Syrian business owners who fled to Egypt give up on going back

Refugees from Syria work at a restaurant on the outskirts of Cairo. As of July 8, more than 70,000 Syrians had registered with the Egypt office of the United Nations refugee agency.
(Gianluigi Guercia, AFP/Getty Images)

REHAB, Egypt — As fighting in the Syrian city of Aleppo intensified last fall, Khalid Sabbagh decided it was time to move his business abroad.

He and his family had already fled months earlier to the safety of this palm-tree-lined Cairo suburb. But as Aleppo, once Syria’s commercial hub, descended further into the warfare that has ravaged much of his nation, Sabbagh finally decided to move his upholstery factory to Egypt and start anew.


Since antigovernment activists began their struggle to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad in 2011, more than 1.6 million Syrians have fled the fighting, many to neighboring countries where they wait to return to their homes.

But as the conflict drags on with no resolution in sight, many Syrian industrialists and factory owners have relocated across the Mediterranean Sea to Egypt, where they have been reestablishing their businesses, possibly on a permanent basis.

Now, in the wake of the military coup that toppled Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, Syrian refugees here face a period of instability and insecurity just as they did at home.

Egypt has instituted new regulations requiring visas for Syrians; those arriving at Egyptian airports without visas have been put on return flights.

An Egyptian Foreign Ministry official told reporters that the restrictions are temporary but necessary because of the unrest in Egypt since the coup. Syrians have reported that some of their fellow nationals were deported after taking part in pro-Morsi rallies.

Although daily life for Syrians here is largely unchanged, there is concern that the welcome could eventually wear off, a fear that is especially acute because so many have invested all their savings in establishing themselves in Egypt.

More than 70,000 Syrians had registered with the Egypt office of the United Nations refugee agency as of July 8, but the Foreign Ministry says that as far back as March, the number in the country was 140,000.

The Syrian industrialists now in Egypt are part of a larger brain and economic drain from Syria that threatens to stymie efforts to rebuild the country after the fighting does end. And it is fueling fear of a generation of exiles like that in the early 1980s during an unsuccessful uprising against Assad’s father.

“The entire professional class has basically migrated,” said Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics. “You have a huge, huge drain — brain drain, business drain, professionals, doctors and engineers.”

Those leaving say they will return once the crisis, as they often refer to it, is over. The future of Syria could well depend on it.

“They have the means to help with the reconstruction and serve as the vanguards for reconciliation,” Gerges said. “They’re open-minded, sophisticated … they are globalized culturally.”

Without them, Syria’s ability to reconstruct and reconcile, after what has already been a destructive and fragmenting two years of war, would be uncertain.

Much like in the aftermath of Lebanon’s long-running civil war and the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Syria is likely to be ruled in the near future not by the professional class but by warlords, Gerges said.

Even among the opposition, there is a creeping pessimism about the direction of the country. Clear victory, they worry, could remain elusive.

Last year, when the momentum seemed to be with the opposition, activists and rebel fighters would end meals and finish off their cups of tea saying, “With victory.” Now, as exhaustion at the length of the conflict has set in, they say, “With relief.”

“The situation is just getting worse,” said Sabbagh’s wife, Rima.

Among the intensifying problems is the abduction of people who have stayed behind. Kidnappers held Rima Sabbagh’s brother for three days until a ransom of more than $41,000 was paid. Another relative in the prominent Sabbagh family was held captive for a month.

Syrians worry that after the war ends, lawlessness in a country with a collapsed economy will become even more pervasive.

“These people who are paying all this money to settle here, they won’t return,” predicted Lena Hammal, Sabbagh’s friend and fellow refugee from Aleppo.

“That’s my fear,” agreed Rima Sabbagh. “I think, after we put all this effort, are we going to then leave? But then I think, am I going to live the rest of my life in Egypt? Everyone says we are going to return once the regime falls and the things return to normal and they will come rebuild.”

“I don’t think anyone is going to return,” Hammal said. “And no one is going to rebuild.”

At the Rehab Souk, an open-air market with a grand facade that belies a somewhat grungy interior, spits loaded with shawarma — once omnipresent on the streets of Syria — are visible everywhere. As in other Egyptian towns and neighborhoods that have become refugee enclaves, some call it Little Syria.

Almost hidden in a corner is Salloura, a 155-year-old cheese and pastry shop famous throughout Syria, which has closed most of its locations in the war-torn country and relocated to Egypt.

A woman with heavy makeup and dyed-blond hair walked in and looked worriedly at the empty glass case: “Is there no string cheese? Did it fly away?”

“It’s still coming,” Muhammad Sheikho, Salloura’s accountant, assured her. Like other refugees, she depends on the familiar to create a home in Egypt.

“The day we opened, they came from other cities when they heard that Salloura opened,” Sheikho said. “It’s something that reminds them of their country.”

Despite the homesickness, many refugees have found it easy to establish residency here among the largely welcoming Egyptian population.

Mohsen Ibrahim, an activist living in another Cairo suburb that teems with refugees, said Syrians back home — either unwilling or unable to leave — may resent those whom they regard as having abandoned their country.

But that hasn’t quelled the outflow as life in Syria becomes untenable.

“Anyone who has an opportunity to leave is leaving immediately,” Ibrahim said. “Only a small percentage is thinking, ‘I need to stay for the sake of the country.’”

When Amir and his wife, Suhair, who asked that their last names be withheld to protect family members in Syria, came to Rehab last year, they immediately rented a spacious apartment and bought new furniture. Around them other Syrians were renting cheap furnished units, thinking their stays would be short.

Amir has moved the entire inventory from his home insulation shop in Damascus to a nearby Cairo suburb, where he is opening a factory.

“I have transported all my money here, so I don’t know if I will go back,” he said. “Even my customers came here.”

Earlier that day, Suhair’s brother, a civil engineer who worked for the government, and his wife, a dentist, had just arrived from Syria. The couple, who lived in a suburb of Homs, brought clothes for all four seasons, unlike many of those who came before them looking only a month or two ahead.

“The country is finished,” Amir said.

“Yes, finished,” Suhair said.

“We don’t know what is waiting for us in Syria,” Amir said. “Is it going to be like Lebanon’s civil war and go on for 15 years? Or is it going to be, like they say, an ‘Arab Spring’ revolution?”