Egypt now hosts close to 300,000 Syrian refugees, according to the Egyptian Government.
Yet the country has no formal refugee camps, unlike Jordan, Turkey or Iraq, so many of the arrivals are using their fast-depleting savings to rent accommodation on the outskirts of cities such as Cairo, Damietta and Alexandria.
I’ve been in bustling Cairo for two weeks now, learning more about our refugee response work and working with our teams here on how we can best advocate for children.
Deprived of an education
Across the region, public school systems are stretched and many refugee children are out of school – deprived of an education on top of all the privations they have already suffered. Here in Egypt, over 40% of Syrian children are not enrolled in school; for those that are, classes can reach 120 students, struggling to glean an education via exhausted and under-trained teachers.
For those whose savings are running out, the cost of transport and school books make school prohibitively expensive; more and more children are also working to support their families.
At one of our Child Friendly Spaces (a converted building where children can come and play and draw in the afternoons), the Syrian volunteers told me with great distress about three boys, twins aged six and their nine-year-old brother, who no longer come to school or the Child Friendly Space as they spend their days pushing car tyres to the local factory.
Improving Egypt’s schooling system
Save the Children is working with the Ministry of Education to improve the capability of the Egyptian public school system for both refugee and local children. We are also supporting regular classes and one-to-one catch-up tuition in community centres, to make sure refugee children don’t miss any more of those vital years of school. We train Syrian teachers in the Egyptian curriculum so children are eligible to take national exams.
In the kindergarten
The three- and four-year-olds I met in the kindergarten had all sorts of ambitions: they wanted to grow up to be be dentists, chefs or florists – one even has aspirations to become a dragon! But the heavy psychological impact of the conflict was also apparent. One little girl was very withdrawn. “She used to cry every time a man came into a room,” her teacher told me. “It reminded her of when armed men came into her school in Syria and started firing at the students.” Several of the older boys expressed the desire to go back to Syria and fight, as soon as they are big enough.
We are doing all we can – counselling, education, play and activities – to let these children just be children again. But I couldn’t help but think of all the children we are not reaching and the need to do more, to give more and to create more sustainable solutions through our advocacy.
*names changed to protect identity