“I am so proud of the work that this little congregation does”, says Kirsten Fryer, the pastor of St Andrew’s. “Because we are here, thousands of refugees recognize St Andrew’s as a safe space, and hundreds worship within our walls. I truly believe that the work we do matters and is a reflection of our call to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God”.
Kirsten is referring to StARS, the St Andrew’s Refugee Service, which has been in operation since 1979, when a group of members of the congregation saw a need to form a class to teach English to some refugees from Ethiopia. Since then the number of refugees in Egypt has rocketed, and StARS has grown from a handful of volunteers to an organization with 177 paid staff. Of the paid staff, 80% are from the refugee community. All staff, both international and refugee, are paid on the same scale, which is unusual.
It is estimated that there are 65.3 million refugees worldwide (November 2016), 40 million of which are internally displaced people. Over 50% of refugees come from three countries: Somalia, Syria and Afghanistan. Whilst Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran and Jordan host large numbers of refugees, the number of refugees in Egypt has also increased as it is surrounded by countries facing war or internal tension –such as Libya, Sudan and South Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Yemen.
Many refugees make their way towards the coast around Alexandria to attempt to cross the Mediterranean, and numbers registered in Egypt are around 190,000. At St Andrew’s over 10,300 displaced people were assisted in 2015, but this year it has already risen to 16,500. There are a growing number of unaccompanied minors to help, and an ever increasing number of refugees from Syria.
Most of the refugees coming to Egypt are looking to be resettled elsewhere and so have to register with the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees), who then interview families and, if approved, refer them to a country like Canada or the United States for resettlement. The United Kingdom is shamefully way behind other countries in the number of places it offers for resettlement.
In 2016 approximately 6,000 refugees in Egypt were resettled, but that is, of course, out of 190,000. In other countries, refugees can eventually become citizens of the country in which they settle. This is not the case in Egypt (except if they were to marry an Egyptian!), and so many refugees who have lived in Cairo for years are still deemed refugees and as such have to apply for a renewal of their permit to stay in the country every few months. Egypt does not allow refugees the right to work, and so refugees have to work illegally. They do not have any redress if anything goes wrong. Refugees do not have a feeling of security in Egypt and so are anxious to move on. The vast majority would prefer to go back to their home countries, but sadly that is not a feasible option in most cases.
Needless to say, this keeps the Legal Aid team at StARS very busy. It is made up of over 20 lawyers, often young lawyers from overseas who take a year out. They work closely with the UNHCR over resettlement, and review the cases of refugees whose applications for resettlement have been rejected by the UNHCR. Some cases are eligible to appeal, and in September alone there were 36 such appeals. The lawyers also work with those applying to be registered as refugees. Without refugee status, you are quite unprotected. A number of Oromo from Ethiopia find themselves in this category; although they feel discriminated against within Ethiopia, their application to be considered as refugees is rejected.
StARS is an amazing organization, providing hope for so many people. The proceeds of the recent St Andrew’s Christmas Bazaar went to the Emergency Fund, which is used to help refugees in extreme need. As a member of St Andrew’s and one of the volunteers, I am honoured to be associated with it. To read more about it, visit the website.