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A New Chapter for Refugee Students in Egypt

By Laura Sheahen

"We came to Egypt because of the war in Sudan, to be out of danger," says Sausan Rashid Nemr, a 34-year-old Sudanese widow now living in Cairo. Her eyes fill as she remembers how she lost her mother, her husband and one of her five children during the war between northern and southern Sudan. While she waits her turn near a Catholic Relief Services office to receive tuition vouchers for her children, Sausan describes how she had to begin again in Egypt six years ago.

Sudanese refugee students

In Cairo, Sudanese refugee students participate in CRS programs meant to bring together students from different backgrounds. Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS

After fleeing her homeland, Sausan made her way to Cairo, a city not always friendly toward the Sudanese. She now raises her four surviving children alone in an apartment in a bad section of town. Though they are not threatened by war, the family must grapple with nearby drug addicts and daily poverty.

Working as a maid, Sausan earns about $130 a month, with $90 of that going to rent. She's able to buy her family one chicken each month. The rest of the month they eat rice. Sausan has had an offer of marriage that might improve her financial situation, but she says of the man, "I refused to marry him because he might treat my children badly."

Keeping Refugee Children in School

The family's life is hard, but not hopeless. Although most refugee children face obstacles to attending school in Egypt, Sausan's kids have a chance at a better future. With funding from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Catholic Relief Services gives tuition money to refugees in Egypt so their children can go to school.

Egypt has several types of schools, and rules about who can attend them. The public schools, while free, are often overcrowded, and may charge fees for books and other items. Refugees are not always permitted to attend them. "Refugee schools"—schools created by Sudanese refugee communities in Egypt—are often affiliated with churches. They are usually cheaper, closer to where refugees live and tailored to refugee needs, but are not accredited. Private schools are available, but are often far too expensive—$300 to $700 per year—for refugee families who are barely scraping by.

Depending on the family's choice of school, the CRS tuition grants range from $130 to $275 per child, per year. This covers roughly half of private school tuition, and the whole amount for other schools. The vouchers can also be used for uniforms, school fees and books; parents provide receipts showing how the money was used. CRS provides additional voucher money for children with disabilities so they can attend specialized classes.

Students receive a grant for each new semester. After the first grant, students must maintain at least a 75 percent attendance record to receive a second grant. Thousands of Iraqi, Sudanese and other refugee children in Cairo and Alexandria are getting an education thanks to the program.

Overcoming Challenges

Sudanese refugees have been flooding into Egypt for over a decade. Many Sudanese children are allowed to attend public schools, but choose not to because of overcrowding, racial prejudice, or lack of documents like birth certificates or report cards from their homeland. Instead, they usually attend the refugee schools run by their communities.

Iraqi refugee girl in Cairo

Children play games and get their faces painted, but also get the chance to talk about their lives and their hopes for the future. Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS

Iraqi refugees are a newer phenomenon and also face daunting challenges. Iraqi children are not allowed to attend Egypt's public schools, and Iraqi adults are not allowed work permits in Egypt. The combination of no pay for parents and limited school options is putting Iraqi children at risk.

"Before there was a war, Iraq's education system was very good," says an Iraqi father who has asked to be called Muhammad for this article. His family fled Iraq after facing kidnappings and beatings by militants. Now, four of his five children (his youngest is too small) benefit from the CRS vouchers, going to school in a Cairo suburb. "They tell me they like the teachers and students," Muhammad says. "At first they had a little bit of a problem with the [Egyptian Arabic] dialect, but after two months they were fine."

Another Iraqi refugee woman and her family fled Baghdad when militants invaded their house. There's no work for the family's adults in Cairo, and they were threatened with death if they returned to Iraq. She's grateful that the CRS program helps her son, Sef, stay in class. "If this program did not exist, Sef would not be in school," she says.

CRS watches out for especially vulnerable families. Sayeda, an Eritrean refugee with seven children—five of school age—could not afford to send them to school. When she learned about the CRS grant, Sayeda enrolled them in private schools where the grant paid half the tuition. At the end of the first semester, her five children were dismissed from class because Sayeda couldn't pay the full amount. CRS reviewed her case and helped her with additional money to cover the shortfall.

Bringing Classmates Together

Sometimes refugee children and Egyptian children have trouble getting along. As part of the UNHCR-funded program, CRS is helping students from different backgrounds get to know each other. Classmates paint, draw and play games like musical chairs, sometimes led by a clown. Students also talk about their lives and their hopes for the future.

The program helps build tolerance, respect and an appreciation of diversity among students. "It's a way to show them they can have fun together," says Yasmine Serry, CRS program manager.

The tuition program gives options to parents who have already seen their children threatened by violence and war. They don't want their children's futures further threatened by a lack of education.

For Sausan, the vouchers mean that even when money for food is tight, she won't have to sacrifice her children's education to pay rent or buy groceries. Like many Sudanese single mothers in Egypt, Sausan has had little formal education but greatly values school. "I can't read," she says, "and I want my children's lives to be better."

Laura Sheahen is CRS' regional information officer for Europe and the Middle East. She is based in Cairo.

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