Tom is an IAFR Canada team member, leading our Toronto Newcomer Support project.
On March 17th, 2020 at 1:00 am I got a call.
“This is getting out of hand; you need to come home.”
It had been almost eight months since I arrived in Cairo, Egypt to serve for a year. My days were spent at a school for refugee children called African Hope Learning Centre (AHLC). More than ten African countries are represented by about five hundred refugee students and teachers.
I came as a member of the IAFR Canada team to support our partner, AHLC, by providing everyday support in the school. All the teachers are also refugees, so there were many days when a teacher could not make it to school. They had to spend up to three days waiting in the Passport and Immigration office to renew their 3-month visa. As African refugees in Egypt, they also did not have accessible health care services, so there were many sick days. I would step in and teach classes on days like these.
Other days I was
My biggest project while in Cairo was to start the school’s Music Club. Back in Canada, donors to IAFR’s Christmas Project made it possible for me to buy five guitars and five ukuleles for the school. We would have lessons during the break between the morning and afternoon shift of school. About thirty students in total were a part of the music club. Music is an incredible, healing outlet that most of these refugee students had never had an opportunity to explore. For months we had two lessons a week and everyone was loving it and progressing well.
I was able to be part of so many amazing things at AHLC, and my absolute favourite was spending some unstructured time with the students. I loved sitting and talking to them during the afternoon break, playing games and being silly at recess, or running into students when I would walk through the souq (market) on weekends. In my eyes, these connections were far beyond anything else I did in Egypt.
I was amazed to see how easily these kind, compassionate and intelligent young people welcomed me into their community. I immediately became “Teacher Tom” and never once felt like an outsider. We started talking about their families and how difficult it was to be a black African in Cairo. We talked about dreams of leaving Cairo and resettling in another country. We talked about God and questions they had about the Bible. And, most importantly, we prayed together. The best part is that none of this was done on a one-way street. I was constantly prayed for and blessed by the students.
Even with a few very homesick days, things were amazing in Maadi, Cairo. I had my school that I loved, amazing students and teachers, I even had my favourite restaurants and fruit stands in the souq where they knew me by name. Life was good.
On March 17th at 1:00 am I got a call. “This is getting out of hand, you need to come home.”
The COVID 19 pandemic was starting to become a big thing. Entire countries were locking down, borders were closing, airports shutting down. But it was almost unnoticeable in Egypt. Life was still normal. I still went and sat in my favourite cafes drinking coffee, people were out on the streets without a mask in sight, and it was only the day before I got the call to go home that the government had ordered the school to close. I had heard about the virus from people at home and on social media, but I had no idea it was becoming as serious as the world was saying it is.
We had a storm which had flooded the school, so it had already been closed for a couple days. The day we finished cleaning was the day the government closed the schools all across the country. This meant it had already been a week since I had seen my students. And then I got the call.
On the phone was Rob, my mentor, friend and one of the IAFR Canada directors. He told me that with the uncertainty of the border closures and flight cancellations, I had to get home as quickly as possible. This call was at 1:00 am Cairo time on the 17th. By the end of that phone call I had a flight booked for 8:00 am on the 18th. I immediately started packing.
I spent the next day saying goodbye to anyone I could. I had a few friends close by in Maadi and the WhatsApp numbers of some of the teachers at the school. I spent my last day on a mini goodbye tour around Maadi. I said goodbye to my friends at the fruit stands in the souq and at my coffee shops and restaurants. But I never got the chance to say goodbye to my students. With the school unexpectedly already closed for almost a week, I never got to tell them I was leaving.
And then I went to the airport. My flight was cancelled. The Egyptian government was closing all airports until further notice. I thought I was going to be stuck in Egypt. I have some very well-connected people in my life who helped me as I panicked. We booked a flight to London, UK and I spent a night there while we found a flight to Toronto. After an incredibly stressful thirty-five hour travel day, I arrived in Toronto on March 19th. My entire life shifted in just 48 hours. I started that 48 hours in one continent and ended it in another.
My life circumstance completely changed, and it was totally out of my control. I now have a brand-new appreciation for what refugees experience. To be uprooted with no control. The difference for me is that my life or well-being was never in danger. I was heading home; I knew where I was going to end up. Some refugees have years of limbo. My limbo was one night in a hotel in London, eating fish and chips. I completely understand that my experience was a tiny fraction of what they experience, what it’s like to be uprooted the way a forcibly displaced person is.
My year back in Canada has been very good. I got engaged, became a stepfather, started a new family and got involved in some amazing ministries in Toronto. There has been much to bring me joy during this time where many find it hard to find joy in the isolation and lock-downs. God has been so good to me.
As amazing as it has been since I got home, there is still something that feels incomplete and that is my relationships with my students. From the beginning of my time in Cairo, I knew my time at AHLC was temporary; my return flight was booked for June 20th. But I never got to say goodbye. A handful of students have tracked me down on social media and we exchange messages every now and then, but there still hasn't been the closure needed for relationships like this. It remains incomplete. I wait somewhat impatiently for the day that I can fly there and hear them call me “Teacher Tom” again, to properly say goodbye to these students that I love dearly.
One Last Thought: During my time with AHLC, quite a few people said things like, “You’re going to change those kid’s lives.” or, “They’re so lucky to have you over there.” This made me uncomfortable. I was just another guy going to help at the school. I was a temporary fixture, and I knew that from day one. The truth is that my relationship with these students changed my life.
Our vision is to help people survive and recover from forced displacement. We do this together with the church, both globally, and locally in Canada.