Transnational Somali families in Cairo.

Author:Sharmani, Mulki Al-


In this article, I examine how diasporic Somalis in Cairo experience being part of transnational families. I analyze two practices through which transnational family relations are maintained, experienced, and negotiated: (1) living arrangements of relatives and management of family affairs and (2) the use of the Internet and videotapes. I argue that transnational families make collective decisions about which family members live together, where, and what their family obligations should be. However, although maintaining interdependent transnational families is crucial for the survival of family members, it has its tensions and challenges because of the competing interests and dreams of individual members. I examine these tensions and how they are negotiated by family members who live together in Cairo but share resources and family obligations with relatives living elsewhere. In short, this way of being and living in which individuals and families partake as they are physically separated in different nation-states has its uneven consequences and challenges for different Somalis depending on their legal statuses, education, gender, and identity claims.


Dans cet article, j'examine la facon dont les membres de la diaspora somalienne du Caire vivent l'experience de leur appartenance a des familles transnationales. J'analyse deux pratiques par lesquelles les relations familiales transnationales sont maintenues, vecues et gerees : (i) les conditions de logement des parents proches et l'administration des affaires familiales; et (2) l'utilisation de l'Internet et des videocassettes. Je soutiens que les familles transnationales prennent des decisions collectives quant aux membres de la famille qui doivent vivre ensemble, le lieu ou ils doivent vivre et ce que doivent etres leurs obligations familiales. Cependant, malgre le fait que le maintien de familles transnationales interdependantes soit crucial pour la survie des membres de ces families, cela comporte des tensions et des defis a cause des interets divergents et des aspirations individuelles de chaque membre. J'examine ces tensions et la maniere dont ils sont geres par les membres de la famille vivant ensemble au Caire, mais partageant des ressources et des obligations familiales avec des proches parents vivant ailleurs. En bref, cette facon d'etre et de vivre ou les individus et les familles vivent en partage, tout en etant physiquement separes et eparpilles dans differents etats nations, a des consequences et presente des defis qui sont differents pour chaque Somalien selon son statut juridique, son niveau d'education, son genre et ses revendications identitaires.


with the advent of the civil war in 1991 and the collapse of the Somali state, a large number of refugees fled to Cairo from the homeland as well as from neighbouring Gulf countries. Most of those refugees and their families resettled in North America, Europe, and Australia by the mid-nineties. Since the late nineties, Cairo has attracted again a diverse group of Somali refugees from neighbouring countries such as Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen as well refugees from Kenya and Somalia. Refugees who arrived from other host societies fled the homeland either in the late eighties or in the early nineties with the collapse of the state. Currently, the number of these refugees is 3,609 including recognized refugees and asylum seekers. (1) The main reasons that were given by the refugees who left other Middle Eastern countries to come to Cairo were lack of a legal residence status, fears of deportation, and experiences of harassment and racism in daily encounters with government officials, employers, and other members of host societies. Moreover, many of these refugees were attracted to Cairo because of a shared perception that the office in the city of the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) resettled many Somalis in Western countries.

The reasons that many Somali refugees pursue resettlement in the West can be partially explained by the dreams of legal citizenship, employment, and a better standard of living--something that many migrants to Western countries aspire to. But seeking resettlement in the West for Somali refugees can be better understood if we also examine how these refugees are an integral part of a network of transnational interlinked families and communities whose members pool resources, debate, and make collective decisions about the future of different members living in different nation-states. Refugees in Cairo depend on their transnational families and communities for livelihood and securing a better future for themselves and their relatives. They invest in this transnational support system by sharing a variety of resources (e.g., money, housing, information about different host societies, and family obligations such as taking care of children, elderly relatives, or invalid family members).

The advantages and the limitations of what resettlement in the West has to offer are ever more real for the refugees in Cairo as they share the city with an increasing number of Somali families who are citizens of Western countries and who have moved to Egypt since the late nineties. Although there is no official number of this latter group of Somali emigres, my count, which is based on tallying individual families between 2001 and 2003, indicates that the number is a little over two hundred families. Refugees aspire to the benefits of the status of this higher class of diasporic Somalis who are holders of Western passports that ensure them mobility and eligibility for residence in different nation-states. On the one hand, refugees desire the advantages of Western citizenship as they observe Somali Americans or Europeans obtain and renew residence in Cairo as Western nationals and rent or buy apartments in new middle-class neighbourhoods with the economic assets that they acquired from employment in the West and running small trading businesses in the Middle East. On the other hand, the limitations of Western citizenship, which have not helped Somalis in Western countries escape the lives of racialized and economically marginalized immigrants, are stories that are recounted again and again to refugees by their fellow Somalis who moved from the West. (2)

Transnational Families: Family Support and Tensions

Almost all Somalis in Cairo are part of families whose members live in different nation-states, but who are interdependent for their livelihood and well-being. In addition to sending and receiving remittance money to and from one another, family members are involved in each other's lives in significant ways. For example, the living arrangements of most refugee and emigre families demonstrate a mechanism through which family members in Cairo and elsewhere are interconnected through ties of obligations and expectations. By making collective decisions about who lives with whom and where, relatives across nation-states share the burdens of securing livelihood, the rearing of children and younger siblings, and providing care for the elderly and the invalid in the family. Yet these transnational practices of maintaining families create tensions between different family members who have to negotiate their individual needs and aspirations as well as what they deem to be in the best interest of the family. In what follows, I will present ethnographic examples of practices of maintaining transnational families and their inherent tensions.

Nuriya is a thirty-year-old unmarried refugee woman who moved to Cairo from Somalia four years ago. Since her arrival, she has been living with her aunt and cousins. Her aunt is an emigre who has recently moved from Canada with her three small children, while her husband and an older daughter live and work in Toronto. Before Nuriya's arrival in Cairo, her parents made arrangements with her aunt to provide a home for Nuriya during her stay in Cairo to pursue refugee status and resettlement possibilities in the West. Her aunt agreed. In fact, she considers her taking care of Nuriya as her familial obligation. She is also grateful that her brother, Nuriya's father, has been taking care of their elderly mother and younger siblings in Somalia. Nuriya's aunt relies on her to do the housework and child care, especially during her frequent trips to North America and other Middle Eastern countries. Nuriya does not get paid for the housework and childcare, which both she and her aunt perceive as the familial duty of a younger dependent relative towards her older relative and guardian. However, Nuriya receives from her aunt a monthly allowance of 50 Egyptian pounds (LE) for her personal expenses (e.g., Internet costs, transportation fare, etc.). Her aunt also pays for her weekly Arabic and English classes, which cost LE 40 a month.

While Nuriya, her aunt, and their family members in Somalia and in the West depend on one another for their livelihood and well-being, there are tensions that are felt by some family members who feel that they are giving a lot more than others and who resent that their individual needs and aspirations are being sacrificed because of their obligations towards their transnational families. Nuriya voices such feelings. She appreciates that her aunt supports her and even helps her pursue some education, but she feels that her aunt benefits a great deal more from the free long hours of housekeeping and child-care services which Nuriya provides for her family. Moreover, since she has been rejected by the UNHCR for resettlement in the West, Nuriya has been unsuccessfully soliciting support from her aunt and other family members in the West and Gulf countries to finance the costs of her being smuggled to Europe. Her aunt refuses to contribute to her travel costs, and argues that it is a risky endeavour and is not the right time because there are a lot of family in Somalia who need her financial support...

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