When you walk into the Al-Shami restaurant in Cairo, the first people you encounter are the 24-year-olds: Sameh, who’s manning the cash register and arranging the deliveries, and Ahmed, who’s cutting slabs of lamb shwarma onto sandwiches.
In the back you find the teenagers — Jihad shredding cucumbers, and a pair of identical twins with big grey eyes, packing up the food.
The young employees of Al-Shami are all Syrians who landed in Egypt in the past year. According to the United Nations, more than 100,000 Syrians have settled in Egypt since the Syrian uprising broke out in March 2011.
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Ahmed, who’s making the shwarma sandwiches, says many of the employees at Al-Shami worked together at the same restaurant in Damascus.
“It’s not open anymore,” Ahmed said. “It closed. We needed work, we needed money, so we came here to Egypt.”
Sameh’s uncle opened this restaurant seven months ago. Most of the customers are also Syrian refugees. This neighborhood of Cairo has so many Syrian refugees that Egyptians have taken to calling it “Little Syria.”
About 3 p.m., the late lunch crowd starts to arrive. A short, red-headed Syrian guy orders a chicken shwarma. Then, a man with a long black beard, in a long white gown and white cap walks in.
He’s a sheikh, who came to Egypt from Damascus six months ago.
“I love Egypt,” he said. “It’s the land of blessings. It’s the land of the Prophet Moses.”
Then he proceeds to give the Koranic history of Egypt and Syria. When he leaves, Ahmed and Sameh joke about the sheikh going on so long about Islamic history.
“Seriously though,” Sameh said, “some people talk like that guy, as if everything’s perfect here, as if Egypt is so great. It’s just not.”
Ahmed points at a middle-aged man who just walked in. He’s from the city of Daraya outside Damascus. The man is tall, handsome, with green eyes. He moves gracefully, yet slowly — he seems distracted.
He orders chicken and rice, “the food of the people,” he says. The tall man won’t give his name but says to call him Tamim. He’s a civil engineer who came to Cairo seven months ago with his wife and three daughters. When they arrived, he didn’t know anyone here.
“I have seen a lot,” he said. “I was in the first massacre in Daraya, in August 2012. Hundreds were killed in Daraya in one day. I’ve seen so much death — children, babies, women, old men — all of them dead.”
When asked what he felt like when he was sitting on the plane with his family leaving Syria, he says he felt like his heart was outside of his body.
“Every day I feel like I have died 100 times. Everybody let us down: Arabs, Europeans and Americans, all of them let us down.”
At this point, he begins to cry. He says he feels lost.
“I feel ashamed and guilty that I am coming to buy things here now and there are people back home who can’t afford to buy food,” he said. “Every day we weep, my wife and the kids. Every day.”
Before leaving Al–Shamy restaurant Ahmed pulls out his cell phone. He wants to show a picture of his baby, Shady, who is three months old.
He’s part Egyptian, because he was born here in Cairo. Ahmed corrects: he’s 100 percent Syrian.