StARS: Finding a new normal ‒ working with refugees in Cairo

The Adult Education Programme run by Saint Andrew’s Refugee Services (StARS) comes from a need to fill a major service gap: even though education is key for successful integration, refugees in Cairo have few opportunities to take up learning. The ultimate aim of StARS is to help refugees become agents of change through increased self- and community reliance, coupled with improved prospects for local integration.

“Most of refugees have been forced to flee their homes, leaving behind their schools, jobs and communities and they urgently need to start again. One thing for sure is: refugees need skills and information to help them adjust to their new circumstances, integrate into communities and thrive,” explains Reimaz Salim, Adult Education Programme Coordinator.

“What I’ve learned from the programme myself is that through education we can revive the state of normal life again for the refugees, give them hope for a brighter future and equip them with skills they need to build a new, more peaceful life.”

Education: bringing back a structure

What skills and competences are most sought after? StARS offers a range of computer skills courses, language classes, and a variety of livelihoods and handicrafts classes. That said, English classes often prove to be the most popular and StARS has a full range of English language instruction from complete beginner to advanced courses.

Reimaz highlights that the benefits of education go beyond the actual skills learned and often cross over to a psychological dimension. Attending classes provides refugees with the much needed routine.

“I have learned that education opportunities mitigate the psychosocial impact of previous difficult situation or memories of conflicts and disasters. They provide a sense of routine, stability, structure and positive changes,” she clarifies.

The difficult emotional state that refugees are often in can also be a source of challenges. “Each refugee has experienced and gone through a lot,” admits Reimaz.

“We are also confronted with varying language abilities, ages and educational backgrounds and lack of basic skills, which means that teaching contexts are to be more relevant, contextualized, appealing to the learners’ lives and convenient to their levels, as well as drawn from everyday life situation and cultures.”

A growing demand

The challenges pile up: with the numbers of refugees in Cairo continuously on the rise, the demand for courses is also growing and sometimes prevents StARS from accepting all candidates. Last year alone, the Adult Education Programme served 2,543 students from a variety of countries: Syria, Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Iraq, Somalia, Eritrea, Chad.

“As the programme grows, we also need special learning resources, such as virtual language labs, a library for English language learners and original text books to give to our students,” lists Reimaz.

The increasing demand for courses goes hand in hand with a need for more teachers. Reimaz explains that StARS has responded by hiring more staff with specific teaching certificates or diplomas, some of them refugees themselves. Advanced students are sometimes invited to help out as volunteers and tutor lower-level students. With more efforts now being put into offering training sessions for the staff, StARS has been consistently focusing on offering high-quality education.

Building confidence

The results do not always come fast – Reimaz points out that education is a long process, requiring hard work and dedication on both ends, the teacher’s and the student’s. Yet the work of StARS has already brought about qualitative change in refugees’ lives and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

“We’ve seen incredibly vulnerable, isolated students flourish in our programme by finding a sense of community, building confidence and learning skills to communicate effectively,” says Reimaz. She also notes the willingness of refugees to stay in touch after the courses end, with many of the resettled students or graduates joining the StARS Facebook page.

Reimaz gives an example of a former student, originally from South Sudan, who completed a pre-intermediate level of the English course and got resettled with his family to the US. “Two weeks ago he told me that feels very confident to travel and be part of a new society there. He felt very comfortable with filling in all the required documents in English on his own and doesn’t need to start from scratch,” she says.

It is precisely this confidence that StARS wants to build among the learners.

“I would like them to think that they are capable of changing their future through learning and start to believe in themselves and their potentials,” Reimaz tells EAEA. “I’m delighted that our programme ensures dignity and sustains life by offering safe spaces for learning.”

The project: Saint Andrew’s Refugee Services (StARS)

Adult Education Programme Coordinator: