Over the past few years, one group has maintained a strong presence in Egypt: the Russian expat community. Sherif Gad, a manager at the Russian Cultural Center in Cairo, calls it “the largest expat community” in Egypt, estimating that some 45,000 Russian expats are present in the coastal resort town of Hurghada. In each of Sharm El-Sheikh, on the other side of the Red Sea coast, and in Cairo, he says the Russian expat community is between 15,000 and 20,000 residents.
“They like the sea, the good weather. Russians often come here for what they don’t have at home: water sports, sunshine,” says Gad, explaining that this is why the majority of the expat community is found in Red Sea towns, in the same manner that most Russian tourists choose to fly into Hurghada or Sharm El-Sheikh for a vacation by the beach as opposed to sightseeing in Luxor, Aswan or Cairo.
Amany Ahmed, watersports center manager
Amany Ahmed (whose name has been changed for privacy), the manager at a major watersports center at a high-end resort in the sleepy seaside town of Dahab, was once one of the Russian tourists flying in briefly. Ten years later, she is still living in South Sinai, married to an Egyptian man. Her young son alternates with ease between speaking Russian, Egyptian Arabic and English fluently as he interrupts our interview to offer marshmallows and sweets, before running off to swim with a friend mere steps away from his mother’s beachfront office.
A former construction engineer, Ahmed says she felt that Egypt is “another motherland” to her upon her first visit to Egypt a decade ago. She attributes this to a few years she spent living in Algeria with her family as a young girl, which led her to feel “connected” to a nearby North African country many years later. She also says that she wholly enjoys her work, and finds pleasure in helping tourists enjoy a positive experience. “I like giving our clients happiness, and they give me some of their happiness,” she says with a calm smile. “I didn’t have this at my office job in Russia.”
“Now, ana Masriya [I am Egyptian],” she affirms, explaining that her lifestyle today is more “Egyptian” than it is “Russian,” and she has few Russian friends and activities in the Russian community given her preoccupation with work and family. “Now, I have an Egyptian husband and an Egyptian lifestyle.” Originally from Yekaterinburg, which lies east of the Ural Mountains and is Russia’s fourth-largest city, Ahmed often misses watching the change of seasons, the tree leaves and weather changing around the year, as she did back home.
As she adjusts her headscarf, she says her only challenge when she first settled down in Egypt was learning to speak English, which she needed to excel at in order to make the career change to the tourism sector. She spent almost two years unemployed following the crash of the Russian Metrojet plane over South Sinai in 2015, but returned to work in recent months as the industry picked up.
Despite the return of passenger flights between Russia and Cairo (charter flights have yet to resume), it’s a hassle for Russian tourists to reach the Red Sea resort towns from the capital. “Russian tourists bear the additional cost and time of commuting from the airports of Cairo, Tel Aviv or Istanbul. To take two flights, or one flight and a long bus ride would be to waste two entire days travelling before and after the trip. For a traveler who only has one week to spend on vacation, this is unfeasible.”
Russians choose to live in Egypt, and specifically Red Sea resort towns, because of the cheap cost of living, availability of water sports, and the appeal of the beach town life, says Ahmed, who adds that windsurfing and freediving are very popular among the Russian community. “It’s much cheaper to rent a flat in Hurghada than in Moscow, and it also gives them the opportunity to relax by the beach. Many people keep their flat in Russia and come here during the winter months, between October and May, work online maybe, because it’s warm and it’s healthy for their kids to be by the sea, in the sun. In Russia, the kids are always sick, they catch colds.”
While some prefer the idea of not entirely giving up their life back home, Ahmed was not afraid of making her move permanent. “I’m like a sponge; always adapting and learning. I never listened [when I arrived] to how people here reveal their mindset and thought, ‘this is wrong’, I was very open,” Ahmed says of her first couple of years in Cairo. While many of her peers found trouble adapting to the local culture, she didn’t find it a struggle as she tried to be open minded. “I tried to understand that things are different here, people think differently [than back home],” she recalls.
Yulia Filimonova, entrepreneur
Yulia Filimonova has been in Egypt for eight years, with a short, year-long hiatus she spent in Dubai in between. Though she’s had many job offers in various countries, she says she is not “motivated by money” and wanted to “live somewhere warm,” which is why she chose to live in Egypt. “Russia is boring . . . people are so negative there.” Like Ahmed and Una, being in proximity to the seashore was also an important factor in her decision.
An entrepreneur and small business owner who previously worked in tourism for several years, Filimonova found the possibility of living in Egypt logistically feasible due to the ease of issuing a visa and the availability of jobs in the tourism sector when she arrived.
“I thought, many Russian tourists come here, so why not work here?” Filimonova says, recounting how she went door-to-door between various hotels in 2009 as she searched for a job, refusing the constraints of online applications and the long response time she found they take. Eventually, she landed an administrative job at the First Mall in Cairo and embraced the challenges living in a new country presented, including adapting to a new culture and improving her English. “I wanted some adventure,” she says with a shrug, remembering her first months in the capital.
Filimonova has also worked at the iconic Castle Zaman, an impressive monument perched in the mountains between Nuweiba and Taba that commands an impressive view of Israel, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. As tourism revenues slowed, she found that her income as a restaurateur in a small Dahab-based pizzeria in later years was no longer enough to cover her expenses, so she started a private housekeeping business, LemonClean Dahab. When the small-town life in South Sinai gets too dull, she likes to attend events in El-Gouna. “I go to Sandbox every year,” she says, adding that the annual electronic music festival held in the resort town south of Hurghada, which boasts a more glamorous and up-scale atmosphere than that Dahab has to offer, “is always a lot of fun. I meet all of my friends from Cairo down there! I love Dahab, but I wish there were more big events here.”
Looking back at the uncertain times of the 2011 uprising, Filimonova says “Russians are quite tough, we’re survivors. Russia can be quite dangerous too.” Her flat mates and friends from European countries, she recalls, were more likely to leave the country in the months that followed the uprising as they were mostly on year-long, contracted jobs and decided to leave once their contracts ended. “I think the future was uncertain for many people at that time, and also many companies closed down.” Meanwhile, she sees that Russian expats were least likely to leave Egypt as they tend to be “more settled down” than their peers from other countries are; many have an Egyptian spouse or partner, and half-Egyptian children, since they’re more likely to have been settled in the local country longer.
Filimonova grew up in the small coastal town of Petrozavodsk in northwest Russia, and describes her childhood as a time spent in nature, taking walks in the forest nearby, picking wild berries and mushrooms in her free time. Restaurants offering Russian cuisine, dumplings and the like, in Dahab are plentiful, and purchasing fruits and vegetables are significantly cheaper than in Russia, where “[produce] is mostly imported.” Yet she says she misses the more authentic taste of Russian cuisine back home, as well as the freshly picked berries and mushrooms.
Asked where she’ll be watching the FIFA World Cup this month, Filimonova shrugs as she responds, “I’m not really into football, but maybe I’ll watch a few of the matches Russia is competing in at Blue Beach [the local bar].” She seems only mildly excited by the prospect—possibly not enough to give up the sunny days on the beach.
Maria Una, actress
Model and actor Maria Una may have a different lifestyle and career path than other Russian expats, but she tells us, “Ana Masriya” just as confidently as she speaks about her experience in the country during the past eight years she has spent living here. Una has played roles in productions alongside the likes of Adel Imam, and has also been a face in many well-known television commercials; the most memorable of these were for Cancan Chocolate in 2012 and for Glysolid Cream in 2014. A conversation with actor Asser Yassin in 2011 encouraged her to pursue acting full-time in Egypt, as her passion for performance developed with the roles she took on.
Una met Yassin on the set of Tarek Al-Erian’s Aswar al-Qamar, a role she was hired for during a winter break vacation she spent in Hurghada to catch up with college friend who was living on the seaside resort town at the time. “[Yassin] really encouraged me, and I wanted to be an actress here because I felt there was a niche I could fill,” she says, explaining the need for foreigners on the set of various films. “I reached a point now where I am well-known, and people often ask me to act in the foreigner roles [because I have done so many of them].” She also recounts that she realized early on that “Egypt is the Hollywood of the Middle East,” making settling down in Cairo ideal for her career.
“People are really warm in Egypt, even on the street. Everyone will help you if you get in trouble. The weather is good, it’s really easy to find somewhere to go to the beach for the weekend,” she says of her newfound homeland. When she isn’t working, she likes to spend time near the sea in El-Gouna, Sahl Hasheesh, or the few “not too crowded” developments in the North Coast. Una is currently preparing digital videos for the upcoming FIFA World Cup, including a widely shared Mohamed Salah fan video. She is also collaborating with director Ghada Ali on an international film with an all-female cast and crew.
Like many Russians, one of the primary reasons she committed to staying in Egypt was the weather; she says her hometown Arkhangelsk is “gray all the time. For Russians [living in Egypt] in particular, the weather is a major factor [in their decision]. We have many long months of winter back home.” Yet she does miss her life at home during August and September, when she could typically dress in more relaxed attire such as shorts and tank tops “without the entire street staring at me; the culture is different.” While Cairo is host to various live music venues, she finds the cultural scene in Russian cities more eventful. “There’s not as many places here where you can go out and listen to jazz, blues, or rock music,” Una says, though her excitement about frequent beach weekends seems to outweigh the drawback of minimal nightlife entertainment in a Muslim-majority country.
“I feel safe in Egypt,” she affirms, speaking about her experience in the most populous Arab country during a time of political and economic turmoil before the country became more stable in recent years. “I think [Russian] tourists will start coming again after they resume the charter flights, making it more affordable for them to come,” she maintains. “It used to be that $300 to $400 was a good budget for a trip to Hurghada or Sharm El-Sheikh from Russia, all inclusive, with flights, hotels, food, and everything. But with the prices of the regular flights, now just the roundtrip flight is $550!”
In terms of safety, she finds that Russians aren’t concerned about the security situation, despite what international news headlines might insinuate. “I think Russians aren’t as worried. Sometimes [tourists] get the wrong idea, because of how Egypt is portrayed in the media; but for Russians, this isn’t so much of an issue.”
Una is travelling to Russia for the summer to watch the FIFA World Cup games live. She plans to attend the matches Russia is participating in.