Thursday, October 4, 2007

STAR: English Classes for Refugees

The Arab world faces an unprecedented humanitarian crisis: millions of refugees have fled their either homes to escape war and seek asylum. Some were forced to leave, others went voluntarily. Refugees from Palestine, Sudan (especially Darfur), and Iraq make up the majority of political refugees worldwide. Cairo, as the largest city in the Arab world, has a major refugee crisis. Current estimates that I've heard or read range from 175,000 to two million refugees living in Cairo!!! Of Cairo's refugees, most are from Sudan, and about 150,000 are from Iraq, and more are arriving every day. I can’t even begin to imagine the horrors that some of these people have witnessed. The United Nations refugee agencies must be inundated with requests. The economy of Cairo is certainly incapable of supplying enough jobs. Most of these refugees think they will someday be able to return home or move to Europe or the United States, but this is simply not true. Most refugees are here to stay. This is their home. This is their children’s home.

Dr. Paul Farmer once said that the problem in the world today is the false belief that some lives are worth more than others. Like Dr. Paul Farmer, I believe all lives are valuable, that all people deserve a chance to succeed, and that we all share a moral obligation to make this world a better place for all people. I am very privileged. I have the means to make a difference, and I think it would be shame if I refused to do nothing.

Cairo presents a unique opportunity for a native English speaker to reach out to my community. Student Action for Refugees (STAR) is an international service organization that provides humanitarian assistance to refugees in the form of low-cost English classes taught by student volunteers. As soon as I heard about this opportunity, I immediately signed up. This was exactly what I was looking for when I came to Cairo—a service opportunity that I would never otherwise have back in the states. Most importantly, working with refugees provides me with a direct human contact with issues that most people only read about in the newspaper. Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, and Iraq seem so far away, but now that I live in Cairo, natives of these countries walk the same streets as me, ride the same metro, eat the same food.

My first STAR class was held on Wednesday at the Owafa Center in Ain Shams, an impoverished suburb of Cairo just a few stops form the end of the metro line. Classes are taught in pairs, and I work with a Georgetown student named Vicki. We had five students the first day, and more will probably join. The class is the lower intermediate level, so the students already have a decent background in English. Although there is a curriculum to follow, Vicki and I are responsible for developing lesson plans, designing activities, writing tests, and ensuring the academic progress of our students. The task seems daunting, but STAR provided a very helpful training session with an ESL professor at AUC. Teaching will inevitably be a challenge, but based on my first class, the experience is well worth the effort.

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