Nousa is determined to finish school and go to university to help make a difference when, one day, she returns home.
CAIRO, Egypt – When Nousa Sleiman arrived in Egypt as a refugee from Sudan three years ago, exhausted and disorientated, she had one ambition. “The only weapon I can have is education,” she says. “With it, I can help my family. Today, you can’t do anything if you are not educated.”
Despite living through years of insecurity and conflict in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains before fleeing and becoming a refugee, Nousa had never missed a year of school. Now, after continuing her studies at a community school in Cairo supported by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, she is in her final year at school and planning to go to university.
“I want to help provide for my mother and siblings because no one else can,” her determination still visible behind a shy smile. “I am the eldest who must take responsibility. The most important thing for me is to continue my education so I can help my family and be a role model for my young siblings.”
Egypt is currently host to more than 221,000 refugees from 56 different countries, with Syria and Sudan alone accounting for three quarters of the total. Around 40 per cent of all Syrian and Sudanese refugees in the country are school-age children, and the Government of Egypt grants them access to public education on an equal footing with Egyptians.
“The most important thing for me is to continue my education.”
In the current academic year, over 52,000 refugee children are enrolled in schools in Egypt, and UNHCR is providing education grants to 37,000 students. It also supports the Ministry of Education with teacher training, school refurbishment and equipment, furniture and other supplies.
“Education is part of UNHCR’s core protection mandate,” says the agency’s Representative to Egypt Karim Atassi. “We are working closely with the government to mainstream all refugee school-age children into the public education system.”
Nousa and her nine younger siblings fled Sudan with their mother after their father went missing during a surge in fighting near their hometown in 2015. They travelled for many hours in tightly-packed buses to reach the border, terrified of being separated.
“When we left Sudan, things were difficult. We were all alone,” Nousa explains. “When we first arrived in Cairo, we found shelter in a charity, because we did not have anyone here. We stayed there for a few days, then we registered with UNHCR and rented our own flat. Then we started going to school.”
“We were all alone.”
The Sacred Heart Church school has around 400 pupils, the majority from Sudan and South Sudan, and is one of over 70 such community refugee schools in Cairo.
Through its NGO partner Catholic Relief Services, UNHCR provides these schools with financial assistance, stationery and educational materials. Sacred Heart Church school principal Botrous Ambrous says they provide a vital stepping stone for refugees to reach university and achieve their dreams.
“What is important about this school is that it serves refugee children in Egypt,” he says. “The main purpose of the school is to graduate a whole new generation of refugee students who can use their degrees to build a good future for themselves anywhere they go.”
For Nousa, when lessons end there is little time for relaxation. After school, she cares for her siblings, and does the cooking and chores while her mother is out cleaning homes to support them. On weekends and holidays, she takes over the cleaning jobs to allow her mother a break.
After university, Nousa hopes to become a teacher and help others like her when she eventually returns home.
“When I go back to Sudan, I wish to help people who do not have anyone to support them, because I’ve experienced the same situation and I really wish that no one lives the same hardships I lived through.”