Maureen Jack, a World Mission Council member sends a third blog from her visit to our partner church, Synod of the Nile of the Presbyterian Church of Egypt.
What does the term ‘unaccompanied minor’ mean to you? Until yesterday, it made me think of children excited to be travelling on an airplane, maybe going home from school for the holidays, or off to stay with grandparents, But yesterday in Cairo we encountered a very, very different reality.
Egypt has many refugees, who have come from countries such as Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and, more recently, in large numbers, from Syria. One agency that works with them is the St Andrew’s Refugee Service (StARS) in downtown Cairo. The organisation is based in St Andrew’s United Church, which was originally a Church of Scotland church, the sanctuary having been dedicated in 1909 by the then Moderator of the General Assembly. St Andrew’s is one of the churches in the Synod of the Nile, a Church of Scotland partner.
The need for support for refugees here is immense. The official UN High Commission for Refugees figures indicate that there are 180 000 refugees in Egypt. Unofficial estimates place the figure at more than twice that number. Their situation is extremely precarious. Refugees cannot become Egyptian citizens. Nor can their children. Nor can their children’s children. Lack of citizenship denies them access to healthcare and education. They have no recourse to the law and so no protection against the racism that was described to us. It is therefore not surprising that the church’s Pastor, Rev Kristen Fryer, finds that members of some of the eleven other congregations that worship in St Andrew’s are reluctant to leave after worship, finding in the church a place of safety and security and solace.
It is no surprise, either, that many try to escape by boat to Europe. The Executive Director of StARS told us about one group of people who paid money to risk the journey recently. They were held for several days on farms (to hide them from the authorities), and then spent days first on smaller boats and then on a larger boat, before being landed again in Egypt; altogether, they had spent ten days without access to food or water.
StARS has over a hundred staff and provides a service to several thousand refugees each year. They offer intensive support to people in crisis and to new arrivals, whom they seek to link to communities from their own area; they offer group support to mothers of children with a disability and survivors of sexual based violence; they run an adult education programme, with 1500 to 2000 participants, some classes meeting in the hall built many years ago with CofS Guild funds; they run an all-through school for 245 children (they can only offer a place to one applicant in six); and because the most vulnerable children were missing out on places in the school they have started a preschool to prepare them for school; and they have a feeding programme, providing breakfast and lunch for all their pupils.
All this they do on an annual budget of $500,000 (about £300,000). Staff salaries are low, both for expats and for those case workers who come from the communities they serve. Their working conditions are cramped and basic. But what you see is their passion for and joy in service and their commitment to those they serve.
And the unaccompanied minors? StARS reckons that there are around 1100 refugee children in Egypt with no parent or relative fulfilling the role of parent; StARS provides a service for 400 of them. For some children, their parent(s) died on the journey to Egypt. There are others whose parents are in prison in their home countries and who have been sent on their own to make the hazardous journey in the hope that they might have a better life. The children have a very difficult time: some of them are abused or forced into prostitution, which is why the organisation hopes to raise the money it needs to be able to employ a psycho-social worker for children in the area of sexual and gender based violence. The youngest unaccompanied minor with whom they work is a little Sudanese girl of just six, whose parent died after they had arrived in Egypt. Her worker has been able to find her a home with a Sudanese family from the same tribe who are giving her good care.
To hear of what StARS achieves with so little is amazing. To meet their staff is inspiring and humbling in equal measure. What an appropriate name: STARS.