Syrians roam Cairo streets to sell drinks illegally
CAIRO - At the wheel of his van, Syrian Abu Wadie criss-crossed a Cairo suburb in search of a discreet spot to hawk hot drinks far from the roving eyes of inspectors.
"Over there, in that street, I can set up shop -- and close the serving hatch quickly if I see the authorities," he said, carefully scoping to left and right.
Espresso, Turkish coffee, tea -- a growing number of Syrian drinks pedlars are exploiting a niche in the Cairo market, albeit an illegal one, by selling hot drinks from mobile vans.
There are no official figures for these black-market entrepreneurs, who ply the streets of the October 6 suburb on the western edge of the capital.
But from small beginnings among a few dozen refugee families, ever more vans are taking to the streets of the Egyptian metropolis.
Over the past few weeks, city council staff have been deployed to rein in the Syrian refugees.
In May, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ratified a law regulating mobile drinks vans, setting a licence fee of 5,000 Egyptian pounds ($275, 245 euros) per year.
But in a blow for the refugees, only Egyptian citizens can obtain the licence.
Since civil war erupted in Syria in 2011, thousands of refugee families have created a Little Damascus in the October 6 suburb.
The more than 130,000 Syrians represent 55 percent of Egypt's UN-registered refugees.
Many have invested in small businesses. Syrian restaurants and cake shops line the streets.
Those with less capital set up mobile drinks businesses, despite the legal obstacles.
Egyptians too run mobile vans, but theirs mainly serve fast food.
Confiscation a constant risk
Abu Wadie left Syria for Egypt seven years ago.
A fashion designer by profession, the 30-year-old established his mobile drinks business 18 months ago to provide a living for three refugee families.
Selling a cup of tea or Turkish coffee for just a few cents, the drinks vans have a ready market among the many Egyptians whose purchasing power has been hit by galloping inflation.
But their refugee owners' lack of a licence makes for a constant game of cat-and-mouse with the authorities.
"The vehicle can be confiscated for a month and it costs between 5,000 and 6,000 pounds (between $275 and $330, 245 and 295 euros) to get it back," said Abu Wadie, speaking from bitter experience.
And he is not the only Syrian refugee to have been busted.
A few weeks after he set up shop, Hassan had his vehicle and goods seized.
He was lucky to pay just 4,000 Egyptian pounds to get his van back, a relatively modest fine but still a hefty amount for a refugee.
"I cause nobody any harm... I have a bin for the rubbish and I permanently clean up around me," the 48-year-old said wearily.
Hassan dreams of rejoining his wife and children, who are now in Germany.
"If I sell 200 cups of coffee, it leaves me with 400 or 500 Egyptian pounds after deducting expenses," he said, pouring the piping hot liquid into paper cups for passing motorists.
Investing in a mobile drinks business can be expensive -- those who have done so say it costs up to 50,000 Egyptian pounds, including renting the vehicle and the coffee machines.
The new head of the October 6 municipality, Alaa Manie, said there are plans to legalise drinks vehicles and identify pitches on slower roads where they can operate safely.
But the legal changes would benefit only Egyptian van owners, as they do not envisage any change in the citizenship requirement for licences.
For Hassan, this makes for an uncertain future.
"I hope that one day we will be allotted places where we can set up shop in exchange for a small fee", he said.