“Sister, there is a red line in my country. If you cross it, you cannot go back.” To an outsider, Youssef* had it all in his home country of Egypt – a job as a software engineer, a loving wife and three children. But he had to leave it all behind. “Everyone has a reason for leaving their home,” he said, “mine is religion.” Fingers shaking, Youssef traced a long line on the table. “There is no talking, no touching, nothing between Muslims and Christians. I had no choice but to leave.”
In Egypt about 90% of the population is Sunni Muslims and the rest is Christian. According to Youssef, the undercurrent of discrimination is undeniable – he described it as a “culture of rejection”. Like many other Middle Eastern nations, religion is stated on identity cards. This makes discrimination and persecution easy – for example, Christians are consistently overlooked for jobs. “Some jobs, like the police force, or oil companies, are impossible for Christians, no matter how talented you are,” said Youssef, “my uncle didn’t get a promotion in twenty years because of what he worships. My cousin was turned away from his lifelong dream of being a policeman because of it.” Religion defined every sphere of Youssef’s life, and the ostracization became increasingly painful.
In recent years, Christians in Egypt have faced unprecedented levels of persecution, with attacks on churches and the kidnapping of Christian girls by Islamist extremists to force them to marry Muslims. Youssef recalls his church being vandalized and burned down by Islamist extremists: “I saw my sacred cross being eaten by flames, and my dear pastor beaten by thugs. I was angry, angry like the burning fire – but what could I do? If you are a Christian, even the police cannot protect you from the Muslim Brotherhood, and a court will only discriminate against you.” This feeling of powerlessness increased when his church community attempted to apply for the construction of a new church, but was told that the process could take up to ten years. “Egypt welcomes Muslims. But Christians like us, we are not welcome even in our own home.”
When Youssef’s wife, a Muslim, decided to convert to Christianity like Youssef, their situation took a turn for the worse. They began to receive messages of hate at their door, which soon escalated into death threats. “Converting is unheard of,” Youssef sighs, “I heard that one girl tried to do so and was immediately killed. Her family, friends, and pastor were also killed, many in broad daylight.” Fearing for their safety, Youssef, his wife, his two daughters and his son fled in search of a place with security. They arrived in Hong Kong.
Four years later, Youssef is safe. However, he now faces other challenges as an asylum-seeker. “I do not regret the decision I made to move here. I am safe, although I am not happy.” Although Youssef was a talented computer software engineer in Egypt, by law, he cannot work here. During our interview, this became a subject that he circled back to with increasing anxiety. Living on the scant government subsidies, he feels he cannot provide enough for his wife and three teenage children. “When my wife’s glasses broke, I could not fix them,” he says, “when my daughter had a high fever that required $1000 for treatment, I could not afford it. It is the worst feeling in the world.” Often Youssef lies awake at night in his tiny one-room apartment in Sham Shui Po, stress churning his stomach, feeling very much alone. “Every day is the same, and I see no way to improve our situation as asylum-seekers,” he frets. In the last four years, Youssef feels he has been stagnant, standing still and watching helplessly as life passes him by. He lamented, “I crossed the red line back home, only to arrive here to a never ending circle.”
Contributed by Sophia Zhang