CAIRO: Hala Ismail, an Egyptian emigrant to the United States, decided to return to her native country this year.
Mother to a nine-year-old boy and an eight-year-old girl, Ismail left the US in an attempt to avert her children’s eyes from the Western lifestyle that does not comply with her Egyptian values.The move back was triggered by an invitation she received in the mail to a gay wedding. “I was confused and didn’t know how to explain the situation after my little girl found the invitation at the door and handed it to me.
Ismail’s concerns are also related to conscription. “I also heard that military service might become compulsory for girls, she said.
The phenomenon of repatriation is on the rise, with Egyptian expatriates returning back to their home country for a range of reasons – including conflicting values, financial reasons and family related problems – but the scale of the phenomenon is hard to gauge due to a lack of statistical evidence.
“Although the issue has come to the notice of a few sociologists, we can’t press ahead with research due to lack of statistics, noted Madiha El Safti, professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo.
“I understand that it isn’t an easy task but statisticians can create their own methods if they set their minds to it, she added.
“The issue hasn’t even been considered and it would be difficult to track it down since the return to the homeland is a personal decision, argued Mohamed Morsi, senior assistant to the director of the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics in Cairo.
“Unless there is a policy focused on repatriation, we won’t be able to confirm any numbers. Obtaining statistics is a complex process, it’s not only based on a checked box on the arrival card of emigrants as some imagine, he explained.
Mohamed Abdel Aziz Shahine, the undersecretary of the agency, said that they documented the number of repatriates on two occasions in Egypt’s recent history.
“The first was in the late 1970s when the political strife between Egypt and Libya resulted in the return of many Egyptian workers that were employed there. The second time came following the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. And in both cases we were aided by the citizens who were keen to declare themselves in hope of getting their dues from the state.
Shahine said that the issue is worth further research, and that the agency is not completely oblivious. “We have figures relating to Egyptian permanent and temporary emigrants that give us feedback on the labor market abroad, he said. “Also, lately we added to the arrival card [distributed at customs at passport control] a checkbox relating to permanent return. But a lot of work should be done in coordination with the Interior Ministry.
However, when statistics fall short, social research and personal tales can be an eye-opener.
“Most of the time it is the emigrant’s decision to return and not the authorities’, said Mohamed Eissa who emigrated to the United States 15 years ago. “Because the cost of living has gone up dramatically, all those who have managed to get the Green Card and work at a restaurant or a grocery store are not able to save. Their money is wasted on rent and other expenses. For them there is no future, added Eissa.
Eissa has been entertaining the idea of moving back to Egypt after his marriage with an American citizen ended last year. “I am on a short vacation to look for a suitable bride, but I am prepared for all possibilities. If I happen to find one who’s ready to live with me in the US, fine. If not I will come back and live here, he said.
Emigrants to the Gulf are also facing the same challenges. Radwa Adel, a bank executive, left for Dubai years ago. “My husband and I had good paying jobs, but we were torn between the rent and installments on two cars as well as water and electricity bills. We were unable to save; many are moving back for the same reason.
Tough conditions abroad are not the only economic incentive to return home. Egypt’s executive job market has changed drastically in the last decade with the spread of free investment and the arrival of more multinational companies.
The spread of multinationals in Egypt has created a new category in the job market: those executives who have worked for a few years in multinationals around the Gulf, Europe and the US, and have finally been given permanent posts in offices that have recenlty opened in Egypt.
Among them are Ahmed Safwan and Khaled Mahran, 48, both accountants who have been working for the last 20 years in different countries, and only recently decided to come back to Egypt.
“It is true that our category doesn’t have the legal status of an emigrant, but we should be considered repatriates after coming back having worked in several countries, especially that our companies decided to station us in our homeland before we retire, argued Safwan. “I am happy to be back to Egypt so that I can give my two children the chance to grow up in Cairo and acquire a cultural identity.
Mahran, however, has a different perspective. “For me it doesn’t really matter if I am in Egypt or elsewhere. My time is divided between the office and home, with occasional short vacations, so the country is no longer a concern. As for the children, I don’t believe they would grow like ordinary Egyptians. The expatriate lifestyle will always dominate their behavior one way or another, he said.
For many, the idea of moving back to Egypt is the logical solution to a variety of problems, involving family, finances and cultural values.
For Samy Ramsis, a Coptic emigrant to the US who settled down in Washington five years ago, it is a family affair. “I am afraid I have to come back to look after my elderly parents. I am their only son and it is almost impossible for me to ask them to move to the US, he explained.
“My office is starting operations in Egypt and I will definitely apply for a transfer. I would be killing two birds with one stone; I would be working for an American company and be treated as an American citizen while taking care of my parents. What more can I wish for?
“If I’ve fulfilled my goals, why should I keep living there? argued Eissa. “I don’t really mind living in Egypt despite the fact that I have gotten used to a different system and lifestyle. When the time comes I will repatriate before I become a total social misfit in both places.
“We’ve been brought up to different values and can’t always adapt even if we think we have. If there is scope in the job market here, why not use it to our advantage, added Eissa.
But values are not the only concern for some. After 9/11 and the war in Iraq some emigrants face problems of a different nature.
“Some of my colleagues moved back to Egypt because they said they were exposed to different kinds of harassment [in the West] by both the citizens and authorities, which eventually scared them away, said a teacher at an American school who preferred to remain annonymous.
“It happened because those groups might have also attempted to impose their own values and manners, thereby triggering controversies on issues like the veil, which could have taken a political dimension due to the ongoing conflict, added the teacher.
Inevitably, repatriation has in some cases proved to be the wrong decision.
Abdel Qader Ahmed and his family emigrated from Egypt to Canada in the early 1980s. After 10 years of comfortably living in Toronto, he decided to return back to the motherland so as not to expose his teenage daughters to what he referred to as the “negative aspect to the western lifestyle.
Less than a year in, he found himself unable to adapt in Egypt, and decided to move back to Canada.Back at the American University in Cairo, El Safti is concerned with the necessity of studying the issue of returnees from different aspects.
“The common perception is that those groups are loaded with money. This isn’t necessarily the case with the majority. Serious studies should be conducted on how we can benefit from their knowledge in the current development pla
“Unless we do so there is no use in taking the pain of creating related statistics. It is good that some have remembered to consider the issue, but let’s take some action, she added.