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Theater puts spotlight on refugees in Egypt

From Ben Wedeman, CNN
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A theater group in Egypt is helping refugees in the country.
  • Theater project highlights problems facing refugees in Egypt
  • UN says about 40,000 refugees live in Egypt, but the number could be much higher
  • Most of them are fleeing conflict in Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Iraq
  • Discrimination and depression are common for refugees

Cairo, Egypt (CNN) -- An innovative theater program is highlighting the plight of the tens of thousands of refugees trying to forge a life in Egypt.

On a stage in Cairo, a Somali man is brutally interrogated by a police officer, who jabs a lit cigarette at his neck to force a false confession. All the actors in the play, with the exception of five Egyptians, are refugees who have experienced the horrors of war first hand.

Those behind the performance hope an Egyptian audience will take away their message: refugees are not in Egypt because they want to be. They've fled war and persecution in search of the most essential aspect of human existence: security.

Abdi Karim is a Somali who fled violence and instability in his home country and arrived in Egypt five years ago. He wants Egyptians to understand there's nothing he'd like more than to return home.

He told CNN: "I'm a journalist. I fled my country, so I'm a refugee in Egypt. I'd like to go back home but the situation is very difficult."

Most of the 40,000 refugees who the United Nations says live in Egypt come from Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Iraq. Experts believe the unofficial number could be as high as half a million.

Egypt generally turns a blind eye, but the refugees exist on the fringes of society, struggling to eke out a living.

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Many want to get official UN refugee status and resettle in more prosperous countries. Some attempt the dangerous journey over the harsh desert to Israel, desperate to improve their lot.

Ani Abukar is no stranger to hardship. A human rights activist in her native Somalia, she decided to leave when militiamen threatened to kill her and her family.

If you are a Somali and you come to another place ... don't expect to be served on a silver plate
--Ani Abukar , Somali refugee living in Egypt

"I myself became injured with the fragments of mortar shells. I extracted from my body 128 pieces of fragment shells," she told CNN.

Despite her experiences, she expects no pity. "If you are a Somali and you come to another place, a foreign country, don't expect to be served on a silver plate," she said.

The play is one part of a six-month course designed both to raise awareness amongst Egyptians and to train refugees to help their countrymen deal with the trauma of dispossession and exile.

Nancy Baron, from the United States, has worked for 20 years in Africa. She has organized two such courses for refugees in Cairo.

"We've got a lot of hopelessness -- a lot of people who were thinking they were going to get resettled, they were going to come here and it was short lived and they were going to go somewhere else. And the reality is that very few people get resettled -- 900 last year," she told CNN.

While most of the refugees are resilient and hard working, they are estranged from their family and other cultural safety nets. Discrimination and depression are common.

Sharmake, another Somali, said he felt his traditional role was eroded by his life in exile.

"The man is the breadwinner of the house and he controls everything," he said.

"So now when the family comes here the man does not have a job so the mother becomes a domestic worker, and the man will lose that role so he will be more depressed, frustrated, and now he feels like his wife is controlling him, he feels like she took over the role."

After watching the play, the audience members are invited to share their thoughts.

"Of course we welcome these people," said Muhamed, an Egyptian. "We are a hospitable people."

Hospitable, perhaps, but largely unaware of the strangers in their midst. Egyptian actor Ali Subhi admits that participating in the play was a learning experience.

"I was surprised that there were countries like Somalia, and Ethiopia and Eritrea that have refugees here," he said. "I had no idea."

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