x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

'As you see, we are living in horror'

Cairo slum offered hope after $100m UAE donation to build a new residential community.

A woman hangs laundry in the low-income Boulaq neighbourhood of Cairo
A woman hangs laundry in the low-income Boulaq neighbourhood of Cairo

Nadia Abou el-Magd CAIRO // In the Boulaq district of Cairo, rubbish litters the narrow winding streets. Malnourished goats and cats graze on discarded scraps, and children play in the alleys where sunlight barely filters between the crumbling buildings.

It is in neighbourhoods such as this, not far from the government ministries in the Egyptian capital, that impoverished people have little reason to expect better living conditions. They know their children will probably raise their own offspring in the same desolate environment. But for some there is hope in the form of a US$100 million (Dh367m) pledge by the UAE to build a residential community in New Cairo. The Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Residential City, a gift from the President of the UAE, will be built on a 200,000-square-metre site on the Cairo-Suez Road next to Al Rehab City.

The project will include homes of up to 90 square metres and take in such facilities as health care centres, schools, shops and places of worship. The Dubai-based property developer Emaar, which has been contracted to develop the project, was unable to confirm how many homes would be built or how much they would cost people to buy. It is not yet known who will be chosen to move into the new district, but in Boulaq, a 200-year-old neighbourhood, the donation has given people optimism.

Rawhia Mansour Abdel Baqi, in her 50s, sits in a room where the floor is covered only by beaten tin. Her modest lodgings do not have a bathroom or stove. "My dream is to have a room with a bathroom," she says. "It's so scary and cold to get out in the middle of the night and go to a bathroom in a nearby building." The walls of the building opposite her home are marked with bloodstains where a sheep was slaughtered during Eid al Adha a few years ago. The stairs are broken.

Nearby, Alaa Mohammed, 43, lives with his two daughters. He had moved several times before finding a room with a bathroom. "Are these apartments in the new city for people like me with their families?" he asks. "This neighbourhood is very old, and people are very poor, as you see. None of us can afford to move out of here. If the government really cares about us not dying here, they would have moved us a long time ago. It's a matter of time before more buildings collapse here. You keep wondering when and who will die first. Can you imagine living like this, besides poverty and not having money sometimes to feed your kids?"

Another neighbour, Magda Abdel Aziz, 38, says she dreams of a small flat where she can feel safe, but fears that even if she were eligible, the rent in the new city would be beyond her means. "I don't have 1,000 pounds [Dh665] or even half of it to pay for the apartments in the new Sheikh Khalifa city or anywhere else. If it wasn't for the food the people give us, we would die from hunger. This is our destiny."

The widow lives alone. She inhabits a makeshift room built on the roof of another building. Her room has a broken door. She has no stove and uses a kerosene burner to cook mainly rice and pasta donated by more well-off people in the area. "I wish I could have a fridge and TV in my room. All I have is one bed, a radio and a burner," she says. Sabah Abbas, 41, lives on the roof of the building with her three children. She says the money would be better spent on food for starving families.

"Any money is better directed to get food, bread mainly, as even vegetables are becoming expensive to us. A proper apartment with door, beds, bathroom with hot water, and a stove, is more than we can dream of." She works as a maid to buy food for her daughter and two sons, but the conditions in which the family live are squalid. "Poverty is killing us. As you see, we are not living, we're just suffering until we die," says Mrs Abbas, whose husband left five years ago.

Many residents know they will probably never leave Boulaq. "I was born here and will die here, most probably when this building collapses on us," says Mohammed Qorani, 53, a driver. "How would we know that the apartments in the new city will go to poor people like us? God knows to whom they are going to sell them." He says similar projects built with foreign aid had not helped the poor. "They sold the apartments instead of giving them to the poor," he says. "As you see we are living in a shanty area that was built more than 200 years ago. You wonder how these crabby things haven't fallen on our heads yet."

His neighbour agrees. "Every night before I go to sleep I ask God that this room won't fall on our heads while we sleep," says Qadria Mubarak, 64, a widow who lives with her three sons in a one-room shack built of rusted tin and wood. "I was told I have to pay 5,000 pounds to move to another apartment, I don't have this money," she says. "As you see, we are living in horror." naboul-magd@thenational.ae

naboul-magd@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Robert Ditcham