Ten months after Sudan’s brutal war sent hundreds of thousands fleeing, many of those who sought refuge in neighbouring Egypt are caught between the grim choice of homelessness or returning at their own peril.
Single mother Rehab has been in Egypt for seven months, fighting to build a life for her children.
“I have a daughter who was born here, and I can’t work to provide for her,” the 28-year-old told AFP.
Gathered in a small church in eastern Cairo, dozens of women like Rehab said their families — cramped into overcrowded apartments — have been sleeping on bare floors since they arrived.
“People came to Egypt thinking life will be better here,” 28-year old Ibram Kiir, a Sunday school teacher from Sudan who has been in Egypt for five years and helps refugees through the church, told AFP.
“But then reality hits. They don’t have any money, they can’t get an apartment, it’s cold and they can’t get winter clothes. So they turn back,” he said.
Since the fighting began in April between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, over 450,000 people have crossed the border into Egypt, according to official figures.
Their priority, many told AFP, is finding anywhere safe to lay their heads, even if only on a cold tile floor.
But as the months stretch on, employment, proper housing and help become nearly impossible to find, with Egypt’s two-year economic crisis rapidly worsening.
Soaring inflation — which registered a record high of 39.7 percent last year — decimated livelihoods just as war-weary Sudanese began arriving.
Many turned up with just the clothes on their backs. They ended up staying in small apartments with two or three families at a time, many of them with only one breadwinner between them earning less than minimum wage.
Dan Mhik Akom, a 34-year-old who cleans houses part-time, tried to convince a friend things would get better.
But after months watching his family “unable to even get to the kitchen to feed themselves” because of overcrowding, “he made up his mind and returned to Sudan,” he told AFP.
Another Sunday school teacher, Randa Hussein, said her cousin left Cairo in October, heading back to her home on the war-ravaged outskirts of Khartoum.
She said she “would rather die there than stay here,” said Hussein, 33.
Her family has not heard from her since.
Hussein is now hosting another refugee, a 20-year old mother of two who had been staying with her grandmother, until the landlord threatened the elderly woman with eviction if the newcomers did not leave.
Unable to find a job or an apartment, “she’s insisting on going back to Sudan,” Hussein said.
“She has a one-year-old she can’t feed. She doesn’t know what to do.”
Yet back in Sudan, the situation is no better: her Khartoum neighbourhood has been shelled beyond recognition, and the homes that still stand are overrun with fighters.
“People are being forced to choose between being homeless and being unsafe,” said Sudanese political economist Raga Makawi.
“Unable to afford even squalid conditions in Egypt, they choose to go back, preferring to negotiate their security with armed actors however they can,” she told AFP.
The threat of homelessness is just around the corner for several Sudanese AFP interviewed.
Hawa Talfon, a preacher’s wife, was kicked out with only two weeks’ notice for hosting too many displaced family members.
She had lived in her home in eastern Cairo for five years, before her brother’s family joined her to flee the war.
“What was I supposed to do? Kick them out?” she asked, after her landlord objected to her guests.
AFP heard from dozens of Sudanese families across Cairo who faced the same fate, with landlords citing reasons such as “excess wear-and-tear” on their properties.
Under the shadow of the nationwide financial crisis, rights groups and Sudanese living in Egypt have warned of rising anti-refugee sentiment.
Yasser Ali, 40, who came to Cairo in 2002 to study law, told AFP that just in the past year, “everything has changed, people’s attitudes have got a lot more aggressive.”
According to Nour Khalil, founder of the advocacy organisation Refugees Platform in Egypt, there is “a concerted campaign, based purely on misinformation, to place the blame for the current economic crisis on society’s most vulnerable.”
Last month, the government said it would audit how much Egypt’s “guests” — as the administration calls nine million refugees and immigrants — cost the country.
Almost in tandem, Khalil and other rights defenders tracked a rise in social media posts labelling refugees as a “burden”, though most receive little to no assistance from either the United Nations or the government.
Cairo for its part holds that new arrivals are allowed to work and move “freely”.
Rents have soared in Cairo as the economic crisis worsens, though rights groups and Sudanese told AFP landlords were specifically targeting Sudanese residents.
“You either pay up or they’ll find someone who will,” Kiir said, with some families like Talfon’s given a different ultimatum: kick out “your own flesh and blood” or leave.
As the war rages, people have been left with no options.
“We can’t go back, we can’t move anywhere else, and we can’t stay here,” Ali said from a Sudanese community centre in Cairo — which is also under threat of eviction.