Youssef reveals life before and after he flees from Egypt to Hong Kong with his family.
"I crossed the red line, only to arrive to a never-ending circle."
“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, an estimated 90% of the population is Sunni Muslim, and an estimated 10% are 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 – most prominently, 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 has not gotten 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 what he worships.” Religion defined every sphere of Youssef’s life, and the ostracisation he faced because of it became increasingly painful for him.
In the recent years, Christians in Egypt have been facing unprecedented levels of persecution, with attacks on churches and the kidnap of Christian girls by Islamist extremists intent on forcing them to marry Muslims. Youssef recalls his church being vandalised 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 from bad to 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 after, 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, per Hong Kong laws, he cannot work. 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 it,” 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 in his stomach, feeling very much alone. “Everyday 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 passed him by.
“I crossed the red line back home, only to arrive here to a never ending circle.”