21 July 2014: Sitting on the sands of the Mediterranean sea in Alexandria on a warm evening, Nada, 11, asks her mother if they’ll be returning to Syria. Her mother is non-committal: "Yes of course, my dear, very soon."
In reality, Syrian children like Nada may not be able to go back, as Syria's conflict rages on. Marooned in Egypt, they miss their families, homes and schools.
Nada often points her finger in the direction of the sea towards Syria, where her father was left behind. Back home she would play on a similar beach with her friends. But Nada's life is different now.
Leaving everything behind
A refugee in Alexandria, separated from everything she loved back home, she shares a rented flat in a crowded city neighbourhood with 12 other people, including some of their former Syrian neighbours. Nada attends a local public school, which she says is too crowded, with a syllabus and learning methods quite different from her school in Syria.
When Nada and her mother escaped from their northern Syria town, there was intense fighting all around. "The girl was horrified, she was shivering, crying and held me tightly," her mother recalls.
Nada's father promised he would join them once they reached Egypt. "But he never comes," Nada mumbles in a distraught voice. She looks pale and is clearly anaemic, as her mother doesn't have enough money to provide her with good food.
Due to the difference in accents, Nada isn't able to communicate with her Egyptian classmates. She has no friends either. She only has one wish: to go back home and rejoin her school, which may not exist anymore.
School drop out risk
Like hundreds of other Syrian refugee children in Egypt, she may drop out of the school if not supported. The schooling grants provided by the UN Refugee Agency to registered vulnerable children have already been cut by half.
"She isn't able to follow the lessons at school. She says she doesn't like to sit in huddled classrooms. The toilets in schools are too dirty and not girl-friendly. She is too distracted and her behaviour has changed," says her mother.
Nada is just one of thousands of Syrian children facing tremendous challenges in coping with refugee life in Egypt. Although the government of Egypt has allowed Syrian children to enrol in public schools, their access is hampered by lack of resources for fees, school books, uniforms, high student-to-teacher ratio and shortage of basic amenities in public schools. Some school drop outs have even started working to contribute towards the family income.
Vital refugee support
The charity I work for, Plan International, is supporting children like Nada to go back to school and supporting Syrian families with fees and other school materials for their children.
Plan will also be supporting remedial classes for Syrian children to follow up lessons and better understand the Egyptian Arabic accent. We’ll also offer training of school teachers to make them embrace more student-friendly techniques, and open-day school activities will seek to provide Syrian and Egyptian children opportunities to engage in sports and recreational activities, thus promoting socialisation and free expression.
Plan is also organising psychosocial support for children and their families. Some livelihood activities for women, young men and girls are also planned to help family incomes and boost social integration and normalisation.
With most public schools running out of space and necessary amenities, Plan aims to start community schools for Syrian children – as a means to get them special attention for coping with the new curriculum and accent.
Still, much more remains to be done for girls like Nada, and their families.