ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

Building a Brighter Future

Alexandria’s street children find a home with a community of sisters

Amira still does not talk much, except with her eyes. A year after the sisters took her in, the 3-year-old is still recovering from the hell that was her home. Now her brown eyes are full of life and her expressive eyebrows, lifting and furrowing, say what she cannot: that she has been rescued, that she is lucky and that somehow she knows it.

Amira is from the dusty Egyptian town of Dekhela, near the coastal city of Alexandria. Here, the sisters of the Verbo Encarnado (Incarnate Word) Congregation, who hail from South America, have set up two homes for girls who used to live on the streets.

Some of the girls, like Amira, have escaped abusive families. Others seek an education, while some just want regular meals and a warm bed.

While the congregation’s Egyptian community is based in Cairo, “the smaller towns are where people really need help,” says Father Maurizio, one of the founders.

Father Maurizio helped set up the mission in eight years ago and was the first priest from the congregation to live permanently in the country.

“We wanted to learn more about this part of the world,” he says. “We recognize the value of Islam, but we also wanted to help support the Christian community.”

Approximately 10 percent of Egypt’s population is Christian, mostly Coptic Orthodox. Coptic and other Eastern Catholics number about 300,000 persons. Other Christians include Greek Orthodox and evangelical Protestants.

Whatever their faith community, most Egyptians live difficult lives far from the modern bustle of Cairo or the colonial grandeur of Alexandria.

The national average daily income is just over $10 a day. About 23 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Due to overpopulation, a weak economy and high unemployment, the challenges facing Egypt’s youth are daunting.

Sister María Guadalupe, the superior of the community in Egypt, says the situation in Dekhela is especially bad. The town is poor; there are few social services.

“These girls were living with their families in one room,” she says. “No bathroom, no kitchen, just one room. Sometimes there would be a bed and that’s all. So the girls were spending all their time in the street.”

Many families consider education for girls a luxury rather than a necessity, she says. While some girls complete grade school, many are kept at home where their mothers teach them household duties. Such traditional attitudes prevail in both Muslim and Christian communities.

But in the past 10 years, Muslim Egyptian society has become more conservative – the urbane, liberal Egypt that thrived after World War II is being replaced by a stricter, less tolerant society that draws inspiration from the Wahhabi Islam of Saudi Arabia.

With that shift, religious minorities increasingly express concern that tolerance for their faiths is waning, despite the Egyptian government’s assurance that freedom of religion is enshrined in law.

Christians are free to practice their faith, but they are forbidden to convert Muslims. Those perceived to be proselytizing are usually swiftly deported.

Given that environment, taking in Muslim girls from Dekhela is impossible, says Sister María Guadalupe. All the girls in the sisters’ care come from Christian families.

At first, the girls spent weekday mornings with the sisters, who taught them everything from the alphabet to hygiene.

Sister María Guadalupe says that these sessions were not productive. “It wasn’t enough,” she says. “They would go back into the streets and forget everything.”

So the sisters started to let the girls stay overnight during the week, but even that did not work.

“When they came back to us on Monday morning,” she says, “it was like beginning all over again. For example, we had to teach them how to wash themselves. They would be clean all week, but then on Mondays … it was very difficult.”

Often, she says, parents have little time to give proper care and attention to their children. “It’s a hard life,” she adds.

For some of the girls, however, poverty was just the start of their troubles. Amira was beaten regularly by her abusive father. As a result of the violence, her speech development is lagging. Others were so traumatized by life on the streets that they avoided all physical contact.

To escape their dire situations some girls asked if they could live with the sisters permanently. “They didn’t want to go home,” says Sister María Guadalupe.

Some of the girls’ parents, seeing the possibility of a brighter future for their daughters, agreed to let them move into a house rented by the congregation and run by Sisters María Niña and María de la Santa Faz. Both come from South America and both spent their first few years in Egypt learning to speak Arabic.

The two sisters and nine girls, ages 3 to 13, live together in a house located just outside Dekhela’s packed downtown core.

The explosive growth of Egyptian cities means many small towns have been absorbed by urban sprawl. For instance, Dekhela has been swallowed by the slums of Alexandria.

Driving west along the Mediterranean waterfront, Alexandria’s charming colonial buildings give way to sprawling industrial ports. More than 60 percent of Egypt’s shipping goes through this area, where smokestacks spew pollutants into the air and the ground is littered with an assortment of discarded machines.

Dekhela is nestled awkwardly among the docks and factories. Narrow streets extend endlessly from the main road, where donkey carts jostle with cars, bicycles and the odd wayward goat. Laundry hangs from every building, the flapping colors a respite from the ubiquitous urban brown.

The sisters’ house sits midway up a rare tree-lined road, about a mile from town. Tangled bushes tumble over the low walls lining the dirt path up to the house. Nearby, a mosque loudspeaker beckons the local Muslim community to prayer.

On the lawn inside the wrought-iron gates, the sisters play soccer with the children.

Amira runs over, says hello with her eyebrows, then grabs me by the hand “Shoof! Shoof!” she squeals. [“Look! Look!”]

She leads me inside the large, modestly furnished house. Yesterday was Amira’s third birthday. Once in her bedroom, she proudly shows me her new toy – a red-headed doll named Candy.

There are three bedrooms in all. The sisters sleep in the same room as Amira, while two other rooms are outfitted with pine bunkbeds for the other eight girls.

This is the largest of the congregation’s three houses in Dekhela. Five older girls live with two sisters in another house, while three novices live in a third residence.

Even this is not enough, however. Sister María Niña says that need in Dekhela is so great that if they opened their doors to all of the town’s Christian girls, the house would be full by sundown.

Adoption might seem to be a natural way for people to help the girls who face the most difficult situations.

“In fact, we know people who want to adopt these very children,” says Sister María Niña, gesturing to the girls playing on the lawn. “But this is impossible.”

Adoption is rare in Egypt since the practice contradicts traditional notions of family identity and cohesion.

A girl named Aran bounds up the veranda steps. At 13, she is the oldest of the girls.

“Her father is serving a prison term and her mother is very poor,” says Sister María Niña. Before moving into the house Aran spent her days on the streets, where she was increasingly arguing and fighting with other girls in her neighborhood.

She is one of the few girls old enough to express appreciation for her new life.

“There are many differences between here and my old house,” she says. “There we didn’t have much money and I spent a lot of time in the streets. Here I can stay inside or play outside in the yard, if I like.”

Education is a key aspect of the sisters’ work. All the girls in the house go to local schools and receive tutoring from the sisters. At the sisters’ house, they learn to sew and help with the housework.

Aran says it was her decision to move in with the sisters. “My mother heard of the house,” she says. “She asked me if I would like to live here and I said, ‘Yes I would.’ And I’m very happy here,” she continues. “Alhumdillah.” [“Thanks be to God.”]

Aran is fast approaching the age when she will be too old to live in the house with the younger girls. She may be able to move in with the older girls in downtown Dekhela, but the sisters say they do not yet have a permanent solution to offer the girls as they age.

“We think that in the future, maybe the children will be able to get meaningful work or start a new family in a situation that is different from their own difficult backgrounds,” says Sister María Niña. “We’ll see how it goes,” she adds. “We’ll have to adapt in the future.”

But the congregation is small and does not have many resources. CNEWA has provided funds for rent and furniture for one of the congregation’s houses, but expanding its work with Dekhela’s girls will be challenging.

“It is not like in South America, where people are more willing to give. Here, people are asking us for help, so how can we then turn around and ask them for money?” she asks. “Also, the majority of the population here is Muslim.”

With Muslims obliged to give a portion of their income to the needy, Sister María Niña says, people in the neighborhood donate primarily to Islamic charities.

Slowly, the congregation has been able to build up good will with the local population. “The neighbors don’t help with money or clothes, but they are interested in our work,” says Sister María Niña. “They look and they see that we are doing a good thing for these girls and they are respectful of our work.”

Despite the many challenges, Sister María Guadalupe says she enjoys living in Egypt. “At first it was hard. We are sisters, but we are human too. We used to complain, but living among the people, seeing how they live, we are now happy even though we have almost nothing. I’ve learned a lot from the Egyptian people.”

Most rewarding of all, she says, is the change she sees in the girls. “The change is very, very great. Remarkable.

“We are just a few,” she continues. “We don’t want to pay for people to cook and clean. We want to do it all and it is sometimes hard work,” she admits.

“But we can do it,” she says confidently. “Besides, the most important thing we can give is love. All the changes we see in these girls did not come from the sisters’ giving orders or being stern. Just the opposite – it has all come from love.”

Christopher Walker, a journalist based in Cairo, is a first-time contributor.

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