Since the civil war that tore Sudan apart in 2013, the Latin parish of the Sacred Heart of Alexandria has been hosting hundreds of Sudanese refugees. Uprooted, they try to rebuild their lives in this new country and if some dream of France, the majority prefers to put down roots here, in the land of the Pharaohs.
Every week, about twenty children from nearby schools and adults have the chance to benefit from French lessons given by the volunteers.
Our driver's GPS chose the route that goes by the seaside. This is good news because from 5pm onwards, the road traffic is very busy in the streets of Alexandria. The corniche allows us to enjoy the landscape despite the traffic jams.
After several tricky manoeuvres, we arrive at our destination at around 5.30pm. As we enter the parish, we recognise familiar faces. While the younger children are playing a lively football match, the adults are waiting for us, eager to get started. They are sitting at the back of the courtyard, playing cards and welcoming us with broad smiles. We have to wait for some of them who have just come back from work. Their determination to be there on time is impressive! As some of them often tell us, Egypt is only a step. They dream of an easier life in France and hope to find work and better living conditions for their families. They don't dwell on the subject and we prefer to avoid pressing them with questions.
After greeting the adults, I let them go with two other volunteers to start their class. In view of their motivation and their very good basic English, we decided to separate them from the children's group so that they would not be slowed down in their learning. On the other hand, there are fewer of them and they are more regular, so their follow-up is easier to ensure.
As for me, I find the youngest ones all busy, trying to negotiate to continue playing a little longer. As good diplomats, we give them 10 more minutes. This will allow us to set up the tables and chairs in the classroom.
Today's class will take place in the church crypt. We have a whiteboard on two chairs at our disposal.
Today's programme: revision of the conjugations of the verbs "to be" and "to have", knowing how to introduce oneself, giving the date, then conjugations of the verbs "to drink" and "to eat" and vocabulary on the different foods...
At the end of the 10 minutes, Jacques, aged 13, takes charge. He retrieves the ball, puts it in his bag and gathers the whole group in our improvised classroom. Twenty or so students, aged between 3 and 14, sit on wooden chairs after dusting off the dust from the work.
We rely on our pillars Emmanuel, Jacques, Santos and Daniel, who understand English, to give the others a boost.
The French class lasts about an hour. As we work on the date, a student calls out to us. "You've got the wrong day." Indeed, it is Wednesday 23 June and not Wednesday 24 June as we wrote on the board. This little blunder allows us to see that she has understood correctly, so we congratulate her.
Through the window that separates our two rooms, I see volunteers explaining grammar points to adults. Among them is an English teacher who helps them a lot to structure the lesson. But he is much more rigorous than us and asks specific questions. While he complains about the French habit of assigning a gender to objects, the others are struggling to construct sentences with the vocabulary they have just learned.
These French lessons for Sudanese children at the Sacred Heart Church are very different from those we give in the day-care centres in the slums of Alexandria. Here, the children are older and most of them know some basics. The teaching is therefore faster and covers a wider range of subjects. It is through this kind of activity that we become aware that our mission in Alexandria requires constant adaptation to our audience. It is an experience of patience and humility. It is up to us to move at their pace and not the other way around.
After one hour of class, we let our students go. The room is tidied up and we join them to play football in the parish yard. More comfortable in their socks than in their trainers, they give the volunteer team a lot of trouble. However, we find a way to get around them other than the one provided by our goalkeeper. The courtyard also serves as a car park. So when our defence is faced with a tricky situation, we shout in Arabic "Arabia, Arabia", i.e. "Car, car". They stop playing for a moment and we take advantage of this to recover the ball and clear the danger. However, this trick doesn't work anymore...
A little further on, one of my friends willingly submits to the endless requests for photos and selfies that our young pupils ask her for!
At around 7pm, we blow the final whistle. It's time to say goodbye and go home. The church is located 3 minutes walk from the corniche, so we take the opportunity to admire the beautiful sunset over the Mediterranean Sea.
Erwan, volunteer in Egypt.
*The photos of the Sudanese refugees in orange coats are illustrative photos taken in Cairo.