Sitting on the sands of the Mediterranean Sea in Alexandria on a warm June evening, Nada, 11, asks her mother if they’ll be returning to Syria. Her mother is non-committal: ‘Yes of course, my dear, very soon.’
In reality, Syrian children like Nada may not be able to go back, as Syria's conflict rages on. Marooned in Egypt, they miss their families, homes and schools.
Nada often points her finger in the direction of the sea towards Syria, where her father was left behind. Back home she would play on a similar beach with her friends. But Nada's life is different now. A refugee in Alexandria, separated from everything she loved back home, she shares a rented flat in a crowded city neighbourhood with 12 other people, including some of their former Syrian neighbours.
Nada attends a local public school, which she says is too crowded, with a syllabus and learning methods quite different from her school in Syria.
When Nada and her mother escaped from their northern Syrian town, there was intense fighting all around. "The girl was horrified, she was shivering, crying and held me tightly," her mother recalls.
Nada's father promised he would join them once they reached Egypt. "But he never comes," Nada mumbles in a distraught voice. She looks pale and is clearly anaemic, as her mother doesn't have enough money to provide her with good food.
Due to the difference in accents, Nada isn't able to communicate with her Egyptian classmates. She has no friends either. She only has one wish: to go back home and re-join her school, which may not exist anymore. Like hundreds of other Syrian refugee children in Egypt, she may drop out of the school if not supported. The schooling grants provided by the UN Refugee Agency to the registered vulnerable children have already been cut by half.
"She isn't able to follow the lessons at school. She says she doesn't like to sit in huddled classrooms. The toilets in schools are too dirty and not girl-friendly. She is too distracted and her behaviour has changed," says her mother.
Nada is just one of thousands of Syrian children facing tremendous challenges in coping with refugee life in Egypt. Although the government of Egypt has allowed Syrian children to enrol in public schools, their access is hampered by lack of resources for fees, school books, uniforms, high student-to-teacher ratio and shortage of basic amenities in public schools. Some school drop outs have even started working to contribute towards the family income.