The Conception Of Personal Identity Of Egyptian Refugees

Much of the literature on this subject focuses on the performance of refugee identity as a strategic means of gaining assistance or recognition from official bodies of governance, such as the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the Egyptian government itself, and the NGOs that provide financial and material assistance to low-income refugees in Cairo. Having to surmount racism, economic discrimination, and lack of official status in their new home, the researchers argue, lead African refugees in Egypt to exaggerate when telling their stories of migration, hoping that a little extra drama will help their case. However, a vast majority of these studies are written within the assumption that there is strategic gain for performing refugee-ness and that therefore much of the performance is therefore political. It is important, however, to reconsider these studies and ask about the extent to which, or the contexts within which, refugee identity is performed in an authentic way. Because of this, I have chosen to look at the performance of identity of mostly refugee children involved in an educational program on diversity in Ard al Lewa, a low-income neighborhood in Cairo. By looking at how the children talk about their identity and their native culture, we can begin to see the ways in which the “refugee” identity is authentic and not for any strategic means. Overall, this project aims to answer the question: In what ways does the context of “performance” of identity affect the interaction and what is said? What political, social, and cultural aspects of a refugee’s history can affect the way in which they choose to represent them self in their new migrant community? These questions are large in scope, however this paper will look to focus specifically on Sudanese and Eritrean migrant communities in low-income settings, within the three scenarios of adults performing identity in the setting of the UNHCR, families performing identity to gain humanitarian assistance (medical, financial, material), and children performing identity through a diversity workshop.

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Important to this study is the categorization of different titles for “refugees”, the differences between which are crucial. In this project, I plan to use the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) definition of refugee, which is, “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group”. Beyond that, I will differentiate between two other types of migrants, the first I will call an “economic migrant” who is someone who has fled to another country because of economic hardships. I will call the second type of migrant, an “immigrant”, which I choose to define as someone who has left their country of origin for another one because of family or other such non-economic and non-political reasons. While there will always be some overlap between political, economic, and personal reasons for migration, especially in choosing the destination for migration, these definitions will be used to categorize refugees based on their primary reason for leaving their country of origin. Similar to much of the literature on the subject, my theoretical framework will highly engage with Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, a well-known work of sociology that engages in dramaturgical analysis in comparing the presentation of identity with a theatrical performance. This is the one work with which the majority of articles within the body of literature related to this study engage. It is within this framework, however, that I aim to challenge the agency with which refugees engage in this performance. What are the implications of “performing refugee” rather than simply being “refugee”? I expect that engaging in this question and in questioning this theoretical framework will allow me to also engage in the differences in defining “refugee” versus “economic migrant” and “immigrant” from the standpoint of the refugees themselves. The body of literature within this field of study is relatively extensive, though nothing which I have found has been on the topic of this project. Two studies that stand out within this body of literature are Häkli, Pascucci, and Kallio’s Becoming Refugee in Cairo: The Political in Performativity and Brooke’s Voices in Refuge: Stories from Sudanese Refugees in Cairo. The first of these two sources focuses on the intersection between the performance of race, politics, and the status of refugees for the different refugee populations in Cairo. Hakli, Pasucci, and Kallio argue that there is an internal differentiation between different ethnic groups of refugees in Cairo, and therefore the different ethnic groups are bound together through “connective” rather than “collective” political formations. The second of these two pieces of literature focuses, in a more literary sense, on documenting the variety of refugee narratives that exist among Sudanese refugees in Cairo. While this work is does not actively engage in analyzing these narratives, much information on the choices of “performing” refugee narratives within the context of academic scholarship.

In addition to the body of literature that I will use to conduct this project, I also have a set of survey data on the opinions of children regarding their cultural identity and their view of what “diversity” means. This data comes from a set of surveys taken as part of evaluating the effectiveness of the organization, Safarni, an international non-governmental organization focused on developing innovative educational programs that teach children about diversity and intercultural communication. For the sake of being accountable to their funders, Safarni, implements surveys at the end of each workshop “season” in order to gauge how the children’s opinions on diversity and “otherness” has been altered by their participation in the program. As a central part of this project, I aim to analyze that survey data and, through it, look at the ways in which Sudanese and Eritrean children engage with the ideas of diversity and “otherness”. This will allow me to come to a tentative conclusion on how these children consider, and therefore perform, their own identities as Sudanese and Eritrean children in Cairo. This will be possible, especially since the data will not be composed of simply Sudanese and Eritrean children, but will also include the thoughts and opinions of Egyptian children living in the neighborhood.


The methods used for analysis in this paper will be two-fold. First, I will need to internally analyze the survey data taken on the opinions and thoughts of the children as part of the Safarni diversity workshops. In order to do this, I will organize the surveys first by country of origin and then by age and gender, in order to be able to compare the answers of each group separately. By doing this, I aim to compare the differences in answers of the questions of the surveys and assess whether or not there is a correlation between country of origin and responses. While the body of data is not extremely large, I believe that statistically relevant conclusions can be drawn from it. The second part of the analysis will be a comparison between the conclusions that I draw from the survey data as detailed above, and the conclusions drawn by similar pieces of literature. By comparing the contexts in which these refugees are “performing refugee-ness” with the context of these children talking about their identity, I aim to come to a tentative hypothesis for the role of context in the performance of identity of Sudanese refugees in Cairo.

Preliminary Findings

While I have not worked with the data set itself yet, from participating in Safarni’s diversity workshops, I can say that my hypothesis is that the children’s conception of their identity as “Sudanese” or “Eritrean” is not nearly as driven by ulterior motives, as is commonly found true with studies done on adult populations of refugees either in applying for refugee status or appealing to non-governmental organizations for material assistance. Therefore, we are able to see the conception of personal identity more clearly than in situations where these is some material gain to presenting one’s self in a particular way.

03 December 2019

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