Syria Crisis

How Syrian Refugees Are Shunned In Post-Morsi Egypt

Some 3,000 other Syrian refugees have left Egypt for Lampedusa since August. Pictured: The port of Alexandria
Some 3,000 other Syrian refugees have left Egypt for Lampedusa since August. Pictured: The port of Alexandria
Marion Guénard

ALEXANDRIA — It is filthy and squalid here, putrid air and the smell of sewage palpable amid the din and dust from the constant passage of heavy vehicles. Far away, beyond the silhouette of a refinery, the horizon is hardly distinguishable. It is from this shore, in the suburbs of Alexandria, Egypt, that Mohammed tried to reach Italy. He thought the journey would succeed, just as it has for some 3,000 other Syrian refugees who have managed to reach Lampedusa from Egypt since August.

Born in Damascus, this 27-year-old father tried the crossing Oct. 11 with his four brothers and sisters and their children. After four months in Egypt, he realized there was no future for him here. He left his father, wife and daughter, thinking that the family could reunite once he’d reached his desired destination of Sweden.

Mohammed sold all his property to raise what he needed to pay the smugglers — $3,500 per person. But the amount buys no guarantees. On the evening of Oct. 10, a bus picked them up at their rented apartment in the poor neighborhood of Agami.

Under the weight of 130 passengers, mostly from Syria, the boat chartered by smugglers sank just a few kilometers from the Alexandrian coast. The shipwrecked victims waited several hours in the dark before the arrival first of fishing boats, and then finally the rescue ones. At least 16 people died, including five children. Mohammed chose to swim and reached the shore four hours later, exhausted.

Arrested and questioned for illegal immigration, his relatives are being held at the Karmuz police station in Alexandria, where they have been ordered to leave the country. They could have gone to Lebanon or Turkey, but they lost their passports in the wreck. The Egyptian authorities have therefore given them no choice but to return to Syria.

A new, less friendly era

Before the July 3 overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt was a safe haven for Syrians. There were about 300,000 living there, opening restaurants, attending schools and universities. But since the return of the military hierarchy to power, everything has changed. Accused by some media of being pro-Morsi, the Syrians have become the target of xenophobic attacks.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 150 Syrians were randomly arrested in July and August. Nearly 1,000 others were arrested as they fled by sea. “They are not prisoners. The coastguard has caught them during the act of illegal immigration,” explains an officer from the Dekhela police station in Alexandria, anxious to smooth things over after a recent critical report about Egypt published by Amnesty International. “They remain at the police commissariat while their identity is traced and the removal process takes its course.”

Amnesty International has accused Egypt — a signatory to the 1951 Convention for the Rights of Refugees — of breaking the principle meant to protect people from being sent back to a country where human rights are seriously violated.

According to Mohammed, Egyptian authorities are often bought off. “We shipped from the beach onto five boats before joining a bigger one,” he recalls. “On the left, there is a big restaurant, which was crowded that evening. And right there is a military sentry. It is impossible that no one saw or heard us.”

Reda Shafik shares this conviction. This Egyptian-Syrian activist coordinates the actions of several NGOs in Alexandria, and since the fall of President Morsi she visits prisons almost daily, bringing food and clothing to refugees. “The smugglers bribe the coastguards,” she says. “Those who do not pay are investigated. This is what explains the different fares: If you pay $3,500, it is almost certain that you can cross.”

Curled up on a sofa, Essam and Madeline listen in silence. The young couple arrived three weeks ago. They were Palestinian refugees in Syria and were able to obtain a six-month tourist visa at the Cairo airport. They fled Yarmouk camp, situated in southern Damascus.

“Before the beginning of the war, everything was fine. I was a pharmacist and Madeline a teacher,” Essam says. “But it became impossible. There is not enough food anymore. There are no more means to treat and take care of people. My wife had two miscarriages, and I am diabetic. I need insulin.”

For now, Reda offers them food and shelter. “In Syria, the situation is inhumane. We cannot go back there,” Essam says. “And what can we do here? There is no future here.

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Saving The Planet Is Really A Question Of Dopamine

Our carelessness toward the environment could be due, in part, to the functioning of a very primitive area of our brain: the striatum.

Ad scuba-diver and brain coral

Stefano Lupieri

PARIS — Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Addictions to sex and social media

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the 'pleasure hormone.'

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

Transverse section of striatum from a structural MRI image

Lindsay Hanford and Geoff B Hall via Wikipedia

Tweaking genetics 

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Les Echos
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