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After years of hell, hope for a young refugee in Cairo

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Abdulaziz Ibrahim has been through hell.

You wouldn’t know it by talking to this gentle 18-year-old. When members of our team visited him at his home in Cairo a few weeks ago, he was quick to offer a smile and to share his meal.

It was heartbreaking, then, when he told us about the horrors he has lived through to get to this point.

Abdulaziz fled his home country of Ethiopia during unrest in 2016. Like too many children and teenagers in violent areas around the world, he was alone—desperately seeking safety with limited resources and help.

It was four grueling months between when Abdulaziz left his home in Ethiopia and when he arrived in Cairo. The smuggler who was “helping” him extorted him near the Ethiopia-Sudan border, demanding huge amounts of money, taking some of his few possessions and locking him in a house even though Abdulaziz was hungry and dehydrated. Abdulaziz escaped, but he was found, sent back to that house and tortured.

When the smugglers finally let him go, Abdulaziz was on his own with no food or water. He walked until he found sympathetic people who gave him food and tea even though they didn’t speak his language. “There were some Oromo working in the area, so I approached them,” Abdulaziz says. They helped him get a haircut and new clothes. If he stayed in Sudan and was caught, they told him, he would be deported back to Ethiopia. So they helped him find a new smuggler to get out of Sudan. Abdulaziz made his way to Egypt and eventually found a community of people who spoke Oromo. They helped him register with the United Nations Refugee Agency.

But things didn’t get much easier in Cairo; he didn’t have enough money to get by. When he was approached in a café and offered a job in an area far from Cairo, he took it even though it meant going with another smuggler in a group with more than 100 people. They left in the middle of the night. He was told not to talk, not to breathe, not to make a sound. Then security forces found them. The smugglers fled, leaving Abdulaziz and the others to be captured. The group was rounded up and asked for identification. Abdulaziz was sent to prison. “It was a difficult situation,” he says. “They only fed us once a day, and there was nothing to sleep on.” When the officials realized that Abdulaziz was still 17, they released him. He begged one of the first people he saw for money and got enough to get a ticket back to Cairo.

Back in Cairo, Abdulaziz learned about CWS’s local partner, St. Andrew’s Refugee Services (known as StARS). “I came to StARS and asked for an education,” he says. “I got it, and they helped me. I started to study, and then they helped me with a distribution [of supplies]. Then they told me they could help me find someone to live with. They gave me a caseworker, and I can ask her for help if I have a problem. I started to live my life, and to take an English course.”

There aren’t formal foster programs for unaccompanied refugee children in Cairo, and the number of refugee children living on their own in the city is growing. That’s why StARS has set up a community hosting program that matches unaccompanied refugee children with adult refugees who are willing to give them a safe and welcoming place to live. Hosts are screened and vetted. They do not get paid, but StARS helps them make improvements in their homes to make them more comfortable for both the host family and the refugee child moving in.

Abdulaziz was matched with Mumed Yusuf Ali, who is also an Oromo refugee from Ethiopia. They have been living together, along with Mumed’s wife, since July 2018. Finally, Abdulaziz had a constant support in his life. “I told him that I’m his brother, and we can stay together forever. I will share with you whatever I have,” Mumed says. “We have become family.”

Once Mumed had signed up to be a host, a team from StARS came and checked out his home. They bought a fridge, washing machine and fan to make it more comfortable, and they even paid for the maintenance when the fridge broke. They conduct a monthly follow up to make sure everyone is happy with the arrangement, and Mumed and Abdulaziz each have caseworkers at StARS who they can talk to if they are uncomfortable.

After the trauma that he suffered, it wasn’t always easy for Abdulaziz to get used to having a stable home environment again. “I always remember what happened on the journey and how I faced a lot of problems in my country and on the journey. Since I was 14, things have been hard and I haven’t had anyone to support me. I haven’t been given a good life,” he says. “I had psychological problems. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat because I would remember. I left home for three days and sat in cafés. Mumed called StARS and then found me and brought me home. He supported me and gave me emotional support.”

Today, Abdulaziz is doing much better. He is happily living with Mumed, and they continue to be a family even now that Abdulaziz is now 18. He also has a psychological caseworker through StARS to help him to continue to make progress. “StARS supported me in a lot of ways. Without StARS, I’m sure that I would be homeless and would have lost my mind,” he says. “They have supported me more than my family could, and they took me away from my problems.”

Young people like Abdulaziz arrive in Cairo every day, scared and far from home. Many do not speak Arabic and have a hard time making a life in Cairo. Most have had difficult or traumatizing journeys. That’s why StARS has a new center that specializes in support for these young people, with counseling, classes, support groups and more loving care. We’re proud to support them as they ease some of the burdens that are weighing heavily on thousands of young shoulders.