A plea from refugees in Cairo that the UK should open its doors to more people seeking asylum has been heard by the Moderator of the General Assembly during his visit to Egypt. Rt Rev Dr Angus Morrison was in the Egyptian capital accompanied by the Youth Moderator Hannah Mary Goodlad.
Together they saw for themselves the plight of refugees from Syria, North and Sub Saharan Africa, and met one Scots volunteer engaged in outreach work in the refugee community.
During their visit to the city’s St Andrew’s United Church they gained a clear impression of the hopelessness of the situation facing those people who cannot return to their homes. Dr Morrison said “We need to do more to help these people believe they have a future.”
The expanding refugee service provided through St Andrews Church will help 11,500 men women and children this year. Built by the Church of Scotland over 100 years ago, St Andrew’s occupies a tight compound in central Cairo which is now a haven of relative peace and security for those who arrive here fleeing oppression.
As traffic on the elevated highway thunders past within just a few feet of the dusty roof of the sanctuary, pre-school children from many different ethnic backgrounds and faiths play football in the courtyard. Branches from two broad trees almost brush against the stone thistles set high on the walls of the Guild Hall as girls push each other on a swing. This is one of the few places these outsiders can relax in the sprawling Egyptian capital. The melting pot of nationalities drawn here includes people from Eritrea, Sudan, Ethiopia and Syria. One thing they have in common is the hostility and discrimination they often face from local people who are themselves struggling in tough economic times.
Egypt has never set out to be a destination for refugees. What little support the government provides is reserved for the utterly destitute. The St Andrews Refugee Service is one of the few places refugees can go to access healthcare, legal advice, training, education and support.
Everyone who passes through the large blue gates into the compound dreams of resettlement through the United Nations. Startlingly, at best only 3% of them will succeed. The remaining 97% are faced with an impossible choice. Stay in a country which makes it plain they cannot build a life in Egypt. Or try their luck crossing the Mediterranean knowing 1 in 10 will lose their lives. Going home is not an option.
“In the last year, three of our young helpers who first came to Egypt as unaccompanied kids have left for Europe. Two of them made it, but one girl lost her medication and died on the crossing. It is desperately sad, but we cannot stop them leaving.” says Eliana,who runs StARS Psychosocial Department.
The Moderator heard how the increasing efficiency and scale of the international people smuggling gangs is bringing prices down, becoming a more affordable option for those with few alternatives. One female refugee volunteer speaks quietly, her eyes downcast. ‘In Sudan I was a dentist. I trained for 5 years,and I practised for 5 years. Now I cannot work and I can never go back. Life here is very difficult.”
The trip organised by the Church’s World Mission Council has given both the Moderators the opportunity to see how funding donated to St Andrews by the Church in recent years has been used by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America which now operates it. Some of the money is going towards repairs. The hall which still bears the large inscription “Built from funds raised by the Womans Guild” (sic) and the church were damaged last year by a huge bomb blast in front of the Italian Consulate next door. Many windows shattered, sending shards of glass everywhere. Mercifully the attack happened in the early hours, and the usually crowded centre was empty. Several windows in the church remain boarded up, rendering the interior dark and gloomy until they can be replaced.
Other funding has helped the international team of volunteers establish a school, which caters for around 250 children each day, four days a week. Many children were arriving at school so hungry they were not able to learn, so the centre started to provide a date roll for breakfast. They also receive lunch, probably the best meal any of them will have each day and an important time of fellowship with staff and fellow students. Lessons are conducted in English and the school’s academic results are among the best in the country. All the more remarkable considering education takes place in every space the pupils can be crammed in to. In the afternoon, when the children leave the adult education classes begin.
The former Scots Kirk is now home to a single Scots volunteer, 24 year old Hashim Ul-Hassan from Pollokshields in Glasgow. Hashim recently graduated in Arabic and for the last 3 months has been setting up an outreach project in large Syrian refugee community in the city. Sitting in the IT class room, which conspicuously contains not a single computer, Hashim looks tired after a day of travelling across the crowded city to the Syrian communities.
“What I have found is a sense of despair,” he said. “It has been a privilege to get to know these people and enjoy Syrian hospitality. Before I came here I thought the Syrians were better off than the other refugees. Actually their circumstances are just the same. I hear the Syrians with any money have already left. Those who are still here have nowhere else to go. People in the West need to realise what is happening here. We need to do something.”
Some are third generation refugees
Christopher Eades, StARS Executive Director, says:
“People in the UK concentrate on the factors pulling people towards Europe, but they pay too little attention to what is pushing refugees there. Some of those we see are the grandchildren of people who came here as refugees and they’ve inherited the same status. Even if people stopped coming here, there are still 190,000 refugees registered in Cairo and 65% of them are Syrian. They will still want to move on.”
The group spent a whole day at St Andrews, receiving briefings from the team leaders, meeting refugees and playing with the children.
Hannah Mary Goodlad said the visit had made a lasting impression.
“I’ve been really impressed that 80% of the team delivering this project are refugees themselves,” she said. “It’s been really difficult hearing about the severe trauma many of them have experienced fleeing persecution, especially the sexual violence inflicted on many of the women and some of the men. We met the small team of 6 who are providing counselling to 185 people and they are just overwhelmed.
“There are 95 people on a waiting list that’s growing all the time. I’ll be sharing this experience with members of the Youth Assembly. I’ve also been gathering ideas for what we can do to help refugee children starting school in Scotland. It’s been a real eye opener.”
The brass plaques on the walls within St Andrews Church are an echo of Scotland’s colonial past, and a reminder of the men and women who chose to come to Egypt to live, work and worship. Many of those in the 10 congregations who worship here now do not have the same control over their destiny. Their only concern is building a new life somewhere else for themselves and their families.
Dr Morrison says he will be pressing their case for the rest of his term as Moderator.
“When you meet these people and realise their situation, you feel compelled to do something about it. As a country, we should be able to offer sanctuary to greater numbers than the 20,000 the UK government has committed to. As a Church we support that, and this experience has only made me more determined to push the case appropriately whenever I can.”