Comboni Sister Nurses Egyptians for
60 years

NAZLET KHATER, Egypt (CNS) — It is 7 a.m., and someone is already knocking on the door of the tiny village convent where Comboni Sister Giacinta Niboli and three other sisters live.

Fridays and Sundays are when the church dispensary closes in accordance with Muslim and Christian traditions, so on those days the sick and anxious come searching for the 84-year-old Comboni nurse at home.

“There is never a holiday here, no Friday or Sunday,” said Sister Giacinta, as she left a recent interview to answer the front door of the convent in Nazlet Khater, a seven-hour train ride south of Egypt’s capital, Cairo.

Standing out front was a nervous young mother and her baby. She told Sister Giacinta in Arabic that she needed drops for her small daughter’s infected eyes.

“Come in,” Sister Giacinta responded in the Arabic dialect typical of Egypt’s South.

In 1953, as a young Comboni nun and nurse, Sister Giacinta left Brescia, Italy, for villages in Egypt’s South. She has lived in Egypt since.

After working in other villages and towns, Sister Giacinta landed in Nazlet Khater, where an estimated 6,000 Sunni Muslims live alongside about 1,500 Coptic Orthodox and 300 Coptic Catholics.

When not at home ”resting,” Sister Giacinta runs a small medical dispensary in an annex of St. George Church. Two local young women sign people in and out and hand her the various tools she needs to diagnose patient disorders.

They also help her hold down the screaming children who refuse tongue depressors and stethoscopes.

“You grab the legs, and you grab the arms,” she commanded her two assistants on a recent Saturday morning when a 4-year-old patient was refusing to lie down on the clinic’s blue examination table. In seconds, the little girl was locked into position, and Sister Giacinta was listening to her internal breathing.

“She has a cold,” she told the mother soon after, as the girl chewed on a piece of pink candy, smiling. Sister Giacinta estimated the clinic sees 1,800 to 2,000 patients a month and that most them are women and children from Muslim families.

“We are here to help, we don’t speak about Jesus, but are teaching love through showing mothers to properly care for their children, wash them well, and take care of their eyes,” Sister Giacinta said.

She added that the dust and fine sand of the desert and mountains that surround Nazlet Khater are the source of what she calls the village’s most endemic malady: eye infections. Other common ailments, she said, include stomach illnesses and influenza.

“We used to get a lot of scorpion bites, but those have declined. I also used to deliver babies, but now I send mothers to the hospital in the city of Sohag, 21 miles away,” Sister Giacinta explained.

She quickly added: “Remember, I am almost 85.”

Sister Giacinta said she does not worry about what lies ahead in post-revolution Egypt, where anywhere from an estimated 4 to 12 million Christians live among more than 70 million Muslims.

“I love them all, and they love me,” Sister Giacinta said of the Muslim majority. “They tell me, ‘You are baraka,’” the Arabic word for a blessing, she said.

Sister Giacinta said what concerns her most these days is the post-revolution lull in Egypt’s once-thriving tourist industry which provided sorely needed income for the country and often generous donations from visitors to the Catholic clinics like the one she runs.

“There is a crisis now because French and Italian tourists who used to give us money and medicines don’t come,” she said.

The two Egyptian pounds (32 cents) her clinic charges per visit to cover operating costs is far below the average 25 pounds asked by private clinics in nearby towns. But, Sister Giacinta, said, even two pounds is too much for some in Nazlet Khater, where most of the residents rely on small agriculture and remittances from family working in Cairo and elsewhere.

“Of course if they don’t have it, they don’t pay,” she said.

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