syrian refugees in Egypt. Some of those quoted in it said they risked being kicked out of their homes by landlords because of their failure to pay the rent for several months. Other refugees said they had to sell personal belongings to pay the bills, repay their debts and feed their families.
“Business owners cannot do anything about this,” said Diaa Abu Hassan, a Syrian restaurant owner in 6th of October, a sprawling urban community northwest of Cairo. “They cannot keep paying salaries while their businesses lose,” he told Al-Monitor. Abu Hassan said he lost over 50% of his income because of the COVID-19 restrictions. The workers they dismissed lost 100%, of course.
Nonetheless, economists say the Syrians have been a welcome addition to the Egyptian economy.
Those who escaped the civil war in Syria and came to Egypt brought a great deal of money with them that they pumped them into the economy. In 2017, the United Nations estimated the investments the Syrians poured into the Egyptian economy since 2011 at $800 million, while head of the Syrian Businessmen Association in Egypt Khaldun al-Mawqie told Al-Shorouk June 23 that Syrian investments in Egypt amounted to $23 billion.
“These investments were beneficial to the economy and helped create jobs for Syrians and Egyptians,” Yumn al-Hamaqi, an economics professor at Cairo University, told Al-Monitor. “The Syrians’ involvement in industrial and agricultural production also contributed to increasing national exports and reducing imports.”
The Syrians also brought with them a taste of their country. In the cities where they settled, the Syrians established little colonies replicating their hometowns. The city of 6th of October, now known as “Little Damascus” or “Little Syria,” boasts hundreds of Syrian restaurants, cafes, clothing shops and storefronts for all types of trades.
These outlets have suffered a bitter recession in the past three months because of COVID-19. The cafes were shuttered, the barber shops closed and the restaurants deserted.
The easing of the COVID-19 restrictions, including a shortened nighttime curfew to four hours from 10, is spurring Syrians’ hope for an economic recovery.
Egypt is reopening gradually. During the lockdown, the Central Bank lost a sizable amount of its foreign currency reserves and had its hopes for economic growth dashed. The crisis has increased unemployment and prompted Egypt to borrow once again from the International Monetary Fund.
Deeb has asked five of his 10 workers to return and hopes to bring the remaining five back on when conditions improve and the authorities allow the restaurants to operate fully.