In Egypt, there were more than 85,000 children ‘on the move’ registered with UNHCR as of March 2020, close to 40 percent of them from the Horn of Africa. In the 2018–19 academic year, around 50,000 students received the Standard Educational Grant to enable them to access education. While it remains difficult to accurately quantify the number of children accessing education through community schools, it is commonly recognized that the majority of refugee children, including many of those from the Horn of Africa, attend community schools.

Since 2018, community schools have struggled to remain open because UNHCR Egypt ended institutional grants provided to community schools. In parallel, UNHCR decreased the individual education grants available for refugee children attending community schools, which in any case wasn’t sufficient considering that many of those community schools operate on minimal costs in order to remain accessible to refugee populations, the majority of whom live below the poverty line.

A recent survey conducted by a refugee service provider found that there were over 50 refugee community schools that collectively educate more than 15,000 children from displaced communities regardless of their immigration status. It provided an assessment of the schools’ needs particularly in the wake of Covid-19 restrictions. The findings were troubling. 94 percent reported that they have been unable to pay staff salaries since March 2020, and 82 percent report that they are unable to meet their rental costs. Many expressed concerns that they will be unable to sustain their existence following the economic impact of Covid-19 and might not reopen following the easing of restrictions.

Refugee community schools

Community schools play an important role in educating children from displaced populations. At present, refugees from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Iraq, and other countries (approximately 20 percent of the refugee population) are not entitled to access Egyptian public education. Additionally, many children of nationalities with a right to enter the state education system (Syrians, Sudanese, South Sudanese, and Yemenis) do not attend for reasons including fear of xenophobia and violence in Egyptian schools, and documentation barriers to enrolment in public schools which require a birth certificate and residency permit that many are unable to access. Meanwhile, community schools also act as hubs for displaced communities. In addition to the children they teach, they are utilized by communities for various capacity-building exercises including adult language education, typically Arabic and English, vocational training, cultural activities, which contribute to the preservation of ethnic and national heritage and tradition among displaced communities, women’s livelihood activities for example, cooking and crafting and sports and recreational activities for children and adults, helping youths stay away from harmful practices such as drug use, and involvement with violent gangs that target their own communities. The community schools also provide support to communities through psychosocial care and referrals to service providers.

Before 2018, community schools were able to support their activities, infrastructure, and educational supplies through UNHCR’s institutional grants, but now only rely on the fees paid by refugee parents. These institutional grants were last paid in 2017, at a time when community schools were threatened with closure by the Egyptian government. After it became apparent that community schools were not going to be shut, the institutional grants were not reinstated. UNHCR continues to rely on the narrative that community schools are not legally recognized by Egyptian legislation and therefore should not receive UNHCR’s institutional support.

Instead, UNHCR pays individual educational grants through its implementing partners. These annual grants range from EGP1,250 ($79) to EGP1,800 ($114) per pupil, and are not intended to meet the full costs of education. In line with broader UNHCR budget cuts, this amount has been progressively reduced since 2018, while living costs in Egypt have concurrently risen. Eight in ten of Egypt’s refugees live in poverty, and so are unable to fund education after covering their basic needs. Community schools charge minimal fees in order to cover rent and staff salaries while remaining accessible to refugee families. The majority of unaccompanied and separated refugee children come from nations (Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia) without a right to state education in Egypt. Refugee community schools are the only available option for these children.

Without institutional grants and the decreasing individual grants, community schools have been gradually weakened over the last three years. This has left them unable to withstand financial shocks and made them especially vulnerable under the current pandemic conditions.

Implications of Covid-19 for community schools

On 15 March 2020, all schools and universities in Egypt were suspended as a result of Covid-19 restrictions, with community schools observing this mandatory closure. Refugee service organizations operating in Egypt were seeking to support refugee children during this unpredictable time. Proposals have included an online-offline learning platform onto which different curricula and learning materials could be uploaded for use by refugee children. For community schools working outside the Egyptian public system, this would depend on their involvement and participation, which in turn would depend on their ability to survive the current hardships. The problems in Egypt support the wider evidence and co-authored recommendations by key humanitarian agencies for keeping children learning during the pandemic, and Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies guidelines, which indicate that ‘increased funding will be essential to support the continuation of learning for all children, including marginalized groups … Measures and additional funding should be put in place to support the most marginalized children and youth.

Conclusion and policy recommendations

Until such time as all refugee children have meaningful and safe access to state schools, formalization of the status of community schools is crucial while material support is needed for community schools educating refugee children. In light of the above gaps international and regional policymakers should support the following:

  • Advocacy efforts with relevant state authorities should be extended to obtain the legalization of status of community schools as education and community actors.
  • Institutional grants for community schools should be reintroduced. These grants will ensure that community schools can meet their minimum costs such as rent during this period of economic instability.
  • Individual education grants should reflect the actual costs of school fees. This will enable parents to enroll their children in community schools even where their own livelihoods have been harmed by the economic shock of Covid-19.
  • Individual education grants should reflect the actual costs of school fees. This will enable parents to enroll their children in community schools even where their own livelihoods have been harmed by the economic shock of Covid-19.

Even when meaningful and safe access to state education is guaranteed for children of displaced communities, community schools led by refugees for refugees should be viewed beyond their direct educational purposes and maintain an official status as protection actors for displaced communities. This can be achieved through:

  • Support for community schools to develop extracurricular activities for displaced children and youths. This can ensure greater protection, through the promotion of peaceful activities.
  • Support for community schools to develop cultural activities to preserve ethnic and national heritage and tradition among displaced communities to slow down effects of the trauma of cultural erasure.
  • Provide capacity-building activities to communities to develop group psychosocial activities that promote community networking and interdependence as means of protection.

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