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In Egypt’s ‘Little Syria,’ a golden age dims

Egypt is home to 1.5 million Syrians, thousands of whom have opened successful businesses in the country.
12.04.24 | Source: Syria direct

Nestled between towering gray buildings overflowing with tiny shops, the “Syrian Passage” is an oasis of calm. A wide alley of cafes and shisha joints surrounded by bustling commercial streets, its terraces are largely empty under the mid-afternoon sun. Waiters stand idle as customers leisurely stroll the main aisle.  

When night falls, the Syrian Passage comes to life, filled with crowds drawn by what locals call the “Syrian atmosphere” of the area, which hosts dozens of restaurants, cafes and bakeries whose owners hail from different parts of Syria.

Located in the beating heart of 6th of October city—a satellite town built in the 1980s on the western outskirts of Cairo that is named for the first day of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war—the Syrian Passage is one of several so-called “Syrian streets” in the neighborhood, which is itself dubbed “Little Syria.” Waiters and customers chatter in Syrian dialect in restaurants and shops whose names allude to Syrian origins: Atyab Shami, Ahl al-Sham, Hadayek al-Sham, Halabi for Textile.

“The first time I visited this area, I was shocked,” Abdallah*, a young Syrian from Latakia who emigrated to Egypt in 2019, told Syria Direct. “I felt that I could be walking in any street in Damascus.” Many Syrian immigrants like him come here to find a taste of home.

But the colorful facades of bustling businesses mask the more complicated realities faced by Egypt’s 1.5 million Syrians, most of whom left Syria after or during the 2011 revolution and the ensuing civil war. While some successfully put new roots down in Egypt and praise the warm welcome they received, others live in poverty, struggling to make ends meet. As Egypt’s economy worsens and inflation skyrockets, xenophobic discourse is on the rise, leaving many increasingly worried about their future in the country.

Thriving businesses

Syrians make up the second-largest foreign community in Egypt, after the country’s 4 million Sudanese. The Syrian population includes at least 30,000 registered Syrian investors, who have collectively pumped around $1 billion into the Egyptian economy in recent years. Nowhere is this contribution better reflected than in 6th of October city. 

“Syrian businesses fare better than ours and hire a lot of Egyptians,” Hiba, an Egyptian vendor who works at a store selling hijabs and modest fashions, told Syria Direct. Smiling, she listed numerous shops nearby that are owned or run by Syrians. “We work side by side, and they do better than us. Syrian shops are renowned for the quality of their products, and everyone likes to buy from them,” she said.

In neighboring alleys, a flurry of Egyptian, Syrian and Sudanese businesses operate cheek by jowl, offering everything from Ramadan decorations to school books, flowers to lingerie. One, a traditional Damascene hammam, is furnished with embroidered mattresses and decorated with the black-and-white arches characteristic of old Levantine buildings. The manager, 52-year-old Reham*, has spent nearly 12 years in Egypt, which she describes as a “second home.”