Whenever I go through the gates at St Andrew’s, there are always people there. Many are waiting – waiting to see a counselor or a lawyer, eager to get some advice. Children are inevitably playing football, and it is always good to see the mixture of ages and nationalities. Football seems to unite.
One little Syrian girl was content to swing on a tyre hanging by a rope from a tree, while her parents looked on, glad to find a moment’s peace, compared with the horrors they have doubtless experienced. All the people gathered at St Andrew’s have their own stories to tell, many of them heartbreaking. But at St Andrew’s Refugee Services (StARS) we offer them a safe space and assistance.
StARS has several main areas in which it works. The first is education, and that is where it all began. The refugee communities have difficulty gaining access to the Egyptian school system, and the few who do often encounter discrimination, and so there are a number of private schools for refugee children. At StARS there is now:
- A recently established Montessori Pre-School with 20 pupils between the ages of 2 and 6, mostly vulnerable children from the different refugee communities, and this is taught in English and Arabic.
- A school (primary/ secondary) with 253 pupils, which follows the Sudanese curriculum, with lessons taught in English. The school is very well regarded, and indeed there are 30 applications for each place. Breakfast and a hot lunch are provided, and pupils are also helped with transport. Most importantly, children from different countries are able to sit together and play together at the break.
StARS also has a big Adult Education programme, with about 2,500 people involved. The courses are primarily English language courses, but there are also vocational courses such as hairdressing and IT. Other courses taught include interview skills and C.V. writing – very practical! Since last year there has also been an emphasis on Educational Access and Capacity Building. This is especially aimed at training teachers from the Syrian community, who often come from a non-teaching background. They are highly educated, but are unable to find jobs in their own areas and so become teachers – StARS steps in to help provide them with basic classroom skills.
Another area which is expanding is Psycho-Social, which works to improve the situation a client might find themselves in, encouraging within them a resilience to cope. In 2013 there were 8 people in this department, but now there are 60, mostly from the refugee community. It is within this department that you find one-to-one counselling over a whole range of issues, though housing features high, as it is often problematic to find decent housing, and refugees are often exploited by landlords and charged higher rents. Sexual violence is another big area that Psycho -Social deals with. It also organises various groups such as sport, music and self-defence, and peer-support groups. There is also a medical officer and a network of doctors and pharmacists offering low cost treatment to refugees.
Unaccompanied Children and Youth
Psycho-Social also deals with Unaccompanied Children and Youth (UYC). These are young people under the age of 18 who arrive in Egypt without parents and who are at great risk of exploitation. StARS have been able to support 580, though there are another 400 on the waiting list. Many of the unaccompanied youth come from countries like Ethiopia and Eritrea, and because they are not Arabic speakers, the risk of exploitation is even higher. However, StARS runs a super Bridging Programme for UYC, which runs for two semesters of 5 months and which teaches subjects like English, Arabic, maths and IT, and life skills. 179 are enrolled in this programme, and in it they are allowed to be normal teenagers.
One of them said; ‘Before I didn’t have hope, but now I can dream’. This programme has recently been shortlisted for a big international prize, so watch this space…!