Part of our Summer Travel Blog series!

I spent a lot of my time in Egypt thinking about walls. No, really. Walls. Not just the 12th century wall bordering Darb al-Ahmar that Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) excavated as part of the development of Al-Azhar Park, but figurative walls – barriers, if you will – as well.
In Darb al-Ahmar, the historic neighborhood where AKDN works,the barriers are tremendous. Mothers and children face difficulties accessing health care and early childhood development opportunities. Youth lack job opportunities. Craftsmen lack training and linkages to markets to sell their products. The once-glorious architecture, the heritage of the Fatimid Empire and a lure for tourists and scholars alike, is crumbling.


AKF, Egypt staff and (their visitors, like me!) get their exercise every day as they climb up and over the ancient wall to get to the office every day. When they arrive at the office, they get another workout – bringing down those figurative walls that exist between the people we serve and their full potential.

I spent my time in Egypt working with staff to develop funding proposals – lack of resources, especially for children and youth, is surely one of the greatest barriers, so in a way, I too was working on some of those walls. But the real work was taking place all around me.

In the kindergarten class I visited, the was an instantly visible force standing out among the small children seated at tables, drawing and reading. AKF supports her, and this kindergarten, to provide early active learning – through music, drawing, picture books, and even the glued macaroni artwork you’d find in a kindergarten in my own hometown of Chicago.


She and her staff understand that without engaging play and fun, active learning activities, children are less likely to succeed in primary school. When children don’t succeed in primary school, the foundation for the rest of their lives is shaky. This kindergarten, and the many others that AKF supports, are knocking down walls for these children so they are able to succeed later in life.

AKDN’s Continuing Education Centre also stands out – not only because it was the focus of my visit, but because it gets to the very heart of the challenges Egypt faces. Youth in Egypt make up almost a third of the country’s population, so they are in many ways its greatest asset, for change, for development, for economic growth. Yet youth, in Aswan especially, struggle with high unemployment.


Many youth find that their schooling does not prepare them for the demands of the labor market. This is where the Continuing Education Centre steps in – providing training in English and IT, with more courses such as “soft skills” and financial management in development. These sought-after skills will help youth head to the top of the resume pile when applying for jobs.

These are just a few examples of the ways in which AKF and other AKDN agencies work throughout Egypt to help children and youth. There are many more—improving agricultural productivity in Aswan’s Kom Ombo district, restoring facades on historic homes in Darb al-Ahmar, providing microfinance products and business development services to small businesses. As I climbed over the wall on my last day in Cairo, I found I was more committed than ever to do my small part in helping bring down some of these barriers.

Caryn Sweeney is the Programs Manager at Aga Khan Foundation U.S.A. and visited AKF, Egypt in Cairo to work on proposals for new AKDN projects in the country.