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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Building Persons, Forming Good Citizens

Catholic vocational schools prepare Egyptian youth for the future

At the edge of downtown Cairo, the neighborhood of Rod el Farag hugs the slow-moving waters of the Nile. Its crowded, noisy streets pulse with life. Buzzing with activities, residents try to get by for one more day. Cars move sluggishly down the traffic-choked streets, the crowds impervious to the incessant blaring of horns. On the side of the road, men sell fruit and vegetables from makeshift carts. On one, a mountain of deep purple eggplant is piled next to a heap of dusty tomatoes. From another, a man sells freshly roasted sweet potatoes wrapped individually in pages torn from an old mathematics textbook.

Amid Rod el Farag’s workaday rush stands the Don Bosco Institute, its stately facade casting a long shadow over the stream of pedestrians who scurry past. Founded in 1970 by the Salesians of Don Bosco, the school offers its working-class neighbors more than an impressive architectural anchor.

Some 550 young men attend the institute, a vocational high school that provides academic studies and courses in a variety of skilled trades from computer programming to welding. When these students walk through the institute’s doors each day, they find a peaceful refuge from Rod el Farag’s chaotic streets. The elegant structure encloses a massive courtyard, where hundreds of students play soccer or socialize during lunch hour. Wide balconies flank the building, overlooking the courtyard below. When classes resume, the students form orderly lines behind their homeroom teachers and march back to class.

Inside the building, the ceilings are high and the hallways, wide. Classrooms are bright and well equipped, with enough computers and specialized machinery for every student. Class size rarely exceeds 25 students. In addition to core courses in math, physics and engineering, the boys choose from a wide range of electives, which cover subjects as diverse as the physics of music and the intricate operations of the combustion engine.

To ensure students can compete in Egypt’s rapidly changing economy, the school’s three-year curriculum focuses on vocational skills consistently in high demand. Most graduates secure employment in their respective trades upon leaving the institute, an accomplishment in which the whole Don Bosco community takes great pride.

“Almost every day we receive faxes from different mechanical and electrical firms asking us to recommend students for jobs,” said Don Riccio, headmaster. “Within two or three months of graduation, all of our students are working.”

In line with the charism of their founder, St. John Bosco — the Industrial Revolution-era Italian priest who used education to help impoverished children secure a better life — the Salesians believe education should both enrich the mind of the student and also serve as a steppingstone to a better life. In turn, a higher employment rate contributes to society’s overall economic development and benefits all members of society.

The Salesians also run an institute named for Don Bosco in the city of Alexandria, about 230 miles northwest of Cairo, which also includes an elementary school. Its vocational high school enrolls 240 students with plans to increase the number to 340 by autumn. The elementary program boasts another 691 students on its roster. The high schools for both institutes are accredited by the Italian government, while the elementary school program follows a strictly Egyptian curriculum.

Egypt’s social and economic woes weigh heavily on the minds of administrators and instructors at both institutes, and for good reason. Yet they hope the vocational training the schools offer their students will ultimately contribute to the country’s overall sustainable development.

While official government sources put Egypt’s unemployment rate at a relatively modest 8.3 percent, most observers believe joblessness and underemployment are much more widespread. Without objective data, however, a more reliable barometer to measure the country’s level of development is the poverty rate. According to the World Bank, more than 40 percent of Egyptians live on less than $2 a day. In this context, finding work — much less well paying, gainful work — is no small feat.

Egypt also fares poorly on another basic development index: literacy. The 2005 Arab Human Development Report, issued jointly by the United Nations Development Program and Egypt’s Ministry of Planning and Development, indicates that some 35 percent of Egyptian men and 45 percent of women cannot read or write, the vast majority of whom are among the country’s poorest. These elevated numbers rank Egypt with the 10 most illiterate countries in the world.

“We are in a state where we need to industrialize,” said Gergis Tawfik, vice president of the high school at the Don Bosco Institute in Alexandria.

“Our students have the potential to be a great source of industrialization for our country and, in a lot of ways, I think we are in a race against time,” said Mr. Tawfik, an 1973 alumnus of the institute.

“Technology has entered every sector of the economy, from business to medicine,” he added. “Having the skills to manufacture products, and to know each level of manufacturing, is highly sought after by employers right now.”

Egypt’s public schools are notoriously overcrowded, dingy and underfunded. Scarce resources must be shared among too many students. Most classes have twice the number of students than those at the Don Bosco schools. Individual workstations and computers are unheard of, as are courses where teenagers dismantle cars and weld complex metal objects.

Public schools tend to pay their teachers poorly and do little to provide them with adequate training to keep them abreast with new methodologies. Large class sizes also overburden instructors, who often spend as much time disciplining students and trying to win their attention as they do teaching.

Word of the talented faculty at the Salesians’ vocational institutes has spread to the Ministry of Education, which is now playing catch up. This past autumn, representatives from the ministry approached administrators at the institute in Cairo about training 200 public school teachers in classroom technology and teaching methods. Don Riccio, the headmaster, expects to sign an agreement with the ministry soon.

Needless to say, the Salesians’ schools are wildly popular in their respective communities. Parents concerned with their children’s education clamor to enroll their sons. The school in Cairo admits only 180 boys a year. But when registration day opened last summer, within just three hours, parents of more than 700 teenagers showed up to apply for admission. Don Riccio described the day as a “mob scene.”

While the schools cannot accept everyone, their admissions policies are “need blind.” Salesians never reject any student because his family cannot afford the tuition and fees.

“Because so many of our students’ families have trouble paying, we give grants based on merit and need,” explained Don Souccar, headmaster of the institute in Alexandria. “We spend a lot of time trying to sort this out.”

The cost of attending one of the institutes, including tuition, fees and books, runs about $447 an academic year — a hefty sum in a country where the average household income is only $860 annually. Most working-class families simply cannot afford the tuition; the desperately poor cannot even fathom it.

In an effort to make a Don Bosco education accessible to students of all economic backgrounds, the institutes offer grants and scholarships, ranging from 20 to 100 percent of tuition and fees. About 12 percent of each institute’s students receive financial support.

As a major component of the Don Bosco approach to education, the Salesians and their lay colleagues insist parents play an active role in their child’s education. Mr. Tawfik describes education as a triangle, in which the student, teacher and parents each make one of its three sides. Without all three parties holding up their respective sides, the triangle collapses.

To encourage parental involvement, each year the schools host seven mandatory parent-teacher conferences and organize three lectures for parents on the vision and philosophy of St. John Bosco. Egypt’s public schools almost never include parents so directly in a child’s education.

“Parents who are serious about their children’s future are usually impressed by our system, and some are pleasantly shocked because they have never seen anything like it before in Egypt,” said Mr. Tawfik.

“It shows parents that we care about their children — our students — and that they are in good hands here.”

Speaking from his bright, airy office, Don Riccio agrees that education involves more than teachers simply transferring knowledge and skills to students. Education should also help improve the quality of students’ lives, and therewith build better communities.

“Our purpose here is not to form new technologies, but to form citizens, good citizens. It is about building a human person,” the Italian-born priest said. “That is by far harder to teach than math, chemistry or mechanics.”

Don Bosco graduates who do not immediately enter the workforce typically continue their studies at public universities in engineering or other technological fields. Others enroll in training programs run by multinational corporations such as Gaz de France. And each year a handful of graduates take advantage of their Italian diploma and their Italian language skills acquired at school and emigrate to Italy or elsewhere in Europe.

Don Riccio views emigration as an unfortunate and unintended consequence of the curriculum.

“Every year, maybe 10 or 15 of our graduates go abroad, but we try to discourage that because it is a loss for the country,” he said. “Most who go abroad never return.”

As a solution for graduates who feel torn between attending university in Egypt or emigrating, the institute in Cairo has launched an online degree program with the International Telematic University, Uninettuno, in Rome. Don Bosco graduates can take online courses in classrooms at the institute outfitted with ample desktop computers and video conferencing equipment.

While graduates enrolled in the online program have responded with enthusiasm, in the end it may not be enough to persuade them to remain in Egypt.

Remon Kamal, a bright-eyed, baby-faced 21-year-old, loves the online program. But while he wants to work and raise a family in Egypt, he says he still would consider emigrating if an opportunity to do so promised a better life.

“I really like it here and am very happy,” he said. “If I find a good job here in Egypt, then I will take it, but if not I will go to Italy.”

Both institutes also run large intensive continuing education programs in the evenings for adult professionals who want to brush up on old skills or learn new ones. The program in Cairo attracted more than 3,800 adults last year.

“The number of people taking our intensive vocational training courses keeps going up,” said Don Riccio.

“That means people have experienced some good benefits from the courses they have taken and are spreading the good word. If they weren’t, then after a few years people would stop coming to us.”

Two recent graduates, 19-year-olds Muhammad Mohy and Mustafa Fathy, attest to the outstanding reputation the institute in Cairo enjoys. They graduated one year ago and both now work for Mobinil, one of Egypt’s two largest mobile phone service providers. During a recent visit with their favorite former teacher, Maged Arian, a soft-spoken man who teaches computer programming for industrial machines, the young men attributed their highly prized jobs to the quality education they received at Don Bosco.

“I’m happy I went to Don Bosco because it is like a good brand that people respect,” said Mr. Mohy, grinning broadly. “They know what it is, and when they find out that you studied here they treat you differently, like you know what you are talking about.

“The best thing about this school is that everyone here is putting all their hearts into it,” he continued.

A shy Mr. Fathy chimed in that the best thing about the school was that it taught him self-discipline.

“When I first started here the discipline of the place stressed me out, but now I realize it was for the best,” he explained. “When you go here you always have to be on time, for example. And when something goes wrong, you take 100 percent of your share of the responsibility, no more and no less.

“It’s not like an Egyptian school,” Mr. Fathy continued. “There is nothing like this place in all of Egypt.”

Based in Cairo, Liam Stack reports regularly for The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and The Guardian. Shawn Baldwin’s photographs have appeared in The New York Times Magazine and Le Mode.

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