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St. Andrew’s Refugee Services has been ministering to displaced people in Cairo for nearly 40 years


StARS program helped about 25,000 refugees and migrants in 2017

by Emily Brown | Special to Presbyterian News Service

CAIRO, EGYPT ­– “I call it the holy place,” said Sultan,* a young man from Eritrea who came to St. Andrew’s Refugee Services (StARS) hoping to access education through the Unaccompanied Youth Bridging Program, a specialized initiative designed to assist young refugees in Egypt without a parent or guardian. Since he was here with his family, he was ineligible to enroll. But he was persistent, eventually landing a job as a teaching assistant in the program.  Over the years, he has become a leader among the staff at StARS and now works as a program assistant in the Refugee Legal Aid Program, and as a StARS ambassador, meeting with visitors and planning events.

Children in the preschool class of the St. Andrews Refugee Services (StARS) program in Cairo, Egypt. Photo by Alexander Treves

Sultan is not alone in recognizing that this little plot of land in the middle of downtown Cairo is special. Staff, students and clients, as well as church members from the six refugee congregations who worship at St. Andrew’s United Church of Cairo, come knowing that they are safe and welcome. Hawa, a refugee from Sudan, remembers coming to StARS after a group of schoolboys attacked her, leaving her with a cut on her head. When she came to StARS, she expected only to have a listening ear. That day her psychosocial worker, Abdella, made time for her, asked questions, listened and inspected her wound. Surrounded by people eager to hear her story, she felt seen like never before in Cairo.

Founded by members of St. Andrew’s United Church of Cairo in 1979, StARS began as a small English-language tutoring program for adult refugees from Ethiopia. Over the years, the program grew to include more formalized adult education, children’s education, psychosocial, legal aid and community outreach programs. “In 2017, 200 full- and part-time staff, 30 interpreters and more than 200 volunteers assisted approximately 25,000 refugees and vulnerable migrants,” said Barbara Wibmer, deputy director of the StARS program. “Of this number, the majority of students and refugees came from Syria, Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen and Eritrea.” StARS welcomes refugees of all nationalities, ethnicities and religions.

“God calls us to welcome the stranger, the orphan and the widow,” said the Rev. Kirsten Fryer, pastor of St. Andrew’s United Church of Cairo. “We seek to provide a welcoming place, a safe space, recalling that Jesus, too, was a refugee in Egypt.” Built by the Church of Scotland over 100 years ago, the “United” in the name St. Andrew’s United Church of Cairo comes from the merger with the nearby American (Presbyterian) Mission church in the 1960s. Over the years, many Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) members have volunteered with the refugee ministry.

The church compound is small, about the size of a large church parking lot, but it is packed full of people, from early morning until late at night. At any given time, 50 to 100 people might be waiting to access drop-in services. Students might be studying in one of the four classrooms, with others playing soccer in the small courtyard. They use whatever they can find to kick around: an empty soda bottle, a rock or a highly coveted soccer ball, almost always nearly flat from use. A large hall is partitioned off during the day to provide interview spaces for the program’s legal advisors and psychosocial workers. This hall becomes a classroom for adults at night and a worship space for churches on weekends.

StARS is unique in Cairo because of the variety of services offered in the same space. A mother might drop off her child at the Montessori preschool before meeting with her psychosocial worker or legal advisor. “StARS also addresses physical needs by providing breakfast and lunch for any child within our walls on four days a week,” Wibmer said. Nearly 300 children are enrolled in the school, with 40 more in the Montessori preschool. Over 900 adults attend English, Arabic math and information technology classes each term, with three terms offered each year.

Psychosocial caseworkers assist unaccompanied children through the StARS program. Photo by Alexander Treves.

StARS also serves as the only drop-in center in Cairo for refugees who are extremely vulnerable and find themselves in an emergency situation. The drop-in and emergency response program screens 150 to 200 refugees per day, provides them with information and advice, and then refers them to other StARS services. Refugees who arrive in a crisis situation are granted basic necessities such as food, first aid and shelter. The refugee legal aid program provides clear and timely legal advice on the process of being recognized as a refugee in Egypt, considering residency visas and resettlement issues and protection services.

Unaccompanied youth and children can receive services provided by the bridging program, which offers classes in math, Arabic, English, information technology and science, as well as psychosocial meetings and activities to help foster integration into life in Cairo. At the end of each semester, students are offered information, often provided by graduates of the program, and support in finding opportunities for further education and employment.

Adults, families and youth all benefited from programs to improve health and well-being, whether from peer-support groups, information sessions, workshops on coping and well-being or direct handouts of food, clothes, blankets and supplies. Help is also provided in accessing medical services and in building confidence and awareness on how to improve living conditions. The adults and families program has addressed issues such as sexual- and gender-based violence, child labor and protection, and support for families with children who have disabilities.

Though staff and volunteers come from around the world, the majority of the staff are refugees or from forcibly displaced communities. Nazer, a teacher in the school, said, “Everyone shares the same vision and believes in StARS’ mission. This creates a family environment and peace.” Though it has grown significantly over the past few years, from serving 3,000 refugees in 2013 to over 25,000 in 2017, there is a sense of community that transcends ethnicity, religion and nationality. “StARS is my house,” Hawa said. “Abdella and the others are my brothers and my sisters.”

Learn more about StARS at or Refugees Thrive International

*All names have been changed to protect confidentiality.


Emily Brown is a member of Harvey Browne Memorial Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky. She served as a volunteer English tutor in the refugee services ministry of St. Andrew’s United Church of Cairo, Egypt, in 2017–18.

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