Sevcik's Blog

A year in Cairo Egypt

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Work Begins--MUCH info about Refugee Ministry!

4 October
Yesterday was my first day ‘on the job’ at St. Andrews, so I am officially Sarah M Sevcik, Director of Children’s Ministries! I have a lot to learn about what this position entails, but to keep it simple, I’m basically a principal at a school at St. Andrew’s United Church established for refugees who want/need to learn skills in English, science, math, computers, etc. The program is funded primarily by donations from incredible donors (like you!) and the UN. I work with kids 6 years old through “Teen 4” (high school aged) for a total of 150-180 kids. There is also an adult program in the evenings with about 300 enrolled students. Although it’s only been two days I can tell you this program is wonderful! Already I see how incredibly faithful God is for this ministry to exist. I’ll do my best to explain a bit about the program, and at a later date I’ll write more about Sudanese history and Sudanese people so you have a better idea of their situation. Frankly, I still have a LOT to learn about their situation and can’t justify speaking on their behalf. Oh, and although most of our students are Sudanese, we also serve refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia, and the Congo. Almost all of our staff members are refugees as well.
I can say this however; one very important concept in African culture is the idea of tribal membership. Tribal clans are thicker than skin—generally more important than family ties—a concept Westerners don’t fully understand. This means a variety of things for our ministry. First of all, when a tribal member asks a favor of you (another tribal member), you must do everything you can to fulfill it. You can never say no to someone who asks for your help. Therefore, we’ll have teachers bring in their tribal member friends and ask that they be accepted into the program. Of course, they know the answer will be no (for reasons I’ll explain in a moment) but they must try.
Tribes take care of one another and are extremely loyal. Dick explained that the Egyptian government goes through Cairo neighborhoods to do a “sweep”—basically they arrest any African person in the area, no questions asked. Sometimes it is our students or teachers who are captured and put into jail. Treatment in jail sounds horrible—they are not fed food or water, so their friends need to pay baksheesh (tips) to the guards in order to get into the jail and bring food to their friends. St. Andrew’s helps out by paying for the release of the captured refugees and giving some extra cash to the friends who are helping out. You may wonder why the government is doing a sweep in the first place. Well, there are many levels to this issue. First of all, there is a HUGE unemployment rate in Egypt (the poverty rate alone is over 30%) for both the uneducated and educated, which of course affects every level of societal living you can think of (a whole other topic I won’t get into right now). So, here come refugees who are also without jobs and extremely poor, which, of course, threatens Egyptians. Refugees will do almost anything for work. They are lucky if they can get any job at all, and usually that means house cleaning or vending. Some go digging for scrap pieces of metal and sell it for a ‘profit’ of $5-$50 pounds, on a good day.
As I just mentioned, you may wonder why we can’t just accept more people into the program; I find myself frustrated with this as well. The short answer is that we don’t have the resources—space, people, and money. The waiting list to get into our program continues to grow, and politics are only making it worse. Until recently, refugees were protected pretty well under the UN and were placed in countries like Canada, the US, Europe, or Australia. Since 9-11, however, our world has been so governed by fear and it is negatively affecting most every refugee program. The US has such strict security that the arrival of refugees has essentially ceased. On top of that, “peace” has been declared in Sudan which means the UN now focuses on how to get the refugees back home. Humbug. There is no peace, and the declaration of peace is only making it worse. In only two day of working at St. Andrew’s it’s already clear to me that despite how horrible the Sudanese have it in Egypt, most of them have no desire to ever return to Sudan, even if their family is still there!
What are the first two days of work for a new CEP (Children Education Program) Director? Walking into work yesterday I really didn’t know what to expect, and what I found was certainly a surprise. First of all, on my first day I spent the morning getting to know more about Sudanese issues, meeting some teachers and staff, and getting to know the compound. By the afternoon, however, I was in a whole other ballgame. A few teens had gotten into a fight after school (one girl has been calling the other girl a “saucepan”) that ended up causing a big scene with a half dozen Egyptian men coming into the compound and getting involved. Henry, my incredible assistant (who is also a Sudanese refugee), brought two of the young women to my office for discipline. YIKES! Day One and I’m already put into the “bad guy” position. Thankfully Henry took care of most of the talking, and between Henry, Dick, and me we decided to get the student’s parents involved.
I typed out a letter for the girls to bring home asking for their parents to come to school today and discuss the issue. This in itself was a big task for me. What on earth do I write? I wouldn’t know what would be acceptable to write in America, nonetheless the first day in on the job in Egypt dealing with the Sudanese and Somali! How do I address the parents? What is respectable in their culture? What would be culturally inappropriate or insensitive? How much detail should I write? Do I write a letter in Memo format? Ah! Well, I eventually wrote something that was satisfactory, printed it out and had another staff member translate it into Arabic. Then the letter was signed by me. That’s right, as the Director, I have the responsibility, and oh boy is it strange.
Today when we were supposed to meet with the parents, one girl didn’t show and the other brought her brother in place of parents. The student, her brother, Henry, Dick and I gathered into the conference room to discuss the problem. Thankfully Dick and Henry took care of most of the talking again. I learned so much in that hour. It was very clear that the girl felt horrible about the situation and she had shamed herself and her family. It also became clear that in the long run, this incident would be helpful for her. Among other things, Dick and Henry explained to her that we do not tolerate any kind of violence at St. Andrews. We realize that she has grown up understanding that fighting is a way to ‘solve problems,’ but it doesn’t work, as demonstrated by her country. We told her she’s a great student, we want her to learn so she can make something even greater of herself, and we challenged her to be a role model for the other students as well as her country. We don’t solve problems with violence, but through peace.
It is so odd to be in a position of so much leadership when I feel so completely unqualified. I realize this program doesn’t need me and survives just fine without me (thank goodness!) but still, it’s odd. Every other job I’ve had I started from the bottom, or I was taking a position I had worked up to and knew I was capable of my job description. This time I’m being welcomed into an already thriving system and being looked to as a leader. I am certainly feeling very blessed and humbled at this, and I hope I can do some justice. As I walked around the compound today visiting some classes the teachers would stop what they were doing, get the kids to quiet down, and very respectfully honor and welcome me. Wow.
As I stopped by the music class today the teacher asked the children to sing a few songs for me. I recall hearing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” But it was the song “The More We Get Together” that struck me the most. “The more we get together, together, together…the happier we’ll be! Cause your friends are my friends and my friends are your friends…the more we get together the happier we’ll be!” There I was, surrounded by refugee children coming from all parts of Sudan and other nations and realizing the irony of this situation—back home, these children could easily be enemies, but here we are teaching them about peace and forgiveness and hope. Insha’allah! (God Willing)


  • At 10/13/2005, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Oh Sevcik--I am so amazed by the experiences you are having and am so proud of you! Miss you lots!


  • At 10/17/2005, Anonymous Sarah Richter said…

    Sarah--beautiful. I'm so glad you are put in such a challenging and rewarding position this year. It will help you grow in more ways than you know.

    Your stories are amazing and moving. I can imagine it all.


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