Strangers in another country: The murder of Gabriel Tut and anti-black discrimination
The murder of volunteer teacher Gabriel Tut paints a story of anti-black racism, institutional shortcomings and structural discrimination

It is 10 days after Gabriel Tut was killed, in the yard of the school where he was a volunteer teacher, by an Egyptian national who owns a neighboring concrete and building equipment store in Cairo’s Ain Shams district. Marco Deng, a South Sudanese priest and the principal of the Children Education Center, is considering reopening the school that provides educational services to approximately 200 Sudanese and South Sudanese students, but has been shuttered since Tut’s murder. However, due to fear amid the absence of security, Deng demurs. The Children Education Center remains closed.

And it will remain closed for another week, until February 27, when, despite the continued absence of security, Deng is pushed to attempt to reinstitute normalcy and opens the school again.

On the morning of February 9, Tut and his wife Mary – the Tuts are South Sudanese migrants who have lived in Egypt since 2005 and are the parents of three children – went to work at the Children Education Center, a school that has served the Sudanese and subsequently South Sudanese community in Cairo since 2007 under the supervision of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Egypt’s Social Solidarity Ministry and Education Ministry.

Emad H., the man who would eventually kill Tut, directed denigrating comments and signs of physical intimidation at the children as they filed out of school, something that he and another resident did often, according to Deng. Emad H. then entered the grounds, attacking the gatekeeper in order to gain entrance, and confronted Tut and two other teachers. “You are animals. You are stupid,” he reportedly said.

After the teachers solicited the help of an older Egyptian neighbor in an attempt to remove Emad from the school grounds, he grabbed a metal rod and struck Tut, who was walking out of the school, on the back of the head, killing him instantly.

Deng was not at the school when Tut was killed. But he watched the events unfold on the school’s surveillance footage, which he submitted to the general prosecutor’s office. Emad H. was arrested immediately, and he later confessed to killing Tut. Investigations remain ongoing.

Mary Tut is wearing black and is hardly able to speak while being interviewed. She was the first to see Tut’s body on the ground, as she was in the school’s toilet and emerged to follow her husband amid the commotion.

“Gabriel is a good man. He was holding the Bible. And he had no problems with the defendant. I walk with Gabriel all the time. I would have known if there was tension. The defendant is cursed, a criminal. He killed Gabriel without a reason, and killing a good man without a reason is too dangerous. God is great, and I know God is great. Gabriel has been killed and that is enough.”

Mary Tut - Photograph: Sabry Khaled

A crime of intent

“The defendant and another guy in the area have problems with every black person. They threatened me with a gun before and attacked another teacher. And we reported them, but nothing happened,” Deng says.

Problems on the street where the Children Education Center is located were limited to the two men, according to the principal. Though, things were bad enough that Deng says he wasn’t able to walk in the area at night.

He killed Gabriel without a reason, and killing a good man without a reason is too dangerous. God is great, and I know God is great. Gabriel has been killed and that is enough.

“He told me, ‘I hate every black person’,” Deng recalls. “The defendant would insult all the Sudanese in the neighborhood. The crime was intentional and done without a fight.”

“We are scared of future attacks. I called the teachers to come to open the school on Monday [February 20], and no one came. Neighborhood leaders and parliamentarians representing Ain Shams came to the school, but there was no security presence. So we closed the school and left.”

The students – many of whom witnessed Tut’s murder – are suffering, according to Deng.

Simon, a 17-year-old student in Tut’s English class who came to Ain Shams from South Sudan two years ago, says he and his classmates had been harassed by the defendant. He has tears in his eyes as he recounts returning to the school upon hearing news of the attack on Tut, only to find an empty schoolyard, save for traces of his teacher’s blood. Simon then rushed to the hospital, where he eventually learned that Tut was dead.

“We are scared to go to school again, but, if the school opens, I will go. Mr. Gabriel’s last class lecture is still written on the board of the classroom,” Simon says.

The evidence and the documented anti-black discrimination African migrants face in Egypt points to Tut’s murder being a hate crime, according to Muhammad al-Kashef, a researcher on refugee rights and migrant movements for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).

Simon, a 17-year-old student in Tut’s English class. - Photograph: Sabry Khaled

“The authorities and the UNHCR are also responsible for the murder. The defendant had made a habit of attacking the school, and there are reports. They should have intervened earlier to prevent the murder,” Kashef says.

The UNHCR and the South Sudanese Embassy directed lawyers to follow the case. However, both institutions declined to comment on Tut’s death and the situation of Sudanese and African migrants in Egypt.

Ain Shams MP Tharwat Bekheet was one of the three parliamentarians who visited the Children Education Center after Tut was killed. While he acknowledges that the murder was an intentional act, he is hesitant to suggest it was racially inflected. Rather, the conflict stems from a disagreement over noise coming from the school, and, as Bekheet sees it, because Ain Shams is an informal area, some of its residents are hostile.

“We tried to bring together the neighborhood’s leaders to solve the issue of the closed school, but they are scared. My presence at the school was meant to prevent any future assaults,” Bekheet says. When asked about the absence of security forces, the MP says they were in fact not late. He called the head of Ain Shams Police Station, and told him it was not necessary to send police officers.

Anti-black discrimination in Egypt

The Nuer community, of which Tut was a member, gathered together in the Anglican church of Ain Shams on February 20 to hold the third prayer service commemorating his death since it took place 10 days previously. The church room was bristling with anger and sadness. South Sudanese relatives and friends of Tut, along with community leaders and Egyptian Anglican priests, spoke of how much of a popular, decent and lovable man Tut was, one who had delivered a valuable gift by volunteering to teach children. The Egyptian priests gave assurances that the church would always be a sanctuary for the Ain Shams Sudanese community.

Some of those that addressed the congregation drew on a history of discrimination, referring to the violent dispersal of dozens of Sudanese refugees holding a sit-in in front of the UNHCR’s headquarters in 2005 to pressure the agency to expedite their resettlement. Official Egyptian records indicate that 27 people were killed in the dispersal, while rights activists and community leaders estimate it was more like 70, with dozens more injured.

Many of the migrants in the community say that what happened to Tut took place because he was black and Sudanese. It is a type of discrimination with which they are familiar, even if the assaults they recount have not been deadly.

They tell me, ‘Hey zengy, we are fed up with you animals.’ And they use the word Hongahonga, a word that I don’t even understand. I was spat at.

Michael Moses Mayen came to Egypt in 2002. He holds a UNHCR refugee registration card – the “blue card” through which the organization grants someone refugee status – and is Tut’s relative and a leader in the South Sudanese community. Egypt, by his account, was a transit country for himself and others, but when resettlement stalled, many in the community had to recalibrate.

“This is not the first incident,” Mayen says. “Our women are subject to harassment and sexual assault. Our children are kidnapped, and we face verbal and physical assault. We have filed so many reports, but they never went anywhere. So, now the government is surprised that a decent man has been killed.”

Shortly after he arrived in Egypt, Mayen went to speak with a psychiatrist, who recommended that he keep a daily journal to document the forms of abuse he suffered. “No single day passes without verbal assault on the street, and for no reason,” he recalls. “They tell me, ‘Hey zengy, we are fed up with you animals.’ And they use the word Hongahonga, a word that I don’t even understand. I was spat at. And one day, I was wearing a suit, and someone in the street cut it with a razor.”

On the day of the final match of the African Cup of Nations, many Sudanese were assaulted just for being black. For Egyptians, we are all the same. They cannot differentiate between Sudanese, Ethiopian or Somali,” Mayen says.

Jacob is an older South Sudanese migrant who has lived in Maadi for 17 years. He speaks Nuer rather than Arabic and walks with a limp, due to an injury he suffered in a 2008 racially motivated assault.

“A few young Egyptians in a microbus attacked me. They claimed that they were the police and asked for my passport,” Jacob recounts, with the help of a translator. “Three of them robbed me, beat me over the head and stabbed me in my side, my hand and my right leg, severing a nerve. I still cannot walk properly. When I went to the police station later, I found the attackers had been arrested. But outside the police stations, their families beat me again.”

“Last year, I followed the killing of a Sudanese woman who was working as a maid. She was dropped off a balcony.” Mayen, who also documented the incident, says that her employers claimed that she stole money and then committed suicide. Kashef also followed the case of an Ethiopian man who set himself on fire in front of the UNHCR headquarters, because, according to Mayen’s explanation, they refused to accept a complaint against a private Egyptian school where his son’s kidney was stolen.

Photograph: Sabry Khaled

The researcher has documented other forms of anti-black violence, including two incidents of rape involving Sudanese refugees. Three years ago, Kashef says, a Sudanese woman was raped and severely injured by a group of Egyptian men who forced their way into her house. She was resettled to a third country in August.

As of October 2016, the UNHCR documented 70,000 African refugees in Egypt, and, as of August 2016, there were 31,000 Sudanese and 6,000 South Sudanese people that had been recognized as refugees. The UNHCR defines Egypt as both a host and settlement country for irregular migrants.

In the absence of a national asylum system in Egypt, the UNHCR carries out activities pertaining to registration, documentation and refugee status determination and assistance under the terms of a framework agreement signed with the government in 1954.

Some of the problems center on divergent institutional assumptions, according to Ibrahim Awad, the head of the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies at the American University in Cairo and the former director of the International Migration Program at the International Labor Organization. Egypt, he says, is perceived by Europe as a transit country, but the reality of the matter is that Egypt is a refugee-receiving country, and each Egyptian constitution has granted the right to asylum.

“Refugees come here hoping to enter resettlement programs that will place them in a country with better living conditions. But they come, live and wait for maybe 10 years, and they are not resettled. So they just stay here in very difficult conditions, among those living in poverty, as they lack any sort of income,” Awad says.

The UNHCR works with a broad range of affiliates to ensure the provision of services to the refugee population, including Catholic Relief Services, Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders, Caritas Egypt and the World Health Organization, in addition to local NGOs, such as the Red Crescent, Tadamon and the Egyptian Foundation for Refugee Rights. However, many of those holding refugee status that have access to these services say they do not receive enough support.

Creating a non-discriminatory ecology

Mayen blames the Egyptian government and international organizations, specifically the UNHCR and its affiliates, for failing to protect the Sudanese population.

“Egyptian authorities don’t know what happens to us in the areas we live in,” he says. “We came here to escape war. Our country was torn apart. It was not a choice to leave our farms and jobs to become strangers in another country. We know that not all Egyptians are bad. We just need them to know that we are human beings. Gabriel is dead, but we need to prevent this from happening again.”

South Sudan has been engulfed in civil war since South Sudanese President Salva Kiir dismissed former Vice President Riek Machar amid what was seen as a consolidation of power. Machar, who was accused by Kiir of organizing a coup d’état, now leads Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition. More than 10,000 people have been killed and over 2 million displaced in the ensuing fighting. Many of these have fled to neighboring Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan.

Kiir and Machar signed a ceasefire in July 2016 after four days of fighting killed at least 300 people.

“I saw the refugees camps in Germany, where refugees are not allowed to exit. We do not have this situation here,” Bekheet says.

“Discrimination happens all over the world, but what is different here is that we are not allowed to be integrated, even after more than 10 years. And we are not a burden. We contribute to the Egyptian economy with the financial transfers we get from our relatives abroad,” Mayen says.

Bekheet calls Tut’s death a singular incident but thinks such violence is a normal feature of the post-January 2011 social fabric. For the MP, the revolution rendered Egyptians more hostile, as they are more frequently prone to violence and also mock the poor, disabled and overweight. Nonetheless, Bekheet says that Egyptians in Ain Shams look upon their Sudanese neighbors as brothers.

“I saw the refugees camps in Germany, where refugees are not allowed to exit. We do not have this situation here,” Bekheet says. “The live among us and can walk freely.”

However, Kashef believes that the problems are more structural in nature, as, while Egypt was a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it imposed limitations on refugees’ abilities to access employment and public services, including education and health care, in addition to procuring citizenship. Exceptions were made for Palestinian and later Sudanese refugees, but only for basic education. However, the broadest allowances have been given to Syrians, as they have access to higher education.

The UNHCR notes that the financial support provided to refugee households does not cover more than 50 percent of their basic needs, leaving many in poverty.

“This convention was signed and approved by Egypt in a totally different context. It was after World War II, and it was meant for European refugees. Egypt is one of a few countries in the Middle East that approved both the convention and its protocol in 1967,” Awad says.

Egypt’s decision to not allow refugees to enter the labor market for fear of adverse effects is misplaced, according to Awad. The refugee population is not large enough to tip the scales, he says, adding that many can only work in the informal sector, where they are paid lower wages and face harsher conditions than most Egyptians.

The fact is that if the reservations are negotiated again, the situation will be worse, because there are worldwide nationalist and xenophobic trends that are anti-refugee.

Both Kashef and Awad point to strong features of anti-black racism that are embedded in Egyptian society and reinforced by the discriminatory practices of the Egyptian government. Awad considers anti-black discrimination to be distinct from xenophobia or labor competition.

“A solution must be adopted,” Kashef says. “The state should revise its reservations on the 1951 agreement, allowing refugees to work and integrate into Egyptian society, even if not necessarily creating opportunities.”

“The convention should be amended to guarantee more protection for refugees. But this is out of the question. The fact is that if the reservations are negotiated again, the situation will be worse, because there are worldwide nationalist and xenophobic trends that are anti-refugee,” Awad says.

More local measures could be taken, according to Kashef, and these would include procedural laws to handle refugees, in addition to anti-discrimination awareness campaigns that could be marshaled through the media and civil society. He also points to anti-discrimination legislation that could provide real protection for refugees.

Hadeer El-Mahdawy 

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