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Serving Refugees in Egypt: StARS

12 July, 2016
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According to the Egyptian Foundation for Refugee Rights, Egypt has between 152,000 and three million refugees. Hebbah Hussein spoke to Cairo-based Saint Andrews Refugee Services (StARS) about how they serve refugee needs.

Egypt has long received refugees from conflicts in Sudan, Ethopia and Eritrea, as well as more recent movements from Syria, Iraq and Libya. For Eritrea alone, the UN estimates that around 18,000 people flee the country each year, however the number is likely higher given the number of refugees who fail to legally seek asylum for fear of deportation.

Located in Downtown Cairo and founded in the late 1970s by the St Andrew's United Church of Cairo, StARS offers a small ray of hope. One of the first and only all inclusive shelters for refugees of all nationalities that seek asylum in Egypt, the centre offers educational, psychological, and legal support to more than 3,000 refugees, asylum seekers and vulnerable migrants regardless of nationality, religion, or status.

The help is badly needed, as Egypt offers refugees little by way of welcome. 

"We are looked down upon here," explained one Eritrean refugee who asked not to be named due to his legal status. "We are called unclean and lazy because of our skin color, and finding support is limited," he added.

After Somalia and Sudan, Egypt is one of the most common places that Eritrean refugees reach. Those escaping the country often spend days or even weeks making the long dangerous journey into Sinai, where some attempt to cross the border to Israel. 

Due to media blackout, the story of Eritrea's political instability is largely untold, and its troubles are manifold: suffering droughts and famines, an oppressive dictatorship that imposes indefinite and compulsory conscription for males as young as ten, and sectarian discrimination against Christians who make up one of the two main religious majorities in the country. Human Rights Watch calls Eritrea's human rights record 'dismal'. 

"Part of the problem is that people really don't know that much about Eritrea, even inside our own country we knew almost nothing of what was taking place in neighboring villages, there is no media to speak of, no news, people would routinely disappear and you knew that they had said the wrong thing to the wrong person. Then you would never hear from them again," explained the refugee.

Aisha Hussein, who taught as a volunteer for the institute until recently, explained that STARS provides support for all sides of the refugee experience. In addition to legal aid and education and training for adults and children, they offer psychosocial services that recognise the traumas of refugee experiences.

"For many of those who come to STARS they are looking for a community and a support system. Particularly for those coming from Eritrea, what STARS offers is a safe haven. It's more than just jobs and education; it's a way for them to come to terms with trauma that they might not be able to address through other entities," she said. 

Whether in Egypt or abroad, a key challenge refugees face are the stringent regulations that international institutions like the UNHCR have in place with regards to their resettlement and documentation. Whilst these rules are in place to ensure that the rights of refugees and the system of support are not abused, inevitably people fall through the cracks.

"I escaped from the army, but other refugees told me not to tell my story because I would be denied refugee status," explained one refugee. "I was forcibly taken into the army at twelve years old and the things we had to do to survive were unforgivable. Boys who were barely men would be lined up and shot in front of us for the smallest mistakes as an example. We as members of the army were forced to execute them. It was kill or be killed."

StARS aims to provide for those unaddressed needs from such horrifying situations. "At STARS they understand that it's not black and white. There are many shades of grey that laws don't account for," Hussein added.

In a country of 80 million, the plight of refugees is just a drop in the ocean; where poverty and the daily struggles of Egypt's poor leave little room for sympathy, however STARS offers an unexpected chance for many who have nowhere else to go.

Image courtesy of StARS

Tags MENA refugees migrants asylum seekers Africa Eritrea Because CSR NGO volunteers St Andrews Refugee Services StARS