Writing by Patrick Keddie
Hossam Assad, a 42-year-old Syrian refugee, says his family lives for Fridays.
“This is his favourite time of the week, going to football training,” Hossam tells Al Jazeera, gesturing to his eight-year-old son, Abdullah, as they walk through the noisy, crowded Cairo neighbourhood of al-Tawabeq. “Coming home from football training is his worst time of the week.”
The rest of the time, daily life is a hard slog for the Assad family. In Homs, they shared an apartment block with 24 rooms. In Cairo, Hossam – along with his wife, her mother, three sons and two sisters-in-law – share the cramped confines of a two-bedroom flat.
The walls are scuffed and peeling, the bathroom is damp and mouldy, and there is little furniture; the family members sit on blankets on the living room floor.
Hossam is a former professional footballer who also owned a sweet shop in Syria. After the Syrian uprising began four years ago, he was arrested during a crackdown on protests in his neighbourhood, and was later beaten and burned with cigarettes.
During the 16 days he spent in prison, Hossam says he witnessed people being killed. His family, meanwhile, moved from one place to another to flee the violence, and were eventually trapped during a massive bombardment in Artouz.
“The children and I saw carnage and death,” recalls Hossam’s wife, Mona.
Hossam says he was released from jail after his captors realised he was a widely known former footballer. Reunited, the family decided to flee the country. They considered options, ultimately determining that Lebanon was too expensive and the road to Jordan too dangerous.
They had heard that Egypt was cheap and thought it was a beautiful place after watching Egyptian movies, so on May 15, 2013, the family flew to Cairo.
“When we got here, we found it was not the same as in the movies,” Hossam says.
It took the family two months to find a place to live in Egypt. Their children, who had not been to school in Syria since the uprising began, have had a difficult time in Egypt’s education system, Mona adds.
“The conditions in the public schools are awful,” she says. “There are electric wires exposed and often water on the classroom floor. There are 80 children in a class.”
Their 15-year-old son, Ahmed – sporting a Real Madrid tracksuit and with his hair styled like his hero, Cristiano Ronaldo – says life is generally dull.
“I go from home to school, and from school to home. That’s it,” he says. “We can’t make friends with Egyptian kids because they laugh at our Syrian accent.”
Hossam and Mona say that the area where they live is rough, with prevalent drug use. “I am afraid for my children,” Hossam says.
Adds Mona: “I don’t even allow [our children] to go down to the shop.”
As Hossam does not have a residency card, he cannot apply for an employment permit, and instead works informally. It took him six months to find a job; today, he works in a shop for meagre pay, clocking 12 hours a day, six days a week.
Meanwhile, the World Food Programme vouchers the family receives were recently cut almost in half, and they cannot access vouchers for all members of their family.
“It has caused a huge problem,” Mona says. “As prices have increased, the vouchers have decreased.” Much of Hossam’s salary now goes to buying medication for his diabetes and for Mona’s anaemia.
The Assad family has kept in touch with friends and family members still trapped in Syria, and the news is always dire, they say.
“They tell us there is no food there. My nephew told his father that he is ready to drink ink,” Hossam says. “They can’t work and there’s no medicine.”
If the war ends, the Assads say they will return to Syria – but there is no end in sight. While the family says they have met many nice Egyptians and they appreciate the country’s many mosques and the widespread passion for football, they remain intent on leaving.
“I want us all to leave by sea, but I don’t have the money,” Hossam says. “I know it is so dangerous… I am stressed and worried.”
In the meantime, Friday football training gives the children a chance to have fun and forget their difficulties. “The kids look forward to it all week,” says Hossam, who conducts training drills. “I can see their morale increasing every time.”