They started to arrive in late September, first a few who decided to camp out in the middle of a small park, a space more like a median strip in the middle of traffic in one of Cairo's more upscale neighborhoods.
Soon there were hundreds, even thousands of people packed into an area no bigger than a basketball court, staging a round-the-clock sit-in among the fast-food restaurants, banks and car dealerships that line the surrounding streets.
They had all fled war-torn Sudan, hoping that arrival in Egypt would lead to a better life -- and when it did not, they decided to take over the park that sits near the offices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE
There are about 3,000 now -- men, women and children huddled together against the winter chill, crouched beneath soiled tarps hung across knotted strings. They have been there for three months, hanging their shoes on the metal railings, cooking, caring for each other's children, pooling money to buy food, mourning those who have died in the park. Their demand is as simple as it is complicated: They want the office of the UNHCR to declare them refugees and relocate them to a better place to live. But the law does not seem to be on their side.
"People have to understand that we are a UN agency that has limited capacity, limited financial and human resources, and in all cases we are bound by the law and regulations," said Ahmad Mohsen, assistant protection officer at the refugee agency's office here. "We just don't act haphazardly in accordance with the desires and requests of the person in concern."
In a city of 7 million people, many down at the heels, struggling to feed and clothe their own families, the plight of these people stands out because of the way it speaks not just to the luck -- or misfortune -- of one's birthright, but also to the frustration of those whose quest for a better life is blocked by circumstance and bureaucracy. These people see themselves as refugees, fleeing a country that offered little hope for a better life, and yet the law does not consider them refugees.
"A refugee," Mohsen said, "is seeking legal protection. But a migrant is seeking better living standards."
It is a legal distinction that infuriates Napoleon Robert, 26, a former economics student who fled his village in southern Sudan four years ago, hoping that Egypt would be a first stop on his way to refugee status and then relocation to the West.
"The international community knows the civil war has been going on for 21 years and people are being killed," he said, waving his arms in frustration. "This is my case. I need to be recognized as a refugee."
So to force the point, Robert and his allies sit, hoping that their very presence across from a mosque -- where they use the bathroom -- and beneath a sign advertising plasma televisions will persuade officials to put them on a plane.
But it has not.
"They consider Egypt a transit country and us as a travel agency," Mohsen said. "The perception that everyone that comes here gets refugee status and will be resettled is a wrong perception. It is not in our hands. He has to satisfy certain criteria of particular stipulations of the specific host country. And we don't have a hand in this. So the idea of going to the UN and the UN will give you a ticket to go to dreamland is a myth."
This myth grabbed a lot of people. In fact, it has become an article of faith among those now living in the camp. Along the way, they somehow created a community, a village, of people from southern Sudan, right smack in the middle of the traffic.
On Christmas Day, men stood at the two entrances to the camp, checking identification cards as people entered to attend a makeshift Mass. Hundreds of people sat in front of a blanket woven with a picture of Mary and Jesus. They sang and danced, oblivious to traffic as it whizzed by. They shared tea and orange slices and pieces of cookies, too.
"I am happy celebrating Christmas among my brothers and sisters," said William Ashwell, 29, who said he fled a village in southern Sudan called Aweel five years ago.
Egypt is home to about 2 million to 3 million Sudanese, many of whom have fled the civil war that has ravaged their country, the UN refugee agency said.
Under the agency's detailed procedures and the standards of international law, coming from a war-torn country is not enough to guarantee someone refugee status. But even those who are recognized as refugees are not guaranteed relocation to the nation of their dreams. Some of the people in the park do have refugee status but were relocated to Egypt.
Last year, when the UNHCR realized that all of the Sudanese applying for refugee status and relocation abroad were from the south of Sudan, Mohsen said, it stopped processing requests.
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