When I walk into St. Andrew’s Refugee Services (StARS) in Cairo each morning, I feel myself perk up a little bit. The guards smile and say good morning, students are laughing and jumping rope or kicking around a soccer ball in the courtyard, and people are genuinely happy to be there. I am not alone in recognizing it. StARS has created a safe and inviting space for refugees and vulnerable migrants in Cairo.
Cairo is a challenging place for refugees. After having fled war or persecution in countries like South Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia and Syria, they face very restrictive policies on livelihoods and schooling, with little financial assistance or other aid. Refugees often face prejudice and general harassment. To make ends meet, people often take jobs in the informal sector with low pay, such as cleaning houses, that can expose them to exploitation or abuse. When people first approach the psychosocial program, they are often stressed, feeling alone, and thinking they have no one to share their problems with or who can relate to their situation. Some students in the education activities start off shy and lacking confidence. Through education, legal services and psychosocial support, StARS works with refugees and vulnerable migrants in Cairo to increase their ability to meet their basic needs.
I came to Cairo as part of a partnership between CWS and StARS. One of the things I do in my role is talk to clients about the challenges they face and what they see as beneficial for them at StARS. Across programs, people have talked about the benefits of opportunities to interact, discuss and share with people of different nationalities. In the adult education program, it is not uncommon to see Somali, Sudanese, and Ethiopian students walk out of class chatting happily in English or Arabic. Waiting for their appointment with the legal assistance program, people from different backgrounds sit outside under the shade umbrella getting to know each other. One woman told me she had thought that only people in her community faced difficulties in Cairo. After participating in a weekly discussion group as part of the psychosocial program, she realized that refugees from all nationalities face similar problems. She asked for more opportunities to be able to interact with people from diverse backgrounds.
The benefits of this positive environment extend beyond StARS’ walls. Teachers and managers in the education programs for children and unaccompanied youth have talked about seeing some students start off withdrawn and unsure of themselves. Over time, many make friends, feel accepted, gain confidence and teachers see a tangible change in their demeanor and behavior. This change will help them face and overcome challenges they may not have been able to on their own before coming through StARS.
This atmosphere pulls you in and eventually you become a part of it, adding to it. StARS is a busy place, with a lot of staff, clients, volunteers and students. People are dedicated, from the cleaners to program managers to students, and they all make it what it is. I am grateful to be a part of it.
Beth Frank works with CWS and St. Andrew’s Refugee Services (StARS) in Cairo.