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Syrians in Egypt “live like any Egyptian citizen” with access to housing, healthcare and education, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ahmed Abu Zeid — like his predecessor — claimed in September, as the ministry took advantage of dramatic scenes in Europe to criticize European treatment of refugees.

According to the latest statistics from the Education Ministry, there are 35,000 Syrians and 6,000 Sudanese enrolled to start in public schools across Egypt this academic year.

Amid the usual discussions about the state of Egypt’s education system around the beginning of the academic year, there has been almost no mention of more than 40,000 refugee children attending Egyptian public schools this year.

On the one hand, these children face the deep-seated problems of Egypt’s educational system — overcrowded classrooms, teachers dividing their time between school and private tuition — as well as others more closely tied to the experience of migration. That can mean handling the tedious challenges of gaining the proper residency permits to everything from bullying and racism, socio-economic challenges or poor inter-community integration.

Restricted access

Egypt signed the 1951 Refugee Convention with a special reservation on refugees’ access to public services, including education. This means that not everyone can attend public schools. At present, children of registered Sudanese and Syrian refugees have this right. Palestinian-Syrians, although fleeing the same conflict, are assessed on a “case-by-case basis,” according to a UNHCR official, because they must apply for security permission before being able to enrol.

There was a period in 2013 when this wasn’t the case for Syrians, however. After June 30, 2013, when the government and media were hounding and threatening Syrian refugees for purportedly supporting the Brotherhood, the state blocked Syrians’ access to public schools. The policy was first instituted during former President Mohamed Morsi’s administration, when Syrians generally fared much better, albeit in part due to the precariously politicized refuge in which they were living under the Islamist president.

So, between June 30 and September 2013 — when the government re-admitted Syrians to public schools — it was more grass-roots community centres, like those run by Tadamon Council, that filled the gap.

Now, though, UNHCR is more interested in getting Syrians into stable education in public schools. UNHCR education officer, Mohamed Shawky, told Mada Masr about the drive to get Syrians back into schools.

“Through UNHCR advocacy efforts, we were able to get the [2013] decision reverted again,” says Shawky. “We’ve invested a lot of time and effort with the government through advocacy efforts … [and] campaigned for something that’s more lasting and sustainable — unrestricted access, unlimited to a period of time.”

However, aid workers in Cairo, speaking anonymously because they are not permitted to speak to press, suggest that while UNHCR’s priorities have shifted toward getting Syrians into public schools, the drop-out rate can be high.

Shawky suggests the current figure is “anywhere between 12 and 19 percent,” although that could change as the academic year rolls on.

There are several reasons for high dropout rates among migrant and refugee children.

Harassment and racism, dissatisfaction with the quality of public school education, difficulties with transport or access to local schools, costs of uniforms and books are all cited by refugees and refugee organizations as problems with going to school in Egypt.

A September 2014 report by Maysa Ayoub and Shaden Khallaf for the American University in Cairo’s Center for Migration and Refugee Studies (CMRS), based on a series of focus group and in-community interviews between 2013 and 2014, found that “Syrian families highlighted that most Egyptian families resort to private tutoring to make up for the poor quality of education and poor facilities. However, children whose parents are unable to cover the cost of these private lessons, including many Syrian refugee families, end up failing or leaving school.”

“Some parents raised concerns about harassment and security on the way to and from school,” the report added, while young women “expressed sentiments of entrapment partly due to the fears of harassment and consequent confinement to their residence in comparison to the relative independence they had enjoyed at their home country.”

While Syrians have been allowed back into public schools, other communities are not so fortunate. UNHCR now provides education assistance to some 6,000 primary school children from “historic caseload countries,” like Eritrea and Somalia, through community centers, Shawky explains — largely because they are denied access to state schools by the government through the reservation on the 1951 Convention.

So what alternatives are there for refugees looking to educate their children in Egypt?

A Refugee Action Project study, conducted in 2012 with a range of Cairo-based refugee organisations including AMERA and St. Andrew’s Refugee Services (StARS), found that around 30 percent did not attend school at all. Although the composition of Egypt’s refugee population has changed since then, findings like this point to why parents are turning to alternatives outside the realm of state education.

The Sudanese Alexandria School has been providing primary and secondary-level education to refugees and asylum seekers living in and around the city’s Sidi Bishr neighborhood since the mid-summer, when the Sudanese school year starts. It offers students the Sudanese certificate and has received approval from the Sudanese Ministry of Education and consulate in Alexandria. Because of Arab League decrees, the Sudanese curriculum is recognised by the Egyptian government and other Arab governments.

This school, established by Sudanese refugees with the help of Catholic Relief Service (CRS) funding, shows the many reasons why education is so important for refugee children.

Ubiydah, a 16-year-old Syrian student originally from the bombed-out Damascus neighborhood of Joubar, told Mada Masr that the school had got him back in the classroom after two and a half years out of education.

“I’m struggling with the basics, especially math and chemistry, because I’ve not been going to school,” he said. Some of the Syrian students in Ubiydah’s class have been out of school for three or even four years.

For other students, the school is an opportunity to study alongside people more like them, or people with common dialects and similar experiences of displacement and diaspora.

“I can talk to Sudanese students like me here,” said one student, originally from Khartoum. “I feel more comfortable.”

Other students said there was little difference between this school and the public schools they’d previously attended.

Upstairs, there’s a secondary-level chemistry lesson underway. The class is made up of just eight students, mostly Syrians — a stark contrast to the images of overcrowded classes and swamped teaching staff in Egyptian public schools. That said, getting an education here is more expensive than public school: LE1,000 for Sudanese or other African nationalities and LE2,000 for Syrians or other Arab refugees. Ali Abdel Latif Ahmed, who runs the school, says this is because of the funding conditions set by his donor organization.

Abdel Latif Ahmed, himself a refugee from Sudan, is frank about what he is doing.

“Look, if I told you I was doing this just to help people, I’d be a liar,” he smiles. “I make money, and that’s my reason for doing this.”

Abu Yazan, a Syrian Kurd originally from Aleppo, lives with his wife, two daughters and son in an east Alexandria neighborhood home to thousands of Syrian refugees. He works in a Syrian restaurant in the local area. He says that although there are Syrian educational facilities — not unlike the Sudanese Alexandria School — that have been set up around Alexandria, he cannot send his children because they are too far away from home and too expensive.

Fatima Idriss, head of the UNHCR-funded Tadamon Council that serves some 30,000 refugees each year, says education is “everything” to children growing up outside of their homeland.

“Tadamon is particularly focused on education because it’s key to everything. Education is protection — a school works for your community structure, when you’ve lost it in the first place. It’s protection, an opportunity and a way out of trouble. It’s psych-social support; it’s taking people from the feeling of vulnerability towards active empowerment.”

“Whatever situation of vulnerability you have, you still have the power to restructure your lives,” Idriss says.

Through five community centres in Cairo and Giza neighborhoods populated with refugee communities, including 6th of October City and Faisal, Tadamon provides educational opportunities to refugee children. Refugees are involved in the decision-making process of what their children learn.

Tadamon has been struggling. UNHCR has cut back services in the face of dwindling funding and so-called “donor fatigue” from five long years of displacement and tragedy from Syria, meaning that programmes like Tadamon have suffered cutbacks. Some staff have also moved on.

Seeking better education

Some refugees are looking beyond the region to fulfil their hopes for education, work and stability. The push and pull factors driving migration in the Mediterranean can be complex, but refugees in Egypt often talk about worries about providing a proper education for their children as one such factor.

Ammar, a 23-year-old Homsi Syrian who asked for his real name to be withheld, completed his undergraduate degree in Egypt after fleeing Syria. He is thankful for the “good, free education” he received in Egypt, although he has seen the downsides too, as a volunteer at Tadamon.

“[That] gave me the chance to know more about the education system in Egypt,” he says. “It’s so bad; the classes are full, with more than 45 students. Teachers ignore their responsibilities by letting students ask them for private classes. Laws and procedures for being a student are easy in theory, but are so difficult in reality.”

Ammar points to issues around residency permits, which can ultimately dictate whether or not a Syrian can study in Egypt but often for reasons beyond their control, as just one example.

At the same time, he doesn’t think education plays an important role in migration.

“Maybe for some families it does, but generally, I don’t think so,” Ammar says.

“Education is one of the main factors [for migration],” claimed Mohamed al-Kashef from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) in Alexandria, giving it similar significance as work, socio-economic issues or dwindling assistance from international organizations.

“For Syrian refugees, it’s a priority. They are well-educated people and they’re looking for a better future.”

Abu Yazan, from Aleppo who now lives in Alexandria, fled Syria and initially went with his family to Libya, but they were then displaced a second time in 2013 after inter-militia fighting arrived at their door. They arrived in Egypt right in the middle of Morsi’s overthrow that summer, thrust into a climate of incitement and state-sanctioned exclusion from public services, meaning Abu Yazan couldn’t send his children to public school.

“If I had the money to send my children to private schools, I wouldn’t even have left Syria in the first place,” Abu Yazan said.

Since the government changed its position, Abu Yazan’s children are now attending public school in Alexandria, but he’s still critical of the way the system is run.

“Now, after my problems with the bureaucracy, I see no advantages to the education system in Egypt. Private lessons are a necessity. Even a diligent student is forced to go to private lessons so that they are not picked on by the teacher, or even their fellow students.”

Originally from the Damascus countryside, Ayman raised his three-year-old son in Egypt. Now living in an isolated neighbourhood on the outskirts of 6th of October City, he sees the boat as his only alternative. He is unwilling to send his son to school in Egypt.

“Public schools are very poor,” he said. “My son’s future would be lost.”

In conjunction with other problems that refugees face – from maintaining a livelihood to hostility from the authorities — a failing education system can impact refugees’ access to and willingness to pursue education in Egypt.

In some cases, refugees are seeking education outside the state — in schools like the Sudanese Alexandria School — while others are looking further afield, toward Europe.

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Tom Rollins  @rollinz
Tom Rollins is a Cairo-based freelance journalist.