Rakhan is the glue that holds one particular Syrian-run facility for children together. Spend a day at the school, located in a suburb outside of Cairo, and you can’t fail to notice him.
Rakhan leads a learning activity with Syrian refugee children, hands out packed lunches, and joins the children in games. It seems he is everywhere.
With the support of Plan International, the facility offers schooling and psychosocial support to often vulnerable and severely war-affected children. Rakhan is committed to helping to deliver a vast and versatile range of activities and sessions.
“These children need to receive quality education,” he said. “But, they also need the programs, the events, the activities, and the recreation.”
Twenty-two year-old Rakhan arrived in Egypt from Homs in 2013, after Egypt became the first country to open its borders to Syria and offer help to people whose lives had been ripped apart by war.
“At the beginning, when I came to Egypt there was a huge amount of Syrians who required assistance in the form of jobs, medical care, and financial help”, he said. “Syrians were in need of everything.”
Rakhan started to work with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Food Programme, and soon he had formed a 10-person volunteer team called “Sawa group.”
“Whenever we heard about a new Syrian family coming to Egypt we would immediately pay them a visit to see their requirements,” he said. “For example, if they needed furniture we would coordinate with Egyptian families to furnish their apartments affordably. Or, if they needed [medical care], we contacted doctors to offer special discounts in hospitals.”
The group is still active today.
Rakhan himself lost cousins and friends to the conflict and knows only too well the long-term psychological effects of bloodshed.
“Seventy percent of Syrian children here are suffering from psychological distress,” he said. “War-affected children are often isolated and alone. They feel as if they are strangers. There are too many memories of blood, death, and fear.”
Back home he had volunteered for the Red Cross, helping families escape the conflict. Now, his charge is to help them overcome it.
He has his own vivid memories of the bombings, the ensuing destruction, and of mothers crying for their lost children.
“The psychological side is very important, as a lot of Syrian children witnessed the conflict: the blood, the death of a father, brother, relative, or friend,” he said.
“Affected children are often isolated and do not speak to Egyptian children. Often, if they hear a passing plane they hide away and do not want to communicate. These children feel as if they are strangers – they can’t adapt and act as if they are only here temporarily and will return to Syria. They can’t accept the idea of living in Egypt, so they reject it.”
Rakhan wants to return to Syria one day “to rebuild it and make it better,” but for now he is motivated by teaming with Plan and giving Syrian children the qualified education they will need when peace does eventually come.
“I feel it is my duty to help children who are living outside of Syria, for the sake of Syria,” he said. “I am hoping for them to be with their families again.”