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Blind to Limitations

Sisters in Egypt give blind youth confidence and opportunity

Waves crash against the rocky Mediterranean coast near the port city of Abou Kir, northeast of Egypt’s sprawling metropolis of Alexandria. Home to some 300,000 people, Abou Kir is named for an important Egyptian early Christian martyr, St. Cyrus. Today, the city has a large Christian minority (about 30 percent of the population), most of whom follow the Coptic Orthodox or Catholic traditions.

On the city’s narrow streets — better known by the landmarks they connect rather than their actual names — minibuses, three-wheeled motor buggies, rickshaws and horse-drawn carts all jostle for space.

The Franciscan School dominates Abou Kir’s main thoroughfare, which is lined with mobile phone shops, vegetable stands and idling taxis. The Franciscan Sisters of the Cross, a Lebanese congregation whose members run the school, know their facility is the most prominent institution in town.

“Just tell them to go to the Franciscan School,” says Sister Souad Nohra, the facility’s director, referring to visitors arriving from Alexandria’s central station, an hour away. “Everyone knows us.”

It is no wonder why. Each day, some 1,050 students — Christian and Muslim — attend classes at the school, which is known for its demanding curriculum. Next to the school, the sisters operate a pioneering project that, since the early 1980’s, serves one of the country’s most disadvantaged groups: blind children.

“This is a special Franciscan apostolate committed to caring for the blind,” explains Sister Souad with pride. “Their food, their drinks, their sleeping, their health care — from the time they wake up in the morning until they go to sleep at night — the Franciscans take care of everything.”

The Santa Lucia Home — named in honor of the patron saint of the blind — was built with funds from CNEWA’s donors and houses ten girls and eight boys from ages 8 to 18. The children do not attend school next door, which is not equipped to teach the blind. Rather, they are enrolled in public programs in other areas of the city. The boys attend El Nour School in Alexandria’s Muharram Bey neighborhood, while the girls attend a similar school in the Zizina area.

Sister Souad and her colleague, Sister Hoda Chaker Assal, rouse the children every morning for breakfast, baths and a 7:45 date with the school bus.

“Here we wake them and prepare them for school, we feed them and do their laundry and we tuck them in at night and make sure they get a good rest,” says Sister Souad. “It is just like at home.”

The Santa Lucia Home for the Blind has changed considerably since it was first established in 1984. In the early days, the program was far more modest.

“We started with four kids, and back then Father Tarcisio taught them in the church,” says Sister Souad.

“He brought in teachers to help and they just worked with them right there, in a small extra room downstairs.”

A Franciscan priest and principal of the Franciscan School, Father Tarcisio di Piano recognized the serious lack of educational opportunities for the blind in the Alexandria area and took it upon himself to establish the home. There, he helped these children with special needs prepare for a brighter future.

The curriculum of Egypt’s school system is almost entirely focused on preparing students for a series of standardized tests at the end of high school called the thanawiya ‘amma. Students’ scores determine whether or not they will go to college and, if so, which school and discipline they will pursue. A low score can be a burden for years. If a student fails to take the exam at all, that student will never have the chance to pursue higher education.

Until Father Tarcisio began Santa Lucia in the 1980’s, blind children in Alexandria and its environs faced such a predicament. Even though Alexandria is Egypt’s second largest city, there was no school in the area that offered the blind a chance to take the thanawiya ‘amma, much less prepared them for it. The first blind students Father Tarcisio took on had no choice but to embark on a three-hour train ride to Cairo, the nation’s capital, to take the examinations.

Since then, Alexandria’s public school system has opened schools for the blind that prepare students for the standardized test. In tandem, the Santa Lucia Home has changed and expanded. The number of residents has more than quadrupled, from four to 18.

While Santa Lucia no longer has to improvise a special education program (which for lack of space it had to relegate to the church basement), it has not entirely relinquished its teaching role. Every day after the residents return from school, they receive supplementary classes in English and Arabic. The classes are taught by blind teachers, one of whom is a former Santa Lucia resident herself.

Sadly, Father Tarcisio never witnessed the blossoming of his initiative. He died in 1996 and shortly after, the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross assumed responsibility for the complex that includes the Santa Lucia Home. The sisters run a tight ship, embracing a pedagogy that affirms the children’s human dignity but does not shy away from using a firm hand when necessary.

“We don’t use the word ‘pity’ here; our children are not to be pitied,” says Sister Souad. “We treat them like they are part of us and we show them all the love and care they need to feel satisfied. We don’t want them to ever feel like outcasts, or like they have been pushed aside because they are somehow less than other children because they cannot see. Never.

“They have all the same rights given to me and you by God,” she adds. “We are all the same.”

Not everyone in Egypt shares the sisters’ attitude about the blind or the disabled in general. Egypt’s disabled citizens do not enjoy even the most basic legal protections, let alone the amenities that have become part of the culture in North America and Western Europe, such as wheelchair ramps and designated parking spots. As for blindness, many Egyptians misunderstand it or consider it a source of shame.

The situation is all the more confounding since blindness is a serious problem in the country, which has a comparatively high number of blind citizens. As in much of the developing world, trachoma, an infectious eye disease, is a major cause of blindness in Egypt. This preventable and treatable disease is generally associated with poor, overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions. In contrast, trachoma has been almost eradicated throughout the developed world.

In 2001, researchers from Canada and Egypt published a survey on the occurrence of trachoma in the delta governorate of Menofiya, which lies between Alexandria and Cairo. Egypt’s Ministry of Health, the British Columbia Centre for Epidemiologic and International Ophthalmology and Al Nour Foundation found an alarming number of children ages 2 to 6 — 36.5 percent of those examined — were infected with active trachoma.

Most of the residents at Santa Lucia come from poor Christian communities in and around Alexandria or from impoverished areas of Upper Egypt, which lie south of Cairo. Many have experienced the stigma associated with being blind before coming into the sisters’ care.

“You could not find anyone poorer than those whose children we take in,” says Sister Souad.

“Sometimes these kids have parents who are very, very attached, and sometimes they have parents who are ashamed and embarrassed to let them out,” says Sister Hoda.

“Sometimes the children are embarrassed by their blindness, too, and do not want anyone to see them.”

She describes the relationship between some of the children and their parents as “almost like a psychological condition.”

“A lot of them are left in the corner with nothing,” Sister Hoda continues. “The kids often come here in a state of depression.”

While most of the residents of Santa Lucia endured the isolating sting of being the only blind member of the family, some grew up in households where others were blind as well. Several residents have at least one blind parent at home or a blind sibling at Santa Lucia.

Having a blind parent or sibling, however, does not safeguard a blind child from abuse or neglect. One such child is 7-year-old Bishoi. His father is blind and never attended a day of school. Before coming to Santa Lucia, Bishoi spent most of his days on the street in a village in Upper Egypt.

“His mom and dad stayed at home, and just left him in the street, where he cursed and roughhoused with other children,” says Sister Hoda. “This is what happened to him because there was no one to take care of him. He did not even go to school.”

Many parents, such as Bishoi’s, are simply at a loss as to what to do with a disabled child. Lucky for Bishoi’s parents, their dilemma was resolved when they learned about Santa Lucia from a Franciscan priest who visited their local parish. His parents called Sister Souad that day and soon after, they put Bishoi on a train to Alexandria.

Once at Santa Lucia, Bishoi attended school for the first time in his young life.

“Starting at school was very hard for him,” says Sister Souad. “Still, we were able to register him at El Nour, and we put him on the bus and told him to go to school with all of the other kids.”

Bishoi’s teachers were very strict with him and pushed him hard to make up for lost time. Bishoi responded surprising well, worked hard and eventually caught up to his classmates. Today, he is a regular master at Arabic grammar, Braille and math.

“He was very far behind because he had never been to school before, but now he is one of the top students in the class,” Sister Hoda says with a beaming grin. “Now, because he gets so many excellent marks, he walks around the house calling himself Bishoi the Great!”

Bishoi is not the only one to begin a new, healthier and happier life at the Santa Lucia Home. Jermine Sama’an, the English teacher, is walking up and down the residence’s halls, as she does each day, corralling the rambunctious children for their afternoon lesson. The energetic young woman knows how hard it is for them to concentrate after a long day at school because she, too, was once a resident at the home.

Ms. Jermine came to Santa Lucia as a child and lived there through the end of high school. After passing the thanawiya ‘amma, she left Santa Lucia and enrolled at the University of Alexandria, where she studied law and graduated with honors. She later won a prestigious scholarship to study computer science in English.

Two years ago, she came back to Santa Lucia. Now, she puts her education to use helping the home that helped her. When she is not teaching English, she is training the sisters and staff how to navigate the confusing world of computers. Proud of Ms. Jermine’s accomplished path back to Santa Lucia, Sisters Souad and Hoda consider the young woman the incarnation of their deeply held belief that the blind are the same as everyone else.

“I love the place, the children and everything we do here,” Ms. Jermine says. “I used to come here to help out sometimes. But when they offered me a job, I had to come back.”

Santa Lucia inspires dedication and devotion among its faculty and staff. Samira Ibrahim Matta was one of the first teachers hired by Father Tarcisio. Every afternoon, she teaches the intricacies of Arabic grammar, a language whose swooping letters they learn to write on small, clanging Braille typewriters. Between school and afternoon classes at the home, residents learn to read and write Braille in Arabic, English and French.

Proud of her role at Santa Lucia, Ms. Samira teaches her students not only reading and writing, but lessons about life. A few years ago, her own vision began to fade, and today she is blind. As hard as it has been for her to adjust to being blind, she uses her own, recent experiences as a way to teach the children to respect themselves and work hard.

“I don’t want to congratulate myself for what I do, it is just important to teach them to challenge themselves and the difficulties of their lives,” Ms. Samira explains.

“I live alone and go around town alone, and the children all know it. They have to live their lives in the world just as normal people and learn to depend on themselves without needing the help of others.”

Since losing her sight, Ms. Samira has embraced with grace and good humor her newfound ability to teach by example. One day, she greeted the children with a story about her walk to work in Abou Kir from a neighboring village. A passer-by tried to help but led her down a path different from the one she usually takes. As a result, she had to find her way to Santa Lucia using her senses of direction, hearing and smell.

“At the entrance to Abou Kir, there is a very high speed bump, and when I crossed it I knew how much farther I had to go,” she tells the small group of children and visitors.

Ms. Samira says she knows she is approaching the school once she passes the nearby horse stable. And she knows when she passes it because “it’s not a very good smell!” The children giggle.

“Actually, now that they are starting to replace the horses with cycle rickshaws, the smell is changing,” she laughs, “I’ll get lost!”

Liam Stack reports regularly on the Arab world for The Guardian. Based in Cairo, Holly Pickett’s work appears in The Christian Science Monitor and The New York Times.

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