CAIRO - 25 November 2017: Deep in the heart of Old Cairo a ring of shanty towns make up the densely populated slum of Istabl Antar, the second poorest area in Cairo, where brick houses are cramped on both sides of narrow walkways. But somewhere beyond the dusty walls, your eyes will fall on a couple of colorful murals that send a message of hope; and they will accompany you all the way to Tawasol NGO School.
The population in Istabl Antar, and the neighboring Ezzbet Khairallah, has reached 750,000 citizens in 2016, according to the minister of education, and only one public school serves the district. Tawasol has therefore taken the initiative to offer children, and especially dropout students, an escape from a dreadful destiny if left without adequate guidance.
Tawasol was first established in 2008 and aims to provide a safe, nurturing hub for children. It offers learning opportunities, vocational training, and a host of activities. It also offers psychological support and parental guidance, as well as a sustainable source of income for the children and the residents of the whole area.
“When I dropped out of school, I kept crying and stopped eating for a whole week, until my mother brought me here; and I learned in one week what I couldn't learn in years,” says Safaa, one of Tawasol’s most committed students, according to her teachers.
Out-of-school children include those who never enrolled as well as those who dropped out early before acquiring basic literacy skills. According to a 2012 study by UNICEF, the dropout rates for boys and girls in Egypt are 63 percent and 37 percent respectively, which is the result of many factors including family poverty, social norms, early entrance in the labor market, difficult family circumstance as well as a low quality of education which discourages families from keeping their children in school.
Such was the case for Safaa. “I was in primary 5 (grade 4), and I couldn't even spell my own name,” Safaa recalls. Joining Tawasol five years ago, she resumed her education, starting from scratch with primary one curriculum. Now she is finally set to take her primary education exam and pursue her studies at a preparatory school in just a few months. She is only 14 but she has a big dream to become a doctor; and she is quite determined to achieve it. She is also learning embroidery, which she is willing to pursue as a craft in her free time.
Tawasol NGO School currently hosts 150 students, who receive their education and a variety of vocational trainings without any cost from the family. As it is accredited by The Ministry of Education, Tawasol’s students can sit for the national exams; and upon completing the primary program can move on to a mainstream preparatory school. The children are also trained in different crafts by professionals and once they have acquired the skill, they receive a compensation for every product they make. The products are later sold on Tawasol’s online store and 100 percent of the sales go back to the artisans and the NGO’s development projects.
The children go to school six days a week, from Saturday to Thursday; three days for classes and the rest for crafts, vocational trainings and activities, Aliaa Abd ElAziz, Tawasol’s project coordinator tells Egypt Today.
Ghada, 14, has been learning embroidery for over two years. “One cloth might take between one and three days, but I am always very happy when I see it done,” she says proudly.
Even when they enroll in a certified school, Tawasol keeps a constant link with its students. They come back in the afternoon for remedial classes, crafts workshops and for their theatre and circus trainings.
“I come every day after school .. I enjoy the circus training and Tabla … And I come to study two days a week,” says Hassan, 14, who has recently enrolled in a preparatory school after frequenting Tawasol regularly for six years.
The NGO also supports the parents and all ladies in the neighborhood through community classes as well as vocational trainings. “Some ladies get a monthly income of around LE 1,000, and they depend on it completely to sustain their houses,” says Fekreya Shaaban, executive director of the school.
We spent a day at Tawasol School and decided to follow the steps of the students. We attended a few classes, walked into the carpentry workshop and saw the children learn to use a saw and make marionettes. We joined them for lunch and watched how they are taught to follow the rules and be aware of their hygiene, listened to a beautiful musical performance and finally took the stairs up to the roof and watched young jugglers and unicyclists train for their next circus show, which shall be held on Saturday at the American University in Cairo’s Alumni Homecoming event.
Apart from its major role in developing the children of Istabl Antar, Tawasol also provides health care services for all residents, covers 50 percent of treatment and 90 percent of any necessary medical operations.
Um Yasmin, a de facto cofounder of the school and current inspector, is the key actor in this process. She accompanies the patients to the hospitals and supervises the whole process. “I have been working with Tawasol since they were first established … I helped with the case studies and we would go help people whose houses were in bad condition and even fix their roofs. Then, I started bringing in the children who dropped out of schools and convincing their parents,” Um Yasmin tells Egypt Today.
Tawasol is currently working on establishing a new school, which would accommodate up to 500 students and it is set to become an expansion of all services and facilities, including 27 classes, performing arts and activities space, library, workshops, auditorium, labs, a bigger cafeteria and a gym.
“We have the space and the capacity to start the new school,” Shaaban affirms, stating that the NGO’s biggest objective at the moment is to expand to preparatory and secondary classes to prevent the gap children feel once they go to a mainstream school, which could lead them to drop out again.
Tawasol’s products, all hand-made using locally sourced materials, can be found on their website (tawasolegypt.org) or Facebook page (Tawasol Egypt).