"We have come here seeking safety," Ekhlas, a migrant from Sudan said. "But the reality was very different."
Sub-Saharan African migrants who flee war, violence, and poverty in their homelands face huge racial harassment and discrimination in Egypt, an Associated Press investigation revealed Thursday.
In Egypt’s capital Cairo, reporters have been visiting migrant communities, where at least two dozen sub-Saharan Africans, including four children, recounted the racist insults, sexual harassment, and other abuses they experienced in the past three months.
The children said rocks and trash are thrown almost daily at them as they go to, or come back from school, and one Ethiopian woman told the journalists that neighbors regularly pound on the windows of her family's home, yelling "slaves."
Seham and Ekhlas Bashir, two Sudanese sisters told the Associated Press they were walking home with their children when a group of Egyptian teenagers surrounded them, taunted them, called them “slave” and other slurs before trying to rip off Ekhlas's clothes.
Fortunately, they could escape when an onlooker finally intervened and scolded the boys.
The two sisters had arrived some months ago in Cairo, fleeing the traumatic violence they experienced at the hands of militias in Sudan’s Nuba mountains. The incident that took place in November shook them as it awakened memories of detention, torture, and rape.
"We have come here seeking safety," said Ekhlas. "But the reality was very different."
The United Nations International Organization for Migration (IOM) says Egypt currently hosts over six million migrants mostly from Sudan and South Sudan where fighting continues displacing tens of thousands of people from their homes.
Although Egypt - seen by many migrants as the closest and easiest country to enter - has long been a refuge, racism and violence toward black migrants are becoming a societal problem, whereas other important migrant communities such as Lybians and Syrians are spared.
The North African country has only made small steps to address the issue. In November, following a public outcry after a video released online showed three Egyptian teenagers bullying a schoolboy from South Sudan, Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi made an uncommon and high-level acknowledgment of the problem.
"They are our guests and negative treatment is not acceptable and not allowed," el-Sisi said.
Refugees and rights workers, however, say the country still has a long way to go as racism is rooted in Egyptian society as well as in the Arab world in general, where lighter skin is identified with greater prestige and economic status.
Darker-complexioned Egyptians and sub-Saharan Africans have always been portrayed as doormen, waiters, and cleaners in movies, and some Egyptians still unabashedly address people by their skin color, calling them "black", "dark", or "chocolate". Historically, and still today many have preferred to consider themselves as Arab, rather than African.