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Refuge for refugees

People use St. Andrews’ Refugee Services to find help for life in Cairo and hope for the future

Sandra Tombe with Peter Robbins, former Lacrosse coach at Dunn School
Sandra Tombe with Peter Robbins, former Lacrosse coach at Dunn School


By Brooke Comer

St. Andrew’s Refugee Services (StARS) is housed in an unassuming stone church in the Ramses area of Cairo. The area it encompasses is small, walled, and gated, yet within the compound, a myriad of services are offered. From education, to legal, to psychosocial services, StARS helps many of Cairo’s estimated 44,899 displaced people, according to the United Nations Higher Commissioner for Refugees, cope with the alienation and stress of displacement.

StARS is a faith-based organisation, run out of the interdenominational church. It does not discriminate on grounds of nationality, gender or religion. Of the estimated 3000 refugees who are served annually, around fifty per cent are Muslim. The StARS mission is to serve the refugee communities of Cairo, and so the organisation does not participate in Egyptian domestic policy or affairs.

A mix of Africans, Egyptians, and foreign nationals perform services at StARS, fostering an atmosphere of tolerance and acceptance. On weekdays, the compound, with its garden shaded by trees, a few prefabricated classrooms, and an asphalt playground, hosts a spirited football game when classes are not in session. It is vibrant with the sound of children’s voices. After the school day is over, silence claims the courtyard as adults fill the classrooms with an intermittent array of courses that vary from term to term, and can include English and Arabic language courses, information technology, and other skills.

Adult education is as important as the primary and secondary grades at StARS. Matthew Bedford, Administrator of Education Programs, explains, “it can be difficult for refugees to integrate and make a life for themselves in Cairo, especially if they don’t speak Arabic.” Sometimes, he points out, “people who were successful business owners, teachers, farmers in their home country are forced to come here with nothing. The Adult Education Program is a place that people can come together and learn skills and build confidence, and that will make living in Cairo easier not only for them but for their families.”

If the word “refugee” connotes Sudanese nationals, dark-skinned Southerners who escaped the horrors of the civil war that raged from 1955 to 1972 and from 1983 to 2005, as well as Darfuri, who continue to flee the ongoing genocide in Western Sudan, it’s because these groups comprise the majority of displaced people currently living in Cairo. The Comprehensive Peace Treaty, or CPA, signed in January 2005, officially ended the war between North and South Sudan, and the subsequently South Sudan became independent in 2011. Despite this, tribal tensions in the homeland and the post-war lack of infrastructure there keep families in exile. But northern and southern Sudanese are only one group who seek asylum in Cairo; the classrooms at StARS reflect a diversity that directly correlates to crises in neighboring, as well as distant, countries. Currently Syrian asylum seekers are growing in number, and a significant population of Iraqis have been in Egypt for years. African countries defined by political turmoil, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Burkina Faso, Burundi and the Congo, are also represented at StARS.

What Shane Bristow, StARS executive director, values most about the organisation is, “that so many different kinds of people are here to help each other: Egyptians, refugees and foreign volunteers, Christians and Muslims. There are teachers who have lived in Cairo for decades, and students who may have just arrived. And these people are more than just co-workers; they become great friends who provide support for one another, especially those who are far from home.”

Bristow takes the reins from former StARS executive director, Fiona Cameron, who resigned in order to focus on asylum seekers in the UK. Cameron came to StARS in 2005 as a volunteer English teacher, was promoted to head of the Children’s Education Program. One of the most respected aid workers in Cairo, and known for her dedication to the people she served, Cameron is arguably known best for stabilising and organising the StARS programmes during the major upheaval of the revolution, and bringing the English house system to the Education Centre, which helped to make StARS a leading learning institution.

In recognition of her efforts, she was named executive director in late 2011.”The reason that St.Andrew’s and organisations like it are so important,” says Cameron, “is because of the community involvement of people who might never otherwise work together or even meet together. St.Andrew’s is a place where refugees, westerners, and Egyptians all work together with a single aim.”

Through StARS and other centres that offer services to asylum seekers, displaced people can find dignity and hope, regardless of their refugee status. The centre is a testimony to Egypt’s willingness to help neighbours who seek shelter from persecution. The definition of a refugee is someone who cannot return home because of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership of a particular social group.

Asylum seekers need to prove that if they are forced to return home, they are likely to face persecution or death. When an asylum seeker approaches UNHCR, they are given a refugee card that provides “temporary protection” – the right to stay in Egypt and not be deported. UNHCR then conducts a Refugee Status Determination hearing to assess the situation of the individual or family and decide whether or not they qualify as a refugee. If so, the temporary protection becomes permanent. If UNHCR decides that the case does not meet the definition, then the file is closed and the individual or family receive no benefits or protection, and cannot obtain a residence permit. St. Andrew’s offers a safe community for all isolated and vulnerable displaced people from 32 different countries, to come together for empowerment, education, community development, and social services.

Maelle Pelletier, who leads StARS psycho-social programming, works daily with people who have suffered serious psychological and physical trauma before coming to Egypt. Pelletier says clients come from situations where there is no safety or security and many have been tortured, beaten, raped, or seen family members killed. “People come to Cairo suffering from depression or post-traumatic stress. We help them find the medical, social, and financial support that is available.” Her team also hosts art groups and outings- events where her clients can enjoy themselves and be part of a community. “Sometimes, our clients need someone to just talk to,” says Pelletier. The psycho-social team serves StARS overall goal of treating students and clients as people, not just refugees.

The psychosocial program was launched in January 2011 in response to the increasing number of refugees in Egypt, the sometimes complex and difficult to navigate network of refugee service providers, and the general lack of resources available in refugee communities. The psychosocial team is now composed of five staff, three caseworkers and two group coordinators, under the supervision of the team leader.  The team mission is to provide emotional and social support to refugees in Cairo, and focus on the general well-being, so that refugees have increased access to housing, medical care, psychological counselling, and group activities that foster a sense of community and self-empowerment.

During the past year, the psycho-social team has assisted more than 400 individual and family cases in accessing mental health, medical, or educational services. Group workshops and activities like art and photography workshops, youth sports activities, and day trips around Cairo also constitute an important part of the team’s work and enables staff to reach out to more beneficiaries.

StARS opened its doors on October 11th, 1979, when members of St. Andrew’s United Church of Cairo set up a refugee centre in the church’s spacious Guild Hall. Sudan was still united and at technical peace-the waves of refugees seeking asylum in Egypt from Darfur and South Sudan hit a peak in 1985. But there were still a significant enough number of asylum seekers to warrant a centre, where in its nascent days, StARS hosted as many as 115 people each day, for basic social services. A rudimentary attempt at English literacy courses began, and took off during the 80s, a decade that saw the numbers of persecuted people rise significantly. At this point, StARS expanded its refugee services to include education and assistance, offered purely on need and without discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, national origin, tribe, or religion.

A key component in the work StARS undertakes, according to Bristow, is enabling refugees to carry out services themselves. “We have refugees teaching primary education, English and Arabic, providing psycho-social services, serving as interpreters, and offering their time in other ways to help their community,” he explains. “We hope that over time refugees will be more and more equipped to help themselves find solutions and support.”

Since its inception, St. Andrew’s Refugee Education Centre has been a sought-after option for refugee parents who seek a quality education for their children. Legally, children who have refugee status may enroll in Egypt’s government schools, according to Article 22 of the Geneva Convention, a treaty to which Egypt, the US and European countries initially signed in 1951 after World War II, and which was expanded in 1968. But government schools cannot accommodate all Egyptian children, thus displaced people who cannot afford private schools find refugee centres such as St. Andrew’s are their only hope for an education.

St. Andrew’s has maintained its status as a respected refugee-learning centre due to the relatively high quality education that children receive. This is achieved through small classes of twenty students, teachers with at least some training in the field, English-language instruction, the well-stocked Susan B. Meteoh Library, physical education, and art classes through the Nora Sadat Art Centre. Community involvement is provided through the Townhouse Gallery, a multicultural arts centre whose Saturday programs serve all children and youth in Cairo.

Until 2009 there was no fixed curriculum at the children’s school and students studied English language with some science and maths along with recreational activities. In that year, for the first time, and thanks in no small part to the dedication of a group of refugee teachers who formed the South Sudanese Teachers’ Union, students of any nationality were able to study for the Sudanese national curriculum.  Despite having drawbacks, including an academic rigor quite new to informal learning centres like St Andrew’s, a few students have gone on to college. In addition to having six teachers from the refugee community, the AEP relies extensively volunteers who come to teach.

There are a number of other refugee schools in Cairo, and each has their benefits for prospective students. Those who choose St. Andrew’s do so because of convenience of location, low cost, and the availability of the Sudanese curriculum. StARS works with UNHCR, partner organisations, and other refugee schools, to coordinate and develop opportunities for all refugees. Sandra, Madit, and Ismail are among three of StARS student success stories. Sandra was 15 when she won a scholarship to Dunn School, a small, co-educational college prep school in California, There, she maintained high grades and went on to Berea College, in Berea, Kentucky, a highly competitive institution, which offers full scholarships to all applicants who are accepted.

Madit, now 20, came to St. Andrew’s Children Education Program as a displaced youth and has gone on to win a scholarship at African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa. His chances of finding a full scholarship at a leading US or UK university next autumn are excellent. Madit credits his success to self-discipline and the opportunities StARS offered him. “I retained my hope when I thought I was hopeless and had no means to get access to education as a refugee child in Cairo.

StARS hosted me when I had nowhere else to go. Its small kitchen fed me when I had no food to eat. The dedicated and selfless staff and teachers made me realise the value of hard work, perseverance and gratitude. The small, but strong educational program helped find and maintain my passion for education and without St. Andrew’s Refugee Services, I would not be at ALA.”

Ismail, a 19 year-old northern Sudanese refugee, who joined StARS in 2005 and was granted auditing privileges at AUC, thanks to the late Provost Medhat Haroun, believes that the centre was valuable in terms of exposure to different cultures and traditions, as well as studying essential academic subjects. He cites collaborative learning as one of the most important things he learned. “Because StARS hosts asylum seekers from many countries, I learned to work with peers from the Congo, North and South Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Chad, Iraq, Palestine, and more. When I arrived, I wasn’t used to studying with anybody who was not a Sudanese national, and this was a challenge that I faced when I arrived. My very first teacher Ms. Mariam, noticed this, and got me engaged in different activities with diverse cultures.”

Ismail, who admits that he faced “some difficulty” adjusting to the demands of a university, adds that “I’ve fully adapted to AUC’s supportive environment.” Support comes from both students and faculty, including two Sudanese professors, Dr. Ibrahim El Nur, a political scientist, and Dr. Hamid Ali, in Public Policy.  In addition to earning high grades at AUC, Ismail still takes time to give back to the community that fostered his own success. He spends his Saturdays teaching young people at StARS. “Education is my passion,” he notes.  “I love to learn, and I could spend the rest of my life in a classroom. My goal is to work in a research facility and find what has yet to be discovered.”

Due to the high number of adultasylum seekers in Cairo who could not get an education in their homelands due to political turmoil, St. Andrew’s runs classes for between six and seven hundred refugees per year in English and Arabic language, conflict resolution, health and nutrition, as well as basic skills. Classes also depend on the expertise areas of volunteers, and in the past have included poetry, memoir, journalism, and creative writing. Manual arts, including computer technology are also popular, giving refugees valuable skills that will make them employable on their return home, or in resettlement. The AEP also offers a comprehensive tutoring program where volunteers can work on a one-to-one basis four days a week. In 2012 for the first time, twelve students from the adult education program had the opportunity to sit the Sudanese examinations through St Andrew’s, and three passed.

While education plays a key role in the services that StARS offers, other refugee and migrant needs that the centre addresses include psychosocial and legal aid. StARS psychosocial services do not have the capacity to provide direct financial assistance to beneficiaries, but regular donations allow the centre to provide the neediest asylum seekers with clothes and blankets. For instance, a contribution of LE100 can buy three blankets or two food bags for clients.

St. Andrew’s psychosocial services also have organised community-based workshops to assist with issues that displaced people face, including sexual and gender-based violence, and stress and anxiety management. Refugees in Cairo often have family members at risk in a home country or in exile or prison, or whose whereabouts are unknown. Female refugees who work in the informal economy and also serve their own family needs, with or without a husband, are among the vulnerable. Further, women are taxed with double duty, taking paying jobs to provide for families, whose needs they must also serve.

In general, Sudan, Somalia and Iraq, represent the most significant number of nationalities seeking aid at St. Andrew’s. TThere are now bi-weekly Iraqi women’s group in 6th October, where the majority of Iraqi refugees reside, and also in Nasr city, aiming at enhancing peer-support between participants, providing them with accurate information about the various services available as well as safe space to share problems they face in their host country.

RLAP, StARS’ Resettlement Legal Aid Project (RLAP), assists recognised refugees who qualify for resettlement to a third country. These clients include refugees with severe and life-threatening medical conditions who require surgery overseas, or family reunification cases, which involve a refugee in Cairo, who has been separated from his or her family who are now living in another country. Reunification brings displaced family members back together.

The countries that accept the highest numbers of refugees for resettlement are the United States, Canada, and Australia. Countries within the European Union also accept a significant number of refugees. Resettlement acts as a way for host countries to share the costs associated with supporting refugees. The majority of refugees worldwide are from the developing world, and when they leave their home country, they flee across the nearest border to a country that may offer work in the informal economy yet not have the ability to accept a high volume of displaced people. Resettlement increasingly serves as a way to offer more places for refugees to find a permanent, peaceful home.

The resettlement process, however, can be very lengthy and difficult to navigate for refugees. RLAP provides legal counselling and representation for candidates’ resettlement candidates in the process at UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). RLAP also seeks to educate refugee communities about resettlement. In September, RLAP hosted 6 workshops for refugees interested in learning more about refugee law and the resettlement process. The RLAP team is made up of refugee interpreters and volunteer legal advocates from around the world.

Volunteers are an important part of StARS work. Refugees, Egyptians and visitors offer their time to lead a variety of activities from language training to leading sports and music groups.  In general, the StARS mission is one of increased understanding and community. “Though they come as visitors to Egypt,” says Bristow, “refugees often have to stay for a very long time. They want the same things that anyone wants: food, shelter, peace and security for themselves and their families. StARS work to help foster the sense of community amongst refugees so that the problems that they face are not faced alone.”

Albino Yai, who came to Cairo in 2001 and sought out StARS for art classes, is now the school’s art teacher.  He notes that St. Andrew’s is important for refugees in two ways. “In a humanitarian way [StARS] is a place for peace and love,” Yai observes. “We have refugees from Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and all over Africa. They get together to communicate, and share emotional experiences.  When this happens, the energy becomes powerful, to have that shared love and sense of unity and belonging.  In the context of education, it is very helpful for children, teenagers and parents to share and encourage not only the hope of a better life, but the means by which to acquire and sustain it. Even though parents might not be educated themselves, they want a better life for their children.”

St. Andrew’s United Church of Cairo continues to support the StARS program through the use of their property. Erin Odgers-Chew, chairperson of St. Andrew’s Church of Cairo states “as a church, St. Andrew’s is committed to the support of refugees in Cairo. Hospitality is an important aspect of the church as well as the Egyptian culture. Egypt has a history of welcoming refugees. In this same spirit of hospitality, we too welcome refugees to receive service and education on our property.”

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