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Syrian Refugees: A New Start in Egypt

Plan has helped thousands of Syrian refugees start a new life.

Thousands of Syrian refugees have re-started their lives in Egypt after fleeing violence and war in their home country.

Since June 2015, Plan International has worked with the Ensan Foundation, a Syrian-run academy offering schooling and psychosocial support for 1,400 vulnerable and severely war-affected children, as part of the Education in Harmony project funded by Global Affairs Canada.

Focusing on the education and protection of Syrian and Egyptian girls and boys between ages 4 and 14, the project also works with refugee and host communities to increase understanding and cooperation, enhance community cohesion, and ensure gender equality by promoting equal access, rights, safety, and respect.

Ahmed has been attending Plan-supported remedial classes to catch up on his studies.

Ten-year-old Ahmed is a well-rounded, composed, and articulate boy who attends Ensan Academy during the week. Three years ago, he enjoyed a typical childhood in Syria. He has many happy memories of life in the Syrian capital but particularly of his school, where he was a top student.

Ahmed left Syria “because there was destruction everywhere around us and heavy shooting at our apartment.” His building was evacuated and his father arrested. In the blink of an eye, his life was changed forever.

But, with remedial classes and “kind support,” Ensan Academy has helped Ahmed make the best of Egyptian life. He still doesn’t feel safe and he worries for his relatives who have remained in Syria, but there is a spark in his eyes as he declares with optimism that “within four or five years the situation will be much better, and I’ll be able to return to my country.”

Ahmed's mother is happy that his life is returning back to normal.

Ahmed’s mother, Abeer, breaks down when she recalls how the family scrambled to hide in a bunker when their apartment came under fire in 2012. After armed soldiers attacked the shelter, killing three relatives, the survivors were so terrified of danger that they stayed hidden for six days.

A few years later, her son Ahmed has been left deeply distressed. For a while, he slept under his bed to shield himself from the planes that might fly overhead and the bombs they might drop.

But, his mother described Ahmed’s remedial classes as “excellent” and said Ensan has helped him turn his life around.

“There is care and kindness between the children and the teachers,” she said. “We are trying to treat him to get better. Ahmed has started to communicate and go out with his friends, and his awareness has increased. This makes me very happy.”

“He’s becoming an ordinary child,” she added.

Freeza believes that Plan-supported remedial classes and psychosocial support are helping her son overcome his trauma.

Freeza and her son, Abdel-Latif, left Syria when her parents’ house came under fire. Her cousins and brother were killed in the attack.

Unsurprisingly, witnessing the incident has had an impact on Abdel-Latif’s psychological state, causing him to become isolated and introverted.

“My son is easily spooked by loud noises and sudden movements,” Freeza said tearfully. “He refuses to sit away from me no matter where we go, and refuses to leave the house on his own. Any attempt to force him to do something he does not want to do is met with a very violent reaction, along with threats to throw himself off the balcony.”

Freeza believes Ensan’s remedial classes and psychosocial support are helping her son deal with his ordeal, and gradually she is noticing a shift in his mindset.

“When it is time for the remedial classes, Abdel-Latif is noticeably joyful,” she said. “He enjoys being there.”

“Children have been badly affected by the violence they witnessed in Syria and by the separation of their families,” said Yousry, a consultant psychotherapist at Ensan. “Most are lacking a sense of safety.”

Yousry creates recreational activities to encourage them to interact and play with each other, which in turn helps them to express themselves.

Involving those children in integration exercises with their Egyptian peers gives them a sense of belonging in their strange new surroundings.

“Many Syrians can’t adapt because they are living in closed communities and not mingling enough with others,” he said. “They are often introverted, which shows they have endured a horrible experience, and they can feel unaccepted by Egyptians who perceive them to be occupying their land.”

Plan is working with teachers to ensure that they're ready to assist students who have experienced trauma.

Teachers’ skills are also being improved to deliver gender- and conflict-sensitive schooling.

With a combined 37 years in teaching under their belts, Enas and Amel agree that the first signs of integration came when Syrian and Egyptian children started to borrow stationery from each other.

Now, says science teacher Enas, they even communicate with each other outside of school.

“If I ask about a Syrian girl who is absent that day, an Egyptian girl will answer with the latest news about why she hasn’t showed up,” she said. “They are friends.”

Children find the challenges presented by dialect and the difference in curricula limiting enough, math teacher Amel said, but the shock of war also becomes apparent when they struggle to concentrate in class or to follow her directions.

Sometimes the children develop learning difficulties.

“I want the children to [consider] Egypt their home and feel the nations have integrated together,” Amel said. “And, I have a positive feeling that I have contributed to society.”

Plan is working to improve learning facilities for Syrian refugees.

As part of the Education in Harmony project, school facilities at Ensan are being improved to meet the needs of children, including minor repairs; improvements to water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities; and provision of supplies.

“Our relationship with Plan International has helped us to acquire experience,” project coordinator Shaheer said. If we have a [question] we go to them, and their staff are often present at our activities.”

“When the project started, distress [was] already very evident in the children,” he added. “A child hearing a plane passing overhead might hide under the table, but these examples have decreased.

“The partnership gives us the opportunity to provide more services for Syrian refugees by involving experts who weren’t available before. It’s about providing qualitative services.”

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