Sudanese refugee youth gangs in Cairo

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					Sudanese refugee youth
‘gangs’ in Cairo
Themba Lewis

Belonging to a gang is a rejection of given notions of refugee                This is no longer the case, and many
life in Cairo as well as an alternative outlet for expression.                Sudanese who had hoped to leave
                                                                              Cairo have instead had to stay. In
Youth violence emerged from Cairo’s   visible negative consequences           Egypt, however, reservations placed
Sudanese refugee community in 2005    such as violence and the potential      on the 1951 Convention and domestic
in the form of self-declared gangs,   for a backlash against migrant          law effectively cripple refugees’
which reshaped existing concepts      communities. Those who call             ability to create local livelihoods
of social systems and challenged      themselves ‘gang’ members offer         to support themselves. Egypt does
refugee advocates and assistance      a new way of understanding              not fulfil the requirements of local
providers. In the years since, some   collective representation amongst       integration as identified by UNHCR
service providers have limited or     Sudanese in Cairo and, however          for its massive urban refugee and
tailored access, authorities have     potentially misguided, an               asylum-seeker population.
increased their maltreatment of       alternative, refugee-generated
and scepticism towards refugee        means of ensuring protection and        A dramatic demonstration organised
youth, and relations between          assistance for those unable or no       by Sudanese refugees in late 2005,
refugees and Egyptian society have    longer willing to rely on UNHCR         which boasted participation in the
become increasingly strained.         or the Egyptian government.             thousands and aimed to address a
                                                                              documented list of grievances, was
The behaviour of Cairo’s Sudanese     Between 1994 and 2005, more than        dispersed with significant force and
youth gangs should be understood      half of the recognised Sudanese         loss of life at the hands of Egyptian
as coming out of a network of         refugees in Egypt were resettled        police. The horrendous outcome has
relationships and social structures   to other countries and UNHCR            had a direct impact on the collective
that support the gangs’ members       Cairo became one of the largest         psychosocial state of the southern
– rather than wholly through          resettlement operations in the world.   Sudanese refugee population and
FMR33                                PROTRACTED DISPLACEMENT                                                                                                  53

    has been a critical component in                  to affect their circumstances               youth to demonstrate social influence
    the rise of violent youth groups.                 positively. As various efforts to           through force and irreverence.
                                                      change this have repeatedly failed,
    Reinterpreting social order                       disenfranchisement has become               ‘Retaliatory’ violence against
    and	reaffirming	status                            entrenched and intractable. This may        Egyptians or UNHCR would be
    The gangs initially emerged to                    encourage the embrace of opposition         illogical as youth have limited
    serve strictly social purposes,                   as lifestyle. In a very real sense, gang    involvement with, and even less
    establishing networks of youth                    membership in Cairo represents              confidence in, these forces and such
    who, in cooperation, could afford to              an assertion of control and pride           action would make perpetrators
    throw parties and plan social events.             in the face of circumstances of             extremely vulnerable at the hands
    Gang youth in Cairo – who are                     displacement that often suggest             of the state. Ironically, it is to some
    predominantly but not exclusively                 the opposite. Gangs provide an              extent in the interest of gang-
    male – adopt fashion trends,                                                                         affiliated refugee youth to
    dance moves and symbolic                                                                             re-direct violence back into the
                                       Themba Lewis

    gestures such as hand signs                                                                          Sudanese community for the
    to conspicuously identify                                                                            sake of self- and community-
    with cultural imagery                                                                                preservation vis-à-vis the
    of successful, strong,                                                                               Egyptian state. Nevertheless,
    young, black males who                                                                               with rising levels of inter-gang
    embody (and rap about)                                                                               violence, such groups threaten
    experiences of poverty,                                                                              the security of a much larger
    disrespect and solidarity in                                                                         proportion of the refugee
    resistance to forces devised                                                                         population than themselves.
    to divide, oppress and
    subjugate them. Specifically,                                                                       The Sudanese refugee
    overt dedication to and                                                                             community in Cairo is large
    identification with Western                                                                         and very diverse. Gang-
    hip-hop culture, fashion                                                                            affiliated youth comprise only
    and artists also represent                                                                          a fragment of the whole, and
    a visible manifestation of                                                                          certainly do not represent
    rejection of the Egyptian                                                                           all young Sudanese in Cairo.
    and Sudanese cultural                                                                               But youth gangs challenge
    systems with which                                                                                  mainstream conceptions
    displaced Sudanese youth                                                                            of the refugee experience
    are expected to identify.                            Sudanese refugee youth party in Cairo.         in significant ways. Gangs
                                                                                                        dramatise a reassertion of
    Rooted in the inability of a                                                                        control under circumstances
    community to realise common goals                 alternative for the realisation of          in which other ways to achieve
    and solve chronic problems, the                   authority through new conceptions           this may appear not to exist.
    development of gangs is a creative                of strength and social order.
    process that allows for deviance                                                              Clearly, violence from or within
    from established hierarchies – in                 Gang affiliation also solidifies            refugee communities is disturbing
    express opposition to, and a direct               a sense of belonging to a much              and puts lasting protection at
    result of, impotent systems.                      larger transnational community.             significant risk. However, gang
                                                      Two of the Cairo groups have                structures provide an opportunity
    In protracted situations younger                  members in resettlement countries           for policymakers, advocates and
    generations may mature without                    all over the world (as well as              academics alike to update concepts
    being able to fulfil meaningful social            back in Sudan); the experience of           of refugee life, better understand
    roles, gender-based responsibilities,             migration itself globalises gangs.          the experience and the potential
    and inter-generational relationships,             Further, by utilising the lingo,            consequences of protracted
    while organisations such as                       identifying signs and appearance of         circumstances, and recognise
    UNHCR may assume the role of                      American rappers, young Sudanese            elements of that experience that
    ‘provider’, potentially undermining               in Cairo signify their belonging            are perhaps otherwise unseen.
    pre-established systems of social                 to larger foreign networks.
    authority. These circumstances                                                                Themba Lewis (thembalewis@
    “have a particular impact on                      Violence                           is an independent
    adolescent refugee males … who                    Violence, although directed by              researcher. This article is drawn
    are unable to assume traditional                  gang youth almost exclusively               from research presented at the RSC
    male roles after puberty, and who                 towards other gang youth, is a              25th Anniversary International
    have little prospect of establishing              form of pro-active resistance to the        Conference, Oxford, December
    a sustainable livelihood.”1                       powerlessness that permeates the            2007, and the 11th IASFM
                                                      lives of displaced Sudanese in Egypt.       Conference, Cairo, 2008.
    As refugees and asylum seekers in                 Violent conflict between gangs
                                                                                                  1. Crisp, J (2003) 'No Solutions in Sight: The Problem of
    Cairo endure year after year, many                may serve as an avenue to subvert           Protracted Refugee Situations in Africa', UNHCR http://
    lose faith in the ability of institutions         oppressive structures by allowing 

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