Just two months ago, 25-year-old Leen and her three children made the perilous journey from Damascus, the capital of war-torn Syria, to Sudan and then through the Halayeb Triangle mountains and the desert to Egypt. It's a dangerous but increasingly common route for Syrian refugees seeking safety. "I had to hold my children together by a rope to stop them falling out of the truck," Leen told me. "We were going so fast, I thought I was going to lose one of them."
As the conflict in Syria approaches a sixth brutal year, families are still fleeing their homes and making dangerous journeys in search of safety. Leen calls the road from Sudan to Egypt a "Death Road". If the smugglers don't beat you or let you die of thirst in the desert sun, then there are the snipers, gangs and even organ traffickers to contend with. "If I'd known how bad it would be, I think I could have endured the strikes and air raids in Syria instead," Leen says. But without safe and legal routes away from the bullets and bombs, refugees will continue to rely on smugglers to get themselves and their children to safety.
Leen (Centre, with ball) with children at UNICEF & ECHO supported Kindergarten
When I met Leen in Giza a few days ago, it was clear that at just 25 years old with three children aged 10, nine and four, she has learnt to be very strong from a young age. Having only arrived in Egypt a few weeks ago and still dealing with trauma herself, she has already started working as a teacher, providing vital psycho-social support and education to children who have experienced the same horrors as she did in Syria and along that 'Death Road'.
With more than 50,000 Syrian children registered as refugees in Egypt, Unicef is working with ECHO, the humanitarian arm of the EU, to support the youngest children to attend kindergartens like the one where I met Leen. Children are not only learning to write and count, but also to cope with the psychological impacts of growing up in the midst of war.
The parents, teachers and children I met in Egypt told story after story of the hell they've been living through since the Syrian conflict began: a five-year-old girl whose school was attacked and best friend killed; a six-year-old who saw her father beheaded and is now nervous and aggressive at school; a seven-year-old who wouldn't speak or leave the house for a year. But through the EU-Unicef partnership, education is giving children the chance to recover and build a better future for themselves and their communities.
Children like Leen's daughter Hala, 10. "I remember the raids, the killing, the kidnappings. I saw it all," says Hala. "But I'm happy at school now. I have friends. I feel safe when mum is close to us at school. I want to study and become a doctor so that I can help sick children."
Ali,5, at UNICEF & ECHO supported Kindergarten
Children like five-year-old Ali, who witnessed more horrors than most children in Syria. Like so many children dealing with psychological trauma, Ali is very quiet, but he loves school. His teacher says he is always the one to calm everyone down if a fight breaks out. "The children who arrived from Syria recently hide under the desks when they hear planes overhead," says Ali's teacher. "The children who have been here for longer joke with them and tell them they don't need to be scared anymore."
And children like eight-year-old twins Abdel and Rokia, who also made that terrifying journey along the Death Road from Sudan. "We told them we were there for a picnic, to look at the moon, to walk in the fresh air. Anything to protect them," says their father. Yet by the time they arrived in Egypt, both children had severe speech difficulties: Abdel seemed constantly tongue-tied, and Rokia couldn't speak at all. They have been taking part in education activities and receiving psycho-social support at the Terre des Hommes Family Centre for the past few months, and the positive impact has been life-changing. When I met them, both children were playing, chatting and laughing.
Abdel (L) and Rokia (R), 8 at home in Obour City
What all of these parents want for their children, above all, is to be safe and to have a chance to learn. That's why next year, Unicef and ECHO will be supporting even more young children in Egypt to start their education and build the foundation for their futures.
For children living through and in the aftermath of emergencies, education is as critical as food and medicine. To find out more about Unicef & ECHO's education work visit emergencylessons.eu