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Egypt’s Refugee Response: My first look at Cairo behind the headlines

Arriving in Cairo to join Egypt’s emergency response team, I bring with me the usual new-country nerves – and a few more besides, given the country’s recent political troubles. It is always difficult to judge how people’s day-to-day lives are affected when their country is splashed across the international media. Egypt’s refugee response is less well publicised than that of Syria’s neighbouring countries, so I’m keen to see for myself what the situation is really like for affected families here.

First view

I fly in at night, so my first view is simply a mass of dotted lights sprawled  below my plane window. It takes me a few moments to realise that the pockets of darkness are stretches of bare sand: a reminder that desert  covers most of Egypt. This means that heat quickly becomes a standard feature of life in Cairo, even in early morning – a stark change from the autumnal Britain I’ve just left.


Flowers blossoming in the Maadi area
Flowers blossoming in the Maadi area

Despite  pre-departure warnings about Cairo’s congested roads, Maadi, my area of Cairo, manages to be refreshingly green, with many of the streets on my walk to work lined with trees and bushes of magenta pink flowers. Calls to prayer, beckoning worshippers to the mosque right down the road, offer a melodic contrast to the raucous chants of sports fans watching televised matches and sharing shisha tobacco in the nearby cafe.

Egypt’s Syrian refugees

My first morning in the emergency office and it’s straight into the response team meeting. There have been no communications staff until now, so my list of tasks is long.

First up is the ‘sitrep’ (situation report) update, which helps me to get up to speed with our response so far. The Egyptian government has estimated that there are 250,000-300,000 Syrian refugees in Egypt, and UNHCR think 45% of these refugees are under 18.

What we’re doing

Save the Children is already supporting refugee children through education and child protection activities and I can’t wait to visit our current projects. I will also be gathering photos and case studies from our existing programmes to help raise the profile of Syrian and other refugees in Egypt. It’s a big challenge overall: many refugee families are scattered in urban areas and difficult to locate.

So far we have two Child Friendly Spaces up and running, where children can play in a safe environment and receive much-needed psychological support after fleeing the war in Syria and having to adapt to new and often overwhelming situations.

Melodic calls to prayer are heard from our local mosque
Melodic calls to prayer are heard from our local mosque

Many have been out of school for months, so Save the Children is providing school furniture and education materials to a Syrian community school to help get their learning back on track. This week we handed out education kits, including a school bag and essential stationery, to 1090 happy schoolchildren.

A brand new emergency response

Until this summer, when the number of Syrian refugees entering the country prompted an emergency response, Save the Children Egypt’s programmes were entirely development-based. Many staff have worked at SC Egypt for years but our emergency response team is brand new and is  gathering momentum. It’s an experience I’m already proud to share in and I’m looking forward to seeing our response develop over the next six months.



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