Eman Abdelrahman: Helping mothers and children with disabilities

When North and South Sudan started the separation process in 2010, Eman Abdelrahman and her brother raised public awareness about the possible implications. Her brother was arrested, and she was threatened to face the same consequences. When they were informed that an arrest order against them was about to be issued, Eman, her sister, and another brother packed their bags and took a plane to Egypt. 

In Cairo, she resettled as a refugee with her sister and her then three-year-old son, who was showing signs of autism. The doctor recommended an accessible school they couldn’t afford, and Eman felt obligated to learn how to support him. A former engineer in her home country, she went back to university to study Language and Speech Disorders and started applying her new knowledge with her nephew. “The results were great. We wanted to do it with the community as well,” she recalls. Eman and a friend produced flyers about autism and distributed them among other forcibly displaced Sudanese. “If you are a mother and your child is showing these signs, contact us. We can help you,” they read.

When they started in 2016, they would go to schools and work with children in spaces that were not always available. In 2017, thanks to a grant, they were able to open their first office in a small apartment. At the time, it was only Eman and two volunteers working there. But the demand was growing and she was advised to register the organization to be able to operate legally. 

Eman, Founder, Chairperson, and Director of Tafawol, chose an Arabic word that means ‘optimism’ as the name of the organization that today supports refugee children with disabilities through a school, a physical therapy center, psychosocial programming, and a refugee legal clinic. Their efforts have helped educate and integrate 380 refugee children in Egypt and have touched the lives of over 5000 families from the Sudanese, South Sudanese, Eritrean, and Yemeni communities.

The journey toward registration took three years and was full of obstacles, but she continued working with the children in the meantime. The authorities repeatedly rejected her for two reasons: being a foreigner and a woman. “In Egypt, a foreigner cannot be the chairperson of a charity, but I didn’t think it was practical to have an Egyptian lead an organization working for refugees without understanding their language or their needs. I also faced many challenges with the authorities because the chairperson should be a man. Many times I had to make them believe I was a man to keep going. I kept insisting at the ministry until they got tired of me and gave in. They just didn’t want to see ‘the Sudanese lady’ again,” she recalls.

Women are strong. They can bring life into the world, raise their children in the most difficult contexts, and bring positive human beings into society. If they are trusted, they can lead the movement, always.

Her gender was not only a ‘problem’ with the authorities. Even the refugee community, and Sudanese in particular, were affected by stereotypes and not used to women’s leadership. “If I didn’t find people that encouraged me at the time, I wouldn’t have kept going,” she says. When asked about what is needed to further enable refugee women’s leadership, she identifies training as a key element that has supported her journey. She feels fortunate to have received capacity-building opportunities from multiple organizations which have strengthened her leadership. “Women are strong. They can bring life into the world, raise their children in the most difficult contexts, and bring positive human beings into society. If they are trusted, they can lead the movement, always,” she says.

In 2020, Tafawol was selected as part of a community-based organization development project sponsored by St. Andrews Refugee Services in Egypt, a member of the Resourcing Refugee Leadership Initiative. This opportunity allowed them, among other things, to afford five paid staff members, initiate a legal support office for asylum seekers, grow from one office to three apartments, and start the first refugee community school in the area, from first to sixth grade, based on the Sudanese curriculum.

While Eman’s initial motivation to work for forcibly displaced families was her lived experience of forced displacement as well as her understanding of their needs and what they were going through, the children’s progress is her main motivation today: “Now the impact of my work keeps me going. We work with children with mobility challenges who sometimes cannot walk up the stairs when they come. Once the child is able to go upstairs without help, I’m happy.”

Read more about other refugee women leaders like Eman: 5 Refugee Women Leading Change for Forcibly Displaced Communities