Fleeing the war in Syria means adapting to different marital customs in order to secure an Egyptian partner.
“I arrived in Egypt four years ago while fleeing the war,” says Hussein, a 30-year-old Syrian man. He says his face has changed, just as his Syrian dialect.
“My family is still stuck in Turkey; they could not get a visa to Egypt,” he says. “I came here to look for a home, a job and a wife.”
When he first arrived in Egypt, Hussein only had a passport and a visa. He rented an apartment, worked at a hairdresser’s shop and started looking for legal ways to get a residence permit. The only possible ways to get a six-month residence, renewed every six months, are through a rent contract, an employment contract, or marrying an Egyptian woman.
“Initially, I got a six-month residency based on the rental contract. Then, I left the apartment and worked in El Rehab and went to the Fifth Compound area. I rented an apartment and worked at a well-known hairdresser shop there. In my new job, I met my future Egyptian wife. She was working in the ladies department in the same shop. I felt then that hope returned to my life. We got married eight months ago after a love story that lasted for nearly a year.”
“I came to Egypt through Sudan with neither papers nor money,” says Nazifa Ammar. “I fled the war in an attempt to establish a quiet family life in Egypt.”
She arrived in Egypt with a number of Syrian women and they stayed in 10th of Ramadan city. “We formed the Syrian Women Association with the goal of providing Syrian women with a husband.”
“There are 120,000 official marriages between Syrians and Egyptians in the last two years, in addition to 280 thousand common law marriages,” says Youssef Mutaani, a lawyer specializing in Syrians’ legal status. “During the last three years, the rate of such marriages has increased with the decreased hope of returning to Syria.”
“When I went to her family to ask their permission to marry her, I felt fearful and I wished I had been Egyptian, not Syrian, so as to bring my parents with me,” says Hussein. “My feeling was right and they rejected me. This made me feel that I would remain a stranger in Egypt no matter what I did. They refused me because I was a “stranger” and a “foreigner” and had no family or relatives. They knew no one to resort to in the event of any dispute between me and their daughter. However, my wife’s insistence forced her family to agree. Their first request was that I had an apartment in Maadi near their house, but I did not have money to buy such an apartment with a price of over L.E. 300,000 (USD 16,500).”
After negotiating with her family, they final accepted a large deferred dowry, and agreed that the young pair rent an apartment.
“At first, I did not understand why, but I learned that a deferred dowry means safety for Egyptian wives and their family. Hence, I agreed on an instant dowry of one pound and a deferred dowry of L.E. 250 thousands (USD 14,000). I felt that my wife’s family clung to Egyptian and Syrian customs at the same time since I rented an apartment in Maadi for L.E. 3,000 (USD 167) per month according to the Egyptian customs and then furnished the apartment and bought the bride clothes according to the Syrian customs. In Syria, the bride comes with her new clothes that she buys after getting her dowry. In my case, true the dowry was only one pound, but I actually paid L.E. 10,000 (USD 558) to my wife to buy her trousseau.”
Nazifa married an Egyptian man, and her marriage cost no more than L.E. 500 (USD 28) . Given that she needed a residence permit, she agreed to anything. However, her husband disappointed her. “I got married in the Syrian way,” she says. “My husband bought and furnished the apartment, and the amount I got was to buy clothes. In Syria, we do not have a separate dowry and we do not record a list of chattel as in Egyptian marriages. This is why Egyptian men prefer to marry Syrian women due to the lower cost of marriage.”
Nazifa married under a common law marriage contract two years ago, and then she documented it with the court. “We now have a son and a daughter,” she says. “They are now Egyptians, but I am still waiting to be naturalized.”
When Hussein began the marriage application procedures, or the “torture procedures” as he calls them, he first went to the Syrian embassy to get a marriage approval, to the Tahrir Compound to obtain a security approval, and then to the Ministry of Justice Office of Foreigners’ Marriage (OFM). Then he documented the marriage with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to be valid in Egypt and Syria.
Mutaani says marriage procedures to Syrians can be done in several ways. First through the OFM, which is the legal method and requires a family civil status record obtained from Syria and a birth certificate, an individual civil status record for single persons, and a certificate that proves the spouse has been lost or a divorce certificate. Then, a marriage certificate is obtained from the Ministry of Health. However, this method is very difficult since Syrians residing in Egypt do not usually have all these documents, and it is difficult to obtain them from Syria at this time. Therefore, many people get married under a common law contract that is then documented with Egyptian courts.
The common law marriage contract is drafted by a Syrian imam living in Egypt, whereupon the Syrian spouse files a case against the Egyptian spouse to prove their legal relationship under the Egyptian Personal Status Law.
“Another way is that a Syrian living abroad makes a power of attorney to an Egyptian who completes the marriage procedures in Egypt. Then, the Syrian comes to Egypt to get the residency permit, while the Egyptian spouse receives an amount of money and get divorced.”
“My husband has made me feel safe again,” says Nazifa. “Respect, love and stability have become the symbol of our life. My husband always compliments me and says that I am worth four women. I do not work since my entire time is dedicated to my family and home. People say Syrian women are afraid of divorce because they would not get anything, so they dignify marital life. However, regardless of what people say, I love my husband and my children. They are my family now.”
After Hussein got married, his wife stopped working. “According to our Syrian customs and traditions, women should not work,” he says. “My wife is the source of compassion in my life and I should admit that she has been able to erase some painful memories. I try to convince myself that Egypt is my country and the country of my beloved one and of my children in the future. Many of my friends objected and even mocked me when they learned I would marry an Egyptian woman. They always hoped I would marry a Syrian woman. Nevertheless, love made me ignore customs and traditions.”
Mutaani argues that children born to an Egyptian father or mother are Egyptians even in the case of common law marriage, on the condition that the father recognizes his paternity to the child. For a Syrian married to an Egyptian, s/he is naturalized two years after marriage. The divorce rate among Syrian-Egyptian spouses, says Mutaani, does not exceed three percent.
Will the feeling of expatriation disappear?
Now, Hussein and his wife are expecting a child. “I see the child as a sign of our love,” he says. “My wife has taught me the Egyptian dialect, while the Syrian dialect is still difficult for her. Yet, I still sometimes feel strange in Egypt.”
“My husband respects my feelings,” says Nazifa who wears a necklace with the words ‘Beloved Syria’ on it. “He is a gift from Allah. He does not invite his entire family to our home because that would remind me of my family. My children are my family now although I sometimes feel strange because people view me as a foreigner. This feeling is made worse by the loss of any hope of returning to Syria.”