ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Bringing Learning to Life

A school in a suburb of Alexandria, Egypt, provides a sanctuary for learning and reason.

“It’s as if dried fish were turned into sherbet!”

That’s the enthusiastic assessment offered by Mr. Sobhi Amin as he described the changes that have taken place at the school where he has been a teacher for 22 years.

Founded in 1978 by a community of Franciscan friars, the school in Abou Kir had been deteriorating, physically as well as in the quality of education. But that changed dramatically about five years ago when the priests entrusted the school’s operation to a Lebanese women’s congregation, the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross.

A trio of sisters was brought on board to troubleshoot and improve conditions at the school, today known as the Franciscan School in Abou Kir.

“It was in a sorry state when we arrived,” says the school’s dynamic director, Sister Zeina Dagher. “There had been many complaints from the local authorities about the pits and holes in the playground and the garbage everywhere.”

Sister Zeina applied to CNEWA for a $300,000 grant to construct a new school, which had been open just a few months when I visited it one sunny day in February. In addition, a CNEWA engineer reviewed every stage of construction, including the renovation of the old building.

Abou Kir is a suburb of Alexandria, a stone’s throw from the Mediterranean. A fishing village that today numbers about 300,000 people, it has a mixed religious population – about 70 percent Muslim and 30 percent Christian, the latter mostly Coptic Orthodox. This proportion of Christians is relatively high for Egypt, where the average Christian presence is less than 10 percent. Abou Kir’s Catholic school welcomes children of all faiths; here peaceful coexistence is understood as being part of the curriculum – and also of life. Of the student population, 55 percent of the children are Muslim and 45 percent are Christian. Of the school’s 34 teachers, 10 are Muslim and 24 are Christian.

“The continuation of a Christian presence here is very important,” Sister Zeina says.

“We offer a service to the local community by teaching Christians and Muslims to love one another.”

In a land where sectarian violence and mutual suspicion between the two religions are, sadly, not unusual, Sister Zeina holds firm to the belief that Christian and Muslim children need to be educated and grow up in a climate that fosters mutual respect.

“It is my conviction that they must be raised together,” she says.

The hustle and bustle in the muddy streets outside, with their horse carts, piles of garbage and pollution-belching, thundering trucks, was in marked contrast to the cleanliness and order of the school. I stepped across its threshold into a bright sanctuary for learning.

A spotless playground was bounded on two sides by the gleaming new four-story building. A third side was occupied by the old building, which had recently received a fresh coat of paint. Apartments overlook the fourth side. On the day of my visit, some curious women sat on their balconies, enjoying a bird’s-eye view of the all-school assembly in the courtyard.

Some 495 freshly scrubbed children in immaculate uniforms – bright red pullovers for the primary school, navy blue for the kindergarten and preparatory ages – were lined up in perfect formation. They saluted the Egyptian flag and sang the national anthem. A favorite Franciscan hymn followed. Sister Zeina then took the microphone and sweetly crooned a couple of Arabic lullabies, accompanied by a teacher on the organ. Then it was time for folklore class, and 12 girls in native Egyptian costume strutted out to perform a dance.

Their school assembly and folklore class completed, the children then filed from the playground into their classrooms – all smiles, hand in hand.

I toured the entire school, entering every class for a few minutes. The children would politely jump to attention, and then carry on with their lessons. The teachers were bright and enthusiastic, and the pupils seemed attentive and interested in their lessons. Signs of misbehavior, or even just boredom, were nowhere in sight.

The students study Arabic, English, mathematics, sciences, history, geography, religion, computers, drawing, handicrafts and sports. The sports category revealed some decided favorites: soccer, basketball and table tennis. Music and dance are also on the curriculum. Religious studies are offered three class periods each week, with Muslim and Christian children receiving separate instruction in their respective faith traditions.

The school’s faculty are sensitive to their mission of teaching religious values without creating unnecessary conflict. For example, when the students sing hymns during assembly, there are no specific references to Jesus; instead, the lyrics speak of God only – Allah in Arabic – a conscious choice that respects the beliefs of both Muslim and Christian students.

“The school’s reputation is known throughout Alexandria now. It’s a status thing to teach here,” says Mr. Amin. “The kids love the school. They get the full attention that they need. And I envy the new teachers, because they arrived when the school was at a very high standard.”

It is not only the children who get special attention; the sisters also make sure that the school’s teachers continue to receive professional training.

“We all get ongoing courses in education to improve our standards,” Mr. Amin says, adding that the teachers, too, have come a long way.

“We older teachers have changed a lot. We used to hit the kids with a ruler in the old days, although it was forbidden. Now we spare the rod and have a better relationship with the children.”

He went on to describe how the facilities had improved since securing the CNEWA grant. “In the old building, the blackboard was pitted, there was one light bulb per classroom. And the desks were broken, with four children to a desk. Now we have two children to a new desk, good blackboards and 12 fluorescent lamps per room.

“Before, we lived in a hovel, and today we live in a palace,” he beams.

Sister Zeina agrees with the assessment of improvements, but is quick to dispel any notion of extravagance. “The children love the school,” she says. “But we are not trying to create a luxury environment, only to create the means for teaching the best we can.”

The investment has been wisely made. The school bought solid furniture and equipment that will last, without going in for unnecessary frills. The science lab is well appointed with Bunsen burner outlets, microscopes and models to illustrate human anatomy. The computer lab has at least a dozen state-of-the-art computers.

When I enter the computer lab, the children are busy playing “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” – a touch of irony in this corner of Egypt, where there is much poverty, very little affluence and certainly no millionaires among the student body.

“There are no rich children in the school,” Sister Zeina says. “In fact, there are some children from very poor backgrounds, economically. Their fathers are fishermen, cart drivers or casual laborers, some are in the army and some children have parents who are professionals.” But, thanks to the uniforms and the school’s efforts at inclusivity, there is no evidence that some children come from higher economic levels than their classmates.

Sister Zeina explained how the school aims to instill a very high moral standard in the students. In fact, they have their own set of Ten Commandments:

  1. Be faithful to your religion and respect other religions.
  2. Love your parents and teachers.
  3. Work hard at school and at your homework.
  4. Be pure in body and soul.
  5. Always be on time to school.
  6. Always be of service to others.
  7. Do whatever you do well.
  8. Always be cheerful.
  9. Always love order.
  10. Always tell the truth.

Twelve-year-old Mohaned lives close enough to walk to school every day. Some of his friends are in the local state school, and he is not shy about offering his ad hoc – and unprompted – evaluation of his education as compared to theirs.

“There is a big difference! There is no order in the other school. Some of my schoolwork problems are too hard for the children from the other school to solve,” Mohaned says.

“Also, they fight a lot in the state school. There are no fights here. The teachers here don’t slap us, though they do in the other school.”

Isra, an 11-year-old Muslim, is enthusiastic about Abou Kir, too. She lives nearby in an apartment with her parents and her four sisters.

“I have been here since kindergarten. Now I am in fifth grade,” she announces. “I love coming to school! They teach us good things. My favorite subjects are Arabic, math, drawing – and I also like religion.”

Isra is the most recent member of her family to attend the Franciscan School in Abou Kir, carrying on a proud tradition.

“All my sisters came to this school. I am the youngest, the oldest is 22.

“When I grow up, I want to be a doctor,” she adds.

The teaching at the Franciscan School in Abou Kir is clearly of the highest quality. Paying for private tutoring is usually not necessary for the school’s students to achieve good grades. While that may strike people outside Egypt as an unusual comment, it helps to understand a longstanding custom in the country’s educational system. Egypt’s state schools are notorious for charging extra for tutoring, whereby teachers earn extra money by working with individual students after hours.If families cannot afford to pay for this extra service for their children, the teachers often “lose interest” in these students, who end up getting less attention during class. This is not a problem at the Franciscan School in Abou Kir.

In addition to the main school, which serves children in kindergarten through elementary grades, the facility is also home to about 20 blind students who form a special department.

Previously known as the Santa Lucia School for the Blind, this special apostolate grew out of a need back in 1982. That was the year Franciscan Father Tarcisio di Piano found a tiny blind baby left on the property in a garbage can. The priest took the infant home – which at the time happened to be a church – and the institute for the blind was born.

Today the visually impaired children are boarders at Abou Kir, where they sleep and have their breakfast and supper. Every weekday morning these students board a bus for Alexandria, where they attend classes at a special school for the blind.

The new school complex at Abou Kir also houses a dispensary and clinic, which makes its services available in the evenings to the local community.

Fees at the Franciscan School in Abou Kir are relatively low, between 200 and 400 Egyptian pounds ($43 to $87) per year; books and uniforms cost extra. At first glance, this seems more expensive than the state schools, Sister Zeina explains, but parents actually save money because they do not have to pay private tutoring fees. Most private schools would cost several times more. And for the most needy 5 percent of the children, the Franciscan school offers full scholarships.

It is evident to the visitor that both the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross and the lay teachers have a love affair with their school. They talk about the children’s accomplishments like proud parents.

“I work from my heart,” Sister Zeina says. “God put CNEWA in my path so I could do this!”

The bubbly, ever-watchful nun is constantly monitoring the progress of the school and emanates maternal pride at its achievements:

“Sometimes I go to the [Egyptian Government] Ministry to meet with a high official. He is a Muslim, and he will say, ‘You people work for the Lord, and therefore I want to help you!’”

Sister Zeina admits her love for education runs in her veins. Her father, a teacher, had a big influence on her. He is still a school headmaster in Lebanon and was a valuable source of advice and counsel when she was tapped by her religious congregation to head the school in Abou Kir.

Her efforts, and those of the other sisters and the staff, have certainly paid off. Together they have created what must be one of the best primary and preparatory schools in all of Egypt.

It truly has been, as Mr. Amin says, an almost miraculous transformation. Dried fish was indeed turned into sherbet!

Sean Sprague is a frequent traveler throughout CNEWA’s world.

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