Silvia Simon and her three younger sisters lived in relative peace with their parents in Malakal, South Sudan, until 2013, when a militia associated with the government attacked the town, kidnapping her parents. Her uncle told her to flee to Egypt with her sisters and apply for asylum. He promised he would soon follow.
Silvia did as she was instructed. She took her siblings — Victoria, 10; Famela, 8; and Anna, 2 — and led them on their escape, traveling thousands of miles by bus to Cairo. Silvia was 19 at the time. She later learned her parents and her uncle were killed.
Once in Cairo, the four girls were on their own, with no one to help. Despite life’s hardships, Silvia soon found work as a housekeeper and a flat in Maadi, a poor neighborhood south of Cairo. She enrolled Victoria and Famela in a school near their residence, St. Joseph Community School, which serves displaced children, and things seemed to be going well.
However, two years later, Silvia suffered a severely broken leg after she threw herself out of a small public bus to escape an attempted gang rape. She was unable to continue working and could not pay the rent.
“If you can’t pay your share of the rent,” her housemate told her, “you’ll have to pay it with your body.”
He sexually assaulted her and she became pregnant. He then kicked the four girls out. Silvia, her leg still broken, and her sisters slept on the street for a week, taking shelter in the doorways of large buildings, until one of her acquaintances took them in.
Silvia eventually returned to housekeeping, but she has been able to work only two days a week due to ongoing health issues since breaking her leg. Her small income provides for their basic needs. She, her 4-year-old son and her sisters now share a two-bedroom flat with a divorced mother of four, also from South Sudan. Each family gets one bedroom.
“My life is not easy,” says Silvia with tears in her eyes. “I live with the hope of seeing my sisters graduate from college. When I get tired, I remember my mother’s voice, ‘Don’t give up on your sisters.’ I have become everything to them.
“I tell them: ‘Look at those who are living a good life,’ ” she continues. “ ‘They have made it through education. I work as a housemaid because I am not educated. This will be your fate if you do not learn.’ ”
Victoria, now 18; Famela, 16; and Anna, 10, have made their big sister proud by working hard to excel at school. Victoria, who is in her third year of high school, has always ranked first in her class. Famela, who started high school this year, and third-grader Anna are also among the first in their class. They now attend St. Charles Lwanga School, another school for displaced children, located in Sakakini, a neighborhood in the district of Abbasiya, north of the city center.
Victoria and Famela seem younger than their age. They are very slim, mostly due to malnutrition, but their eyes shine with intelligence. Victoria suffers from severe anemia. Her school has offered her free treatment, but she is still severely emaciated.
Despite these hardships, the sisters hope education will change their fate and help them realize their dream of resettling in a Western country, where better educational opportunities are available.
“The situation would have been worse if we did not have the opportunity to learn,” says Famela. “At school, we have a social life and hope in the future.”
According to the UNHCR, Egypt hosts more than 265,000 registered asylum-seekers and refugees, but the Egyptian government says the number exceeds five million, as many of the displaced do not register with the United Nations agency.
The government grants them the freedom to move and live among Egyptian society. However, according to the UNHCR, Egypt’s challenging economic conditions in recent years “have considerably increased the vulnerability of both refugees and host community members. With many refugees lacking a stable source of income, basic needs are barely covered.”
Nonetheless, living in Egypt is better for many of these families than living in their native countries, where they have no security or access to services.
Sudanese have found refuge in Egypt for decades, beginning in the mid-1980s when a substantial number fled civil war in their country and found a haven in Egypt.
In 1984, in response to the growing refugee community, the Comboni Missionaries built a school in the garden of Sacred Heart Church in Sakakini, where they continue to minister. They saw how difficult it was for Sudanese children to enroll in Egyptian schools due to their inability to meet the admission requirements, such as having the correct identification papers, and the bullying they experienced when they did attend Egyptian schools.
The Comboni Missionaries named their school after St. Charles Lwanga, a well-loved young Ugandan saint, martyred in 1886. It was the first school to serve the Sudanese community in Egypt and offers both elementary and high school education.
As Sudanese and South Sudanese refugees increased, as well as displaced persons from other African countries, including Eritrea and Somalia, the Comboni Missionaries decided to build three more schools in neighborhoods where refugees had settled in large number: St. Josephine Bakhita Center for Basic Education in Al Tabbah, at the northern limits of Cairo; St. Joseph Community School in Maadi, south of Cairo; and a school in Zeitoun, a city north of Cairo.
However, due to a shortage of priests among the Comboni Missionaries, they handed St. Joseph Community School to the Franciscans in 2013, and the school in Zeitoun to the Salesians in 2019. The Comboni Missionaries continue to run St. Charles Lwanga, which has more than 600 students, and St. Josephine Bakhita, which serves about 400 students.
The Rev. Lokwang Casimiro welcomed students at St. Charles Lwanga on the first day of the school year, celebrating Mass for the feast day of the Comboni Missionaries’ founder, St. Daniel Comboni, on 10 October.
After Mass, Botrous Amnruss, the principal, made some announcements, but not before patting the shoulder of a statue of St. Daniel standing next to the podium and giving thanks for the work of the community he founded. The students applauded, nodding in agreement and gratitude.
The school’s breakfast program started one week later. Rose Daniel, a refugee from South Sudan, has been working in the school kitchen since 2007. She and her colleagues prepare breakfast each day for the students, which include her two children, Keiji, 20, and Morbi, 18, who are completing their high school education. Mrs. Daniel says breakfast varies from day to day — lentils, beans, fava beans, falafel sandwiches.
The young children get their meal at 9 a.m., and the older children eat 30 minutes later. They go to the kitchen where large baskets of food await them. Each student takes a plastic bag that contains a sandwich. When they return to the class, they receive cans of juice.
Although the meal is simple, it is necessary, as many refugee families are unable to provide food on a regular basis for their children. In some cases, the school breakfast is the main meal a child will eat throughout the day.
Victoria, Famela and Anna benefit from the breakfast program.
“The most important thing for me is to save for the rent,” says their big sister, Silvia. “At school, they eat breakfast. So, when we don’t have money for food, they will have eaten something already.”
In addition to education, Sacred Heart Church, also called “the Sudanese Church,” has been crucial in helping the Sudanese and South Sudanese with free medical services for the neediest among them and with food aid, when available.
The Rev. Dominic Eibu, the parish priest, and Father Casimiro, the assistant pastor, are relatively new to Sacred Heart Church. Both are Comboni Missionaries originally from Uganda. Father Eibu arrived four years ago and Father Casimiro two years later.
“By these schools, we give refugees hope that their status is not a permanent one,” says Father Eibu. “God takes care of the homeless, the poor and the needy. We are called to be part of this mission of the Creator.”
The two priests work hard to run their schools, despite a continuous budget deficit, especially in recent years with a decrease in grants from international donors. They keep a good attitude amid the overwhelming needs they deal with every day.
“The school fees paid by the parents are symbolic, ranging from 900 Egyptian pounds to 1,500 Egyptian pounds [about $57 to $95] for the academic year,” says Father Eibu. “Of course, this is little to cover the running costs of the school, so we ask donors for help.”
Teachers’ low salaries are an ongoing challenge, too; for many, their salary does not cover living expenses in Cairo.
“If you work as a teacher, your salary is low compared with those working as housekeepers. There are teachers who leave teaching and work as housekeepers to get paid more,” says Sawsan Amin, a science teacher at St. Charles Lwanga.
Father Eibu says the parish and school administration are trying to increase salaries, “but resources are limited.”
The school is in the same compound as Sacred Heart Church, separated by a large tent-covered courtyard. It recently completed the construction of a hall that will be used by the school for formative group programs, cultural meetings, parent assemblies and final exams.
Victoria dreams about attending medical school and becoming a surgeon; Famela dreams about studying computer science. But their dreams may end at high school if they cannot afford to take their final exams for their leaving certificates, overseen by the Sudanese embassy in Cairo.
The schools run by the Comboni Missionaries, as well as most other schools for South Sudanese children in Egypt, teach the Sudanese curriculum to facilitate their education. However, students must pay the embassy a $250 fee to write the elementary school certificate exam and a $550 fee to sit for the high school certificate exam. South Sudanese students, considered international students by the Sudanese embassy, pay higher fees than their Sudanese counterparts.
This amount is beyond the capacity of most South Sudanese families, who turn to charitable organizations and the UNHCR for help. When funds are not available, they either borrow money, postpone the exam until funds are available, or stop their education at that level without graduating.
Victoria would need to register for her final exam at the end of this academic year, but her older sister says it will be impossible to save $550 by then, which is a small fortune for their family.
“If we don’t get help, we will have to make do with this amount of education,” says Silvia. “It will be very sad for me, but we have no choice.”
The schools have been negotiating for three years with the Sudanese embassy to reduce the exam fees.
“This matter is a disaster,” says Mr. Amnruss, the principal. “Last year, a large number of students were unable to take the exam because they were unable to save the required amount.”
Addok Makuacc is a single mother of five, who works as a housekeeper full time. Her two older sons, Daw, 22, and Joseph, 18, took their final exams last summer. She turned to the UNHCR for Joseph’s fees — the U.N. agency covered his exams because he was not yet 18 — but she borrowed the amount for Daw. Now she does not know how to pay back the loan.
“Life in Egypt is difficult, but educating my children gives me a purpose to continue,” she says. “I will be very happy to see Daw and Joseph graduate from college because I will feel that my labor has paid off.”
However, not all students meet such success. Teachers notice that many children have difficulty concentrating on their studies, as their families are unable to provide a good study environment at home and their ongoing financial problems are significant distractions.
“The students in class are completely absent-minded,” says Essam Bala Kouri, a teacher at St. Josephine Bakhita Center in Al Tabbah. “Their families are in poor financial shape. They have too many problems for them to be focused.”
The neighborhood of Al Tabbah has grown randomly over the past three decades. Displaced families, mostly from Sudan, were among the first to live here, along with low-income Egyptians, who came from outside Cairo to reside on the margins of the big city in search of work. Rents are cheap and the district is close to two middle-class neighborhoods, Heliopolis and Nasr City, where they can find jobs.
Father Casimiro travels regularly from Abbasiya to Al Tabbah to check in on St. Josephine Bakhita Center and to celebrate liturgies for the school community under the school’s large outdoor tent.
Due to the need for a school in Al Tabbah, Sacred Heart Church initially rented a four-story apartment building in 2005, using the rooms on the first and second floors as classrooms, explains the principal, Isaac Ayoub Corey. Due to rising enrollment, the parish purchased the building in 2008.
“The establishment of the school gave families reassurance about their children’s future,” says David Nimeri, an Arabic language teacher.
“The main goal of their stay in Egypt is immigration and resettlement” to a Western country, he says, adding that the school has given a purpose to “their waiting time in Egypt.”
Keiji Joseph, 25, came from South Sudan with her parents and three siblings in 2004. She joined the third grade at St. Josephine Bakhita Center. After completing elementary school, she attended St. Charles Lwanga for high school. She and two of her siblings graduated from college. Now Ms. Joseph works as an English teacher at the school.
“We all studied at the Comboni schools, and this helped us a lot and gave us a future,” she says. “In South Sudan, we are proud to attend Egyptian universities. I don’t know what would have happened to us if the Comboni schools didn’t exist.”
Ms. Joseph says the road was difficult until she graduated from university, but the presence of her parents helped her and her siblings to persevere in their studies, unlike a sizable proportion of refugee children orphaned by war or who are being raised by a single parent in their new host country.
Such is the case for Anna, Famela and Victoria, who call Silvia, their older sister, “Mother.” They cannot imagine having survived this long without her care.
“Doctors tell [Silvia] not to work, but she insists despite her pain,” says Famela. “She tells them, ‘I can’t quit, what are the girls going to do?’ I have no alternative but to excel in my studies to make up for my sister’s trouble with us.”
Each day after school, Famela, Victoria and Anna sit down at home at a rickety table to study their lessons.
“School is what builds the future, it helps us to be self-reliant when we grow up,” says Victoria, whose sense of the impermanence of her situation is ever-present. “If we have the chance to go to a Western country, we will have an education to build on,” she adds. “And, if we go home, we will contribute to building our society.”
Based in Cairo, Magdy Samaan is the Egypt correspondent for The Times of London. He has also published with the Daily Telegraph, CNN and Foreign Policy.
The CNEWA Connection
The Comboni Missionaries have been instrumental in the church’s efforts in Egypt to uplift the poor and honor the dignity of the marginalized. Thanks to the generosity of its donors, CNEWA has supported the Comboni community in this mission.
How? Most recently, funds completed the construction of a large hall at St. Charles Lwanga School, featured in this article, that will be used for formative group programs, cultural meetings, assemblies with parents and final exams. CNEWA also provided the school with hygiene kits at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, along with food packages and medicines for students living with long-term or chronic illnesses.
To continue this lifeline of support for people like Silvia and her family, call 1-866-322-4441 (Canada) or 1-800-442-6392 (United States), or visit our Egypt campaign page.