The devastating war and the dream of a better life in the West made many people leave Syria. However, more and more Syrians are now choosing to settle in Egypt and live a little less affluent life, but in the culture that is close to theirs.
Mohamed Amin, 43, arrived in Egypt five years ago. The country was his gateway to Europe, he thought. Now the father of four supplements his family income with a bakery he set up in his apartment balcony and does not think about moving to Europe anymore. He changed his mind after hearing stories from fellow refugees who made it to the Netherlands and Canada.
"There is racism, and Western culture is very different from our Muslim and Arab culture even if the quality of life is better," Amin said. He was the owner of two bakeries when he lived in the Syrian town of Muadamiyat al-Sham.
Amin says he will not leave Egypt "except to Syria when things settle down"."I don't feel like a refugee in Egypt. The language, norms and traditions are the same," he said. His mother-in-law, Umm Haitham, agrees. "I feel like I'm living in my country. Since the start I was for staying in Egypt."
Ayman, who requested his full name not be used, said he was shaken by a January shooting in a Canadian mosque that killed six worshippers. "When I heard about the (Quebec City) attack, I felt unsafe and worried. At least here I can go to the mosque safely."
Lower rates of illegal migration
The two men are among the 120,000 Syrians in Egypt registered as refugees with the United Nations. The Egyptian government estimates there are altogether half a million Syrians in the country. The conflict in Syria has killed more than 320,000 people, uprooted more than half the population and forced over five million to flee abroad since it erupted six years ago, and it shows no sign of abating.
Many Syrians choose a dangerous Mediterranean voyages to Europe that have claimed thousands of lives. In 2017 the sea have already took 905 lives of refugees from various countries. According to the UN's refugees agency UNHCR, from January 2016 till now almost 83,000 Syrians arrived to Europe through the sea.
The UNHCR data shows that 884,461 Syrians applied for asylum in Europe between April 2011 and October 2016. Germany and Sweden got 64% of these applications. However, fewer Syrians have been trying to migrate illegally to Europe.
"Fewer Syrians are leaving now. Syrians represented one percent of those arrested attempting illegal migration in 2015, which is a sharp drop compared with 2013 and 2014," said Tarik Argaz, a spokesman for the UNHRC.
The spokesman said lower migration numbers are due to good treatment by the Egyptian government, the Syrians' acclimatization, and problems in Europe towards refugees.
Mohamed Fawaz, 44, held a temporary job waiting for the day the UN refugee agency informs him of the travel decision. Fawaz said those who made the move "warned me of the illusions around travelling to Europe".
— AlBawaba EG (@AlBawabaEG) January 30, 2017
A case for staying
Despite closer cultural environment, Syrians also face hardship in Egypt. Thousands had arrived in Egypt under the Islamist president Mohamed Morsi who ruled between 2012 and 2013. After his ouster, police cracked down on Syrians who were seen as supportive of the Islamist leader.
An Egyptian official who requested anonymity said: "In any case, Egypt will not tell them (Syrians) to leave, no matter how long they stay." The official said the government is now allowing family reunification requests after years of rejecting them for security reasons.
Lawyer Youssef al-Mataani says the number of Syrians approaching him to assist with resettlement documents has dropped.
"I used to receive about 10 Syrian families each week to help accelerate resettlement legal procedures. The number declined in the last few months and has reached zero at the moment," he said.
Fawaz, a former football player in Syria, partnered with a compatriot to establish a clothing store in Cairo's densely-populated Shobra neighbourhood. Fawaz says he has no intention of leaving Egypt, although his wife Safaa disagrees.
"I want us to travel to Europe for the future of our children. Education and opportunities for success must be better there," she said.
But Fawaz insisted: "Society here shares our religion and language, and accepts us. So why leave?"
Infomigrants with AFP