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Feature: They've lived, now they'd like to learn


Feature: They've lived, now they'd like to learn

After fleeing unimaginable atrocities in their homeland, refugee children in Cairo still have to struggle for a chance to go to school. The UN refugee agency is working to improve access to public education in Egypt, and has co-founded a scholarship programme for university students.
20 November 2003
Refugee children taking a break from their studies in Cairo's Sakakini School.

CAIRO, Egypt (UNHCR) - The children laugh and squeal as they play cat and mouse in the school playground. It is hard to imagine that not long ago, they were running not for fun but for their lives.

Ahmed comes from Sudan, where he lived with his parents and four siblings. As a five-year-old boy, he had nothing to worry about and would come back from school to play with his brothers and watch his favourite cartoon.

One night* Ahmed was watching TV when suddenly, the front door flew open and the military police stormed in to arrest his father without reason. Ahmed's mother clung to her husband while her children looked on in a daze, terrified and unsure of what to do. They never saw their father again.

Today, Ahmed is a 14-year-old refugee in the Egyptian capital of Cairo. His last encounter with his father has scarred him for life. Ahmed is determined to make a better life for himself and his family by studying hard and improving himself. He knows he does not want his future children to experience what he has been through and he plans to make the best of his life in Egypt.

To meet the needs of refugee children like Ahmed, the St. Lwanga Centre for Basic Education School, also known as Sakakini School, was established in Cairo in 1990. As the number of refugees kept increasing, two more centres were established - St. Bakhita Centre for Basic Education and St. Joseph's Centre for Basic Education. There are currently 1,700 students enrolled in the three centres.

Refugees live on very limited income in their country of asylum; some can barely feed themselves. Yet education remains a dream they won't give up because they realise its importance and the future it brings.

Understanding their difficult living circumstances, Sakakini School accepts minimum fees from refugees - less than $5 per school year for the intermediate level. This may seem like a small sum, but for many refugee families, even this amount is an obstacle they cannot overcome.

Brother Enrico Reyero, Education Co-ordinator at Sakakini School, explains that the school is asking for token fees "to make the refugees feel like they are contributing in some way." The bulk of the school's expenses is covered by funds raised by the church.

The UN refugee agency provides education grants to refugees directly or through its implementing partners. In Cairo, there are currently almost 4,500 refugee students enrolled in various education programmes run by church and charitable organisations. However, such opportunities still do not exist for the majority of school-age children of refugees, asylum seekers and other persons of concern to UNHCR.

Even where there are places available in school, many refugee children do not go because their parents cannot afford the costs of sending them - aside from tuition fees, there is also the cost of transportation, school materials and food. Other children cannot attend school because they need to stay at home to look after their younger siblings while their parents work

At Sakakini School, refugee students pay minimum fees for tuition.

Brother Reyero adds that many refugee children are not easily allowed into Egyptian public schools and must therefore resort to private schooling. "For public schools, a lot of paper work is asked from them and quite often the refugee children are not allowed to sit for the exams, with excuses like there is no space." UNHCR is eager to pursue discussions with the relevant government authorities to improve access for refugee children to the public education system in Egypt.

For the lucky ones who manage to finish their basic education, the next step - university - is paved with more obstacles.

To help ease these problems, UNHCR Cairo signed an agreement last month with October 6 University (O6U) to grant scholarships to five refugee students. With its 14 different faculties, O6U is considered one of the best private universities in Egypt. Its diverse community - 17,000 students of different nationalities - will give the refugee students a chance to study in an atmosphere of tolerance for different cultures.

Mohamed Abdulahi Mose is one of the five students receiving the scholarships. "It was a dream to finish my studies so that I can be a complete human being," he says, describing the scholarship as "a golden opportunity."

Another scholar, Nahla Abdelaziz Gaffer, speaks of the importance of education: "The more you study, the more complete you become."

Overall, the scholarship recipients seem determined to make the most out of their opportunities. Listening to them talk enthusiastically about the future they want to build for themselves makes one wish that more can be done for them and other refugee children.

* This anecdote is based on the true stories of several young refugees.

By Amina Alkorey