Meet the UK’s oldest Hajj tour agent who helped pave pilgrims’ path to Makkah

Owner of a Hajj and Umrah tourism agency in St. John’s Wood, northwest London, Hamdy El-Sawy. (AN Photo)
Updated 09 March 2018
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Meet the UK’s oldest Hajj tour agent who helped pave pilgrims’ path to Makkah

LONDON: The maps of Makkah and Mount Arafat are wearing thin at El-Sawy Travel, a Hajj and Umrah tourism agency in St. John’s Wood, northwest London.
Faded finger marks show where owner Hamdy El-Sawy has traced the journeys made by hundreds of British Muslims he has taken on the sacred pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia over the past four decades.
“I enjoy serving them— they are the guests of God,” said El-Sawy, rubbing eyes that are rheumy with age.
When El-Sawy established his business in 1978, he was the only Hajj group tour operator in the UK. Today, scores of similar businesses take more than 25,000 British citizens and residents to Saudi Arabia each year to fulfil the fifth pillar of Islam.
Times have changed since El-Sawy first visited Saudi Arabia in 1974. Traveling from his native Egypt to undertake the Umrah, he journeyed by sea. “I think it took 40 hours,” he recalled with a laugh.
After moving to London and setting up a translation company in the late 1970s, El-Sawy began organizing weekend bus trips across the country for London’s Muslim community.
“One day we were coming back from Manchester when somebody asked, ‘When is the big trip?’ I thought maybe he wanted to go to the Lake District or Wales. So I said, ‘where would you like to go?’ He said: ‘The Hajj’”
The pilgrimage to Makkah is one of the five pillars of Islam, with all able-bodied Muslims required to visit the holy site at least once.

El-Sawy led the first British Hajj group to Makkah in 1981, taking 47 Muslims from all different origins and ethnicities on the sacred journey. The “very simple” town of Makkah where El-Sawy landed with his first group of pilgrims has long since given way to a global hub with infrastructure capable of managing the annual arrival of 6.5 million faithful from across the globe each year.
“There has been a lot of improvement,” El-Sawy said.
Other tour operators agreed. Abu Tahera, who has worked with with Birmingham-based Premier Hajj Tours for a decade, said that communication between authorities in the Kingdom and the UK has improved markedly.
“I’ve been doing this for about ten years, and there have been a lot of changes in terms of logistics, and in terms of the way the [Saudi] embassy deals with the issuance of visas…. It’s getting better and easier,” he said.
Another change has been in the cost of the Hajj. The first year he led a group on the Hajj, El-Sawy charged pilgrims £325 ($451). Today, Hajj tours purchased through his business cost between £4,000 and £6,500.
Nevertheless, Britain’s Hajj tourism industry is thriving despite the appreciable price tag on packages. On average, tours cost £5,000, with super luxury itineraries selling for £13,000 and more, according to Rashid Mogradia, CEO of the Council for British Hajjis, a UK national charity which promotes the welfare of British pilgrims. According to statistics provided by the City of London, British Muslims spend £90 million on pilgrimages each year.
Despite the considerable sum, more and more British Muslims are investing in the journey. “The UK market is very strong and growing.” Mogradia told Arab News. “The more reputable and licensed operators are showing an increase in their bookings.”
Between 2016 and 2017, the number of British residents embarking on the Hajj jumped from 19,000 to more than 25,000, while the number taking the Umrah soared from 75,000 to 100,000 over the same one-year period.
Mogradia said that the sharp increase is due in part to the Islamic calendar, which changes each year and currently sees Hajj fall during the summer months. “People are off work, it’s the holiday season and its easier for them to undertake the pilgrimage.”
However, other reasons may also be behind the dramatic increase in British pilgrims: “The fact that in the time where Muslims are under constant attack you have the prevalence of Islamophobia within the UK and around the world— the Hajj is seen as a spiritual rejuvenation. People go and seek solace through their faith,” said Mogradia.
The average age of UK pilgrims is decreasing, several operators said, as British families today bring young children on the Hajj. But there is also a cross-generational mix not seen previously as middle-aged Muslims take older parents along with them.
The younger generation of pilgrims demand top quality Hajj services. “People are doing research before going,” said Tamim Ahmed, managing director of the family-owned Ahmed Travel, based in East London. “Ten years ago when I first started in the market, people didn’t do much research: they went to their local mosque and [selected] which group was easiest to join,” he said.
“People look for the best hotels: it’s about quality to make sure their Hajj is done properly,” said Ahmed, whose company took more than 350 British muslims on the pilgrimage. “People are shopping around for packages,” he explained.


UN: Record 68.5 million people displaced worldwide

Updated 19 June 2018
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UN: Record 68.5 million people displaced worldwide

  • The current figure is equivalent to the entire population of Thailand
  • Most people flee within their own country, and are defined as internally displaced people

GENEVA: A record 68.5 million people have been forced flee their homes due to war, violence and persecution, notably in places like Myanmar and Syria, the UN said on Tuesday.
By the end of 2017, the number was nearly three million higher than the previous year and showed a 50-percent increase from the 42.7 million uprooted from their homes a decade ago, according to a report by the UN refugee agency.
The current figure is equivalent to the entire population of Thailand, and the number of people forcibly displaced equates to one in every 110 persons worldwide, it said.
“We are at a watershed, where success in managing forced displacement globally requires a new and far more comprehensive approach so that countries and communities aren’t left dealing with this alone,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi.
But around 70 percent of that number are people from just 10 countries, he told reporters in Geneva ahead of the report’s launch.
“If there were solutions to conflicts in those 10 countries, or in some of them at least, that huge figure, instead of rising every year, could start going down,” he said, calling for more political will to halt the crises driving so many from their homes.
The report showed that 16.2 million people were freshly displaced last year, and included those forced to flee for the first time as well as those who had been previously displaced.
This equates to some 44,500 people being pushed out of their homes every day — or one person every two seconds, UNHCR said.
Most people flee within their own country, and are defined as internally displaced people, or IDPs.
By the end of 2017, there were some 40 million IDPs worldwide, down slightly from previous years, with Colombia, Syria and Democratic Republic of Congo accounting for the greatest numbers.
Another 25.4 million people — more than half of them children — were registered as refugees last year.
That is nearly three million more than in 2016, and “the highest known total to date,” it said.
Syria’s seven-year conflict alone had, by the end of last year, pushed more than 6.3 million people out of the country, accounting for nearly one-third of the global refugee population.
Another 6.2 million Syrians are internally displaced.
The second largest refugee-producing country in 2017 was Afghanistan, whose refugee population grew by five percent during the year to 2.6 million people.
The increase was due mainly to births and more Afghans being granted asylum in Germany, UNHCR said.
South Sudan meanwhile saw the largest increase last year, with the number of refugees fleeing the world’s youngest nation soaring from 1.4 million at the beginning of the year to 2.4 million at the end.
Grandi said South Sudan was experiencing “a very bad emergency” which had apparently escaped the notice of both the government and the opposition who did not appear to be “taking seriously the desperate situation of their own people.”
Refugees from Myanmar more than doubled last year to 1.2 million, as a brutal army crackdown forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims to pour across the border into Bangladesh.
Tuesday’s report also highlighted large-scale displacements in Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, and DR Congo among others.
And as Israel marks 70 years of independence, there are some 5.4 million Palestinians still living as refugees, it said.
Despite the focus on migrant numbers arriving in Europe and the United States, a full 85 percent of refugees are living in low- and middle-income countries like Lebanon, Pakistan and Uganda, Grandi said.
Turkey was hosting by far the largest number of refugees, with 3.5 million registered there by the end of 2017, most of them Syrians.