CAIRO: Officially, there were 9,126 Iraqi refugees registered with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Cairo in September, the second largest group after the Sudanese.
Most started arriving in late 2006, and in 2007 they constituted the largest group of registered refugees, according to UNHCR. However, since 2008, some have begun to return to Iraq. Between January and September 2009, UNHCR assisted 619 Iraqis to return, and a further 774 registered Iraqi refugees left Egypt in the same period, largely to return to Iraq.
In the second of a series of interviews with refugees living in Cairo, IRIN spoke to Noor Shamari (not her real name), a divorced Shia mother-of-two from Mansour District in Baghdad, about why she left home, and the prospects she has in this host country.
“I left Baghdad in 2006 with my two daughters by plane after receiving a series of death threats from militants. I used to be the vice-president of a human rights organization in the capital. We were doing lots of good work for the people but the militants saw us as traitors because we cooperated with the new government. It was nothing to do with sectarianism; our organization was made up of Shia and Sunni Muslims.
“The threats started with a phone call from someone saying that I had been chosen to run in local elections. He asked if I could go to a specific location to be officially endorsed. I knew it was a lie because I had never shown any interest in such matters and friends of mine had been killed after responding to similar trick phone calls.
“So I didn’t go and then the threats by phone became more direct, saying they would kill me and my daughters if I didn’t stop my work. So I took all our savings and left for Egypt.
“Because we had some money when we got here, life in Cairo was quite good and I managed to put my daughters Jihan  and Iman  in private school and university. But after nearly four years here, my savings have run out and I depend entirely on UNHCR, with whom I am registered, and CARITAS [a Catholic NGO and UNHCR implementing partner in Egypt].
“UNHCR gives me LE 4,500 [$823] a year for my daughters’ education, but it costs LE 5,500 [$1,005]. I also receive a monthly allowance from CARITAS because I am considered a vulnerable case. It goes towards paying my rent of LE 880 [$161] a month for a flat in Nasr City. My daughters don’t know that I receive any support. They think I work because that’s what I tell them and every day I pretend to go to work because in my society it is shameful to have to seek help from others outside the family.
“My daughter had to drop out of university because I could no longer afford it. It was very disheartening; especially when she saw her friends graduate. I won’t be able to keep my youngest in that school for much longer either.
“I have tried to find work but it is difficult. I got a job as a secretary once but left after less than a month. I felt humiliated as I was treated with no respect and was continually asked to do menial tasks such as make tea for people. I occasionally do some tailoring work with Iraqi women I know and I make my daughters’ clothes. UNHCR is also paying for me to learn English while I look for other jobs.
“Life in Egypt has been very difficult over the past year. Despite all the problems in Iraq, before the death threats we had quite a good life there. Here, in Cairo, we have no prospects. I have come close to suicide a few times. I’m in contact with family and friends in Baghdad and they say it’s still not safe to return to my area. I have had an interview [with UNHCR] for resettlement in the USA – that is my only hope. -IRIN