I arrive by taxi with a friend at 1pm, in the heat of the day. School won't start until September, but we are meeting one of the administrators for a tour. We walk along a small sidewalk and enter the ground floor apartment that is the school. The first room we see is an open common area, about the size of a living room. The walls are painted blue up to head height, except where the paint is crumbling. There is no AC, but a solitary fan struggles to circulate the warm air. We are greeted by Mike, a tall, young Sudanese man. His office, which he shares with two other administrators, is crammed full with 4 chairs and 2 desks. The first classroom he shows us makes me blink. 30 kids sit in here for class? It is about the size of the smallest bedroom at my house. The classrooms are equipped with old chalkboards and a myriad arrangement of old benches, chairs, and desks. Our guide says he is hoping to put a rug in one of the classrooms so the children can sit on the floor instead of at the desks - there isn't enough room for both children and desks. There are only 4 classrooms that will hold over 100 primary school children from 7:30am to 12pm each day, and over 80 middle schoolers from 12pm to 5pm. As we walk through the building my friend asks why there are so many students. Aren't there only supposed to be 160? Why did you sign up so many more (almost 200)? "The mothers cry," our host tells us. "They cry if their kids will be on the street and not in school, so we let the kids come here." Mike opens the door to the teachers' office space, which was formerly a storage closet. Surely no more than 2 of the 12 teachers can fit inside at any one time? The kitchen is narrow and holds only basic cooking utensils. Walking outside I take a deep breath of fresh air. If that is what the building is like EMPTY, how will it be with 100 kids inside? The outside play area is partly dirt and partly cement. A recent workteam has put a canvas over the top, providing some shade. Out here the kids meet for assemblies, for lunch, and for playing - but they have to be very quiet because the residents of the other apartments frequently complain to the authorities. This location took months to find and there is no hope on the horizon for finding a better place. The rent and teachers' salaries are barely being covered as it is. The school is in survival mode - has been for the last 3 years, ever since it was founded. And there are at least 196 kids who depend on the school staying open each year. There is not room for them in the Egyptian schools, even if they were allowed to go there.
The parents of these children are mostly refugees from southern Sudan who have fled the near-constant fighting of the past 3 decades. Some of the teachers were children themselves when they fled burning villages and began the long trek through Sudan and into Egypt. Cairo is a holding area for the refugees while they wait and hope they can move on to Europe, Australia, or North America. Many never leave Cairo.
The tour of the school does not take long. As I shake hands with Mike, I struggle to process what I've seen. I'll return after school starts to see the kids and teachers in action. What can I do in the face of so many problems and inadequacies? I wish I was older than 23! Still, God has put me here, and if nothing else I will walk with this school and these refugees this year. Sometimes walking with people is better than trying to pull them up.