Stories of Change

Ahmed works at his desk at StARS.

“There’s still hope in this world, despite everything.”

Ahmed* is the youngest program coordinator on staff at St. Andrew’s Refugee Services, CWS’s local partner in Cairo. A refugee from Nigeria, Ahmed graduated from the Adult Education Program himself a few years ago. We sat down with Ahmed in late 2019 to hear his story and what St. Andrew’s, known as StARS, means to him.

What country where you born in, and why did you leave?

I was born in Nigeria. The reason why I left was the problem of Boko Haram. I was in high school. Both of my parents were teachers. This made me the epitome of what Boko Haram considered to be infidels. My mother was so worried about me because Boko Haram was after people like me—young people who could be easily brainwashed. For girls, they could take them as their “wives,” as they call them. But for me as a boy, they could brainwash me and arm me to go and fight. Otherwise, I’m a traitor and would be killed. My mom wanted to get me out of the country by any means possible.

Boko Haram attacked our houses many times. We had to run from house to house. This had been going on for a long time. Then we ran to another state. And from there, we found the father of one of my classmates. When my mom told him about my story and that I was in desperate need of help to move me anywhere, he said he was a frequent flyer with an Egyptian airline. He could take me to Egypt. He arranged for my passport and everything. Here I am in Egypt, far away from Boko Haram. I am one of the lucky ones who made it. I hope others will have the same opportunity or they will find a nice place where they can feel safe.

How did you first hear about StARS?

I was at home one day. I had been battling this identity crisis, if you want to call it that. I was debating with myself to take a dangerous journey to cross water and go somewhere, because I felt that staying in Egypt wasn’t an option for me. I didn’t know what to do. Then one day my roommate came back, and he brought a book. And he said, “Look at this. I know you have been asking for an English program.” I asked where it was, and he told me about StARS. “There is a center where you see lots of refugees. Also, they run English classes,” he told me. I said, “Oh my goodness. Tomorrow you will take me there.” From that moment, I would come to StARS every day. Eventually, one day the Adult Education Program coordinator told me, “you are accepted as a student now.”

Since you became a student, what positions have you had at StARS?

After I graduated from the Adult Education Program, I came back as a volunteer, then as a part-time teacher, then as a senior teacher. Now I’m the one leading the program; the coordinator of the Adult Education Program.

What is the Adult Education Program?

The Adult Education Program is a program designed for adult refugees who come to Egypt. Unfortunately, some of them didn’t go to school in their home countries or haven’t had any opportunities to expand their education. Usually the classes start at 3 o’clock, and they go until 8. Because it’s adult education, many of the students work, so the mornings aren’t a good time for them. We also offer vocational classes that are designed to help women with their livelihoods. It’s difficult for refugees in Egypt to survive without any training. So we offer classes in henna design as well as handicrafts, sewing and hair styling. Some of our students have started their own businesses. Right now all the classes are for women, but we are hoping to add classes for men. They have been asking for classes in plumbing, tailoring and other things.

Could you tell us about a success story from the program?

A lady from Yemen came to us empty handed. She didn’t know what to do, so we advised her to join our hair styling program. She did, and now she is running her own shop in her community. It’s incredible. She has even hired two people who are working for her now.

Why do you think it’s important that the vast majority of StARS staff are refugees?

I’ll be honest with you – if it wasn’t for StARS, I would have left this country a long time ago by any means possible. For me, StARS is like finding an oasis in the middle of the desert. We have other centers helping refugees in Egypt, but StARS is a place where you come and feel like “this really belongs to me.” I’ve heard from other refugees too that when you set foot in StARS, you feel totally safe and at home. Every refugee who comes to StARS is treated fairly and with tolerance. We see everyone has human beings. Every day is a learning day here. I call it the marketplace of ideas. Our small United Nations. Everyone who comes here is fully aware of your situation. People who understand you before they even talk to you. I hope that every refugee, wherever they are, they will find a haven like StARS.

You arrived in Cairo alone as a 16-year-old. What advice would you give now to someone in that situation?

I would tell them to never lose hope. There’s still hope in this world, despite everything. We live to see another day. I would tell them to not lose hope no matter how hard the situation looks. There are places like this. There are people who are hoping to help you. It’s just a matter of time before you come across them. I like to joke when people ask me how old I am that I am 8 years old. I started counting my years from the moment I discovered StARS.

*Name changed to protect identity.