Syrian refugee Abdallah left school aged 12 to support his destitute family, and UNHCR warns that more refugees face ruin without urgent increase in funding.
CAIRO, Egypt – When 15-year-old Syrian refugee Abdallah rises each morning to make the journey to the busy barber shop in Cairo where he works, the sun has not yet fully risen over the already-teeming Egyptian capital.
Since dropping out of school three years ago to take the job, Abdallah has worked exhausting 12-hour shifts each working day sweeping floors, making tea and performing other menial tasks for the equivalent of just US$12 per week.
Reflecting on this meagre return for all his hard work, Abdallah says he would far rather continue his education. But with two older siblings with disabilities and his father Samir unable to work due to injury, the US$80 the family currently receives each month from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is insufficient to cover the family’s needs.
“I would love to go back to school.”
“I would love to go back to school, but I cannot afford to stop working because what we receive from UNHCR is not enough to cover my siblings’ basic needs or my parents’ medications,” Abdullah explained.
The family’s plight is a familiar one for the vast majority of the roughly quarter of a million registered refugees and asylum seekers currently living in the country. Some 80 per cent of the total are living in desperate humanitarian conditions, unable to meet even their most basic needs such as food, shelter or healthcare.
On Thursday, UNHCR warned that its essential support programmes for refugees in the country were under severe pressure, due to a combination of increasing arrivals and inadequate resources.
Ongoing conflicts and insecurity in Yemen, the Horn of Africa and sub-Saharan Africa have seen the number of registered refugees and asylum seekers in Egypt increase by 24 per cent in the past two years.
“We are unable to provide them with the bare essentials.”
Meanwhile, two months into 2019, UNHCR is operating with only four per cent of its annual US$104.2 million budget for its operations in the country.
“These refugees require timely and adequate humanitarian assistance,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi. “Yet, right now we are unable to provide them with the bare essentials or maintain our core refugee protection programmes in this country.”
The result is that families like Abdallah’s face a daily struggle to get by, with many sinking into poverty and debt and being forced to resort to the most desperate measures to survive, including child labour and early marriage. This is despite the Egyptian government’s generous support to refugees, which includes free education and access to health care on an equal footing with Egyptians.
“Our situation is very challenging in Egypt.”
Abdallah’s father Samir, 58, described the desperation of their situation since arriving in the country from the Syrian capital Damascus in 2013, which has left them reliant on the money that his 15-year-old son brings in.
“Our situation is very challenging in Egypt,” he said. “We cannot offer our children the specialized care they need… and I developed back problems from carrying them around. I wish I could get proper medical care to be able to work and provide for them.”
With more funds made available by generous donors, UNHCR will be able to better support Abdallah’s family and many other families in similar vulnerable situations.