The Comboni congregation and the CAWU Learning Center need your support in helping African refugees in Cairo

Sent On: 
Thu, 2020-11-12
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It was a ten-day walk from the village of Erra in Eritrea to Sudan. Aman and Meron, are two students at the CAWU Learning center in Cairo. They left their family behind at age 14 and 17. Annually tens of thousands of Eritreans leave the country to escape the harsh compulsory military service. Just behind Syria, in terms of displaced people, is Eritrea, the second country with the largest number of migrants seeking asylum in Europe.


Their escape to Egypt was not without danger. Aman and Meron were crossing the desert for days, without enough food, and were at the mercy of kidnappers, and the Sudanese and Eritrean military. Young boys are valuable trade, forcing families or communities to pay high ransoms for their freedom or otherwise keeping them in forced labor.


“We are called to help the most marginalized and abandoned,” Father John Kipkemoi Korir (43), the parish priest of St. Joseph Church in Zamalek, Cairo, says. The congregation is named after Saint Daniel Combini (1831 –1881), an Italian multi-linguist who vowed as a young man to join the missions on the African continent. He traveled with fellow missionaries to the Sudan in 1857 with the assignment of liberating enslaved boys and girls. Life was hard and by the end of 1859 three of the five fellow missionaries had died, and two went to Cairo as they had contracted malaria, as had Comboni himself. Comboni was in 1877 consecrated bishop, which allowed him to establish branches of his order in Cairo and Khartoum. In 1880 he went back to the Sudan to fight against the slave trade. He died in 1881 during a cholera epidemic. The last words he said were, "I am dying, but my work will not die."


Work expanded and now Comboni missionaries are found across Africa. Father John comes from a humble background in Western Kenya and has been tremendously encouraging our refugee students. He initiated in 2014 a Learning Center at St. Joseph Church for Eritrean children that has grown to 230 children today. Every single space on their compound is used. They even turned a garage into a classroom!


“We teach until grade 8 and cannot provide for more education, because we simply do not have the space for them. Then you [Cornelis Hulsman] visited me in March 2019, looking for a solution for the education of a young Liberian girl. It was a gift from God that CAWU started a learning center for the older children who completed grade 8. We cannot afford to hire expensive teachers. We mostly rely on parents who teach at low cost and pay them from our collections in church. This worked until the corona virus crisis arrived in Egypt. The government ordered churches and mosques to close and we lost the income from those vital collections. African refugees are being hit hard because many of them had worked with the wealthier families, as cleaners and domestic workers. Suddenly, overnight most of this work came to a shuddering halt. We now will have to provide hundreds of families with food, and some families we also assist in paying their rent. To make things worse, just before the virus crisis we had an exceptionally heavy rainfall in Cairo that destroyed most of the ceilings of the 8 classrooms. Repairing this would cost around 1000 Euro per room. We also need to renew whiteboards and redo our electricity network that was damaged due to the rain. It is for the first time that we are now fully out of cash. If a needy person now comes for support, we sadly cannot help that person.”


The Eritrean refugees are all recognized as refugees by the UNHCR. That has resulted in refugee ID cards being issued which therefore allow them to stay in Egypt, but not much else because social security does not exist here. The refugees try to reduce costs by living with as many people as possible in overcrowded flats in Cairo’s poorest neighborhoods. They live from meagre cleaning jobs that pay 5 to 15 euros per day and with some support given by the church. The church, however, is now under great pressure with loss of collection income and severe damage to the buildings. To make matters worse the refugees are facing racism from Egyptians and also African street gangs. Desperate youth target other Africans since targeting Egyptians, would face immediate police intervention. The gangs mostly consist of youth that have no work, no school, and no income. Eighty percent of Egypt’s population is living close to, or under the subsistence minimum. In such circumstances it is extremely difficult for low educated refugees to find paid work.


Comfort Dickson is a Nigerian student in Cairo and a former intern at the Center for Arab-West Understanding. She is an exceptional leader. She currently coordinates an EO-Metterdaad funded leadership training program for African refugee leaders to address the notorious street gangs' problem. This was initiated by the Center for Arab-West Understanding and carried out with the support of the Anglican Diocese, the Comboni Fathers and Sisters and the Egyptian Moral Rearmament Association. After surveying and speaking with gang leaders and members, the evidence-based conclusion is "the lack of opportunities and facilities has increased criminal gang activities, idleness, and hopelessness among youths, drunkenness, street harassment, home robbery, and conflict among Sudanese, Eritrean, and Ethiopian refugee communities." The leaders have proposed a program to guide these youths in vocational education and to set up small trades or businesses. This will require establishing a revolving fund system to help them set up businesses and pay back the loan so that others can also be helped. Comfort has applied for support to the ILO to set this up.



The CAWU Learning Centre was started with the support of Sternsinger Kindermission, Caritas Poland and the PKN church in Alphen aan den Rijn, The Netherlands. Aman and Meron had joined that center. We increased the number of students to 31 which is the maximum capacity of the flat we have.


It is extremely hard to cater for the needs of refugees in Egypt. The Comboni Fathers and Sisters have done outstanding work over the many years but are now faced with circumstances that limit their outreach to refugees. The CAWU Learning Center lacks facilities and is overwhelmed by requests of parents to accept their children. We do not have the funds to buy books and need to be able to make photocopies in doors in order to reduce costs. Just as other Learning Centers for refugees in Egypt we need to be able to provide students with a daily nutritious meal. Only when students eat well they will also be able to perform well. But the facilities for this are lacking. For more information click here.


Can you help with a donation? You can select a project of your choice, repair a classroom, support a refugee student, etc. For specifics contact me at [email protected]. Donations can be made to the Arab-West Foundation, IBAN number NL35 RABO 0105 7799 62. Please include the purpose of your donation. It will be used 100% for that purpose.


Cairo, November 12, 2020


Cornelis Hulsman,


Principal CAWU-Learning Center