Sister Simone Abdel Malek leads the Daughters of Charity in Alexandria. (photo: Roger Anis)
Students take notes during a lesson. (photo: Roger Anis)
At St. Vincent de Paul, the Daughters of Charity provide a nurturing environment. (photo: Roger Anis)
Sister Simone greets patients in the waiting room of the dispensary. (photo: Roger Anis)
Patients crowd the long hall of the Saba Banat dispensary in Alexandria, waiting for their turn to see a doctor. “We’ve known about the Saba Banat since we were young,” says Muhammad Goda, a 41-year-old farmer. “This place has a good reputation.”
The farmer, wearing a jellabiya (a robe popular with men in North Africa) and a beard, waits with his wife Aliaa Ibrahim, who wears a niqab (a face-covering veil), for a checkup for their 2-year-old son, Omar.
“I took my son to doctors outside,” says Mrs. Ibrahim, but she found the quality of service poor. “Many people told me that the best place is Saba Banat.”
Despite the recent tensions in Egypt between Muslims and Christians, Alexandrians of all faiths value the high quality of service and care at Saba Banat, which is administered by the Daughters of Charity, a Catholic community of women founded by St. Vincent de Paul. The Daughters of Charity have served the people of Alexandria without consideration of religion or social background for more than 170 years, forging a tradition of trust while focusing their ministries in caring for the poorest of the poor.
Saba Banat serves some 500 to 600 people on a typical day, says Sister Simone Abdel Malek, the superior of the community and the manager of the dispensary. The price of a checkup is barely a tenth of what patients would pay elsewhere, made possible in part by the volunteer efforts of medical professionals.
“We feel at home here thanks to the sisters,” says Heba Habib, a rheumatologist and physiotherapist physician who offers her services pro bono.
“It’s very rewarding when you serve the poor,” Dr. Habib adds.
For the last ten years, Ehab Foad, an otolaryngologist, has committed three days a week to volunteer work at Saba Banat. The committed Orthodox Christian says the Catholic institution is a perfect place for his tithing of time.
“We do not serve a certain denomination or religion. We serve all the people come to us,” Dr. Foad says.
“To get the same service in private clinics, patients could pay up to LE 250,” he adds. “They pay only LE 20 [about $1.13] in the dispensary.”
Soad Khamis, a local mother, complains of heart problems. She had seen two doctors but without feeling better. Her neighbor Mervat Ismail recommended she visit the dispensary.
“Saba Banat is deep-rooted in Alexandria,” Mrs. Ismail said. “We come to the dispensary not because it’s cheap, but because we trust the place.”
Though well regarded, Saba Banat nevertheless exists in a setting sometimes touched by antagonisms. When this leads to conflict, Sister Simone and other ranking administrators try to use their unique position to defuse tense situations.
“We face sometimes scuffles, loud voices,” says Dr. Nagi Ghobrial, the technical director of the dispensary. “We try to contain it — otherwise there is no point of our service.”
In these and other ways, the Daughters of Charity fulfill a centuries-old mandate with strength, clarity and grace.
In 1844, seven Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul sailed from France to Alexandria at the request of Egypt’s ruler, Muhammad Ali. They were well received and given a house in Alexandria. From there, they opened a dispensary, where they started their service.
It was not common at this time in Egypt to see sisters outside of convents, serving the community. The locals called the dispensary Saba Banat (“Seven Daughters”). As the charity work grew, the street itself came to be known by that same name.
St. Vincent de Paul founded the Daughters of Charity in France in 1633 with the help of St. Louise de Marillac. Until that point, religious vocations among women often took the form of a contemplative life in relative seclusion; the founders of the Daughters of Charity, by contrast, encouraged the sisters to work outside their convent — to serve Christ in the persons of those poor or in need, through material and spiritual works of mercy. Today, the congregation has a presence in 93 countries around the world.
The first seven Daughters of Charity in Egypt in Alexandria were doctors and nurses, including specialists in ophthalmology.
When the French Suez Canal Company was digging the canal in the middle of the 19th century, the sisters went to work in nearby hospitals to care for workers. After the completion of the canal, they continued to work in governmental hospitals in Port Said, Ismailia and many other facilities in Egypt. Currently, three sisters still work in one of the governmental hospitals in Port Said, maintaining the old tradition.
Over time, the Alexandria sisters gradually expanded their services, even opening schools in the early 20th century. Their presence peaked in 1952, the same year that witnessed a revolution that overthrew the monarchy and the establishment of a republic.
In 1959, the government seized the Saba Banat dispensary as part of a wider campaign of nationalization. In 1963, the dispensary was reopened in a building attached to the school in the At Attarin neighborhood. It kept its old name, despite moving from the old street.
Nowadays, the Daughters of Charity have nine convents in Egypt, where some 50 sisters live and serve locals by running dispensaries, schools, food kitchens and programs teaching literacy and handicrafts to young girls in Upper Egypt.
The Alexandria convent, located between the school and the dispensary, currently houses five sisters, each of whom have specific responsibilities and duties.
While Sister Simone administers the convent and the dispensary, Sister Eman Fawzy manages the school. Sister Therese works as a nurse. Sister Esther teaches catechism. Sister Charlotte takes care of the finances for both the dispensary and the sisters’ nearby school.
They begin their day early: At 6 a.m., they gather for a collective prayer and meditation, followed by Mass and taking breakfast. After that, each goes to her work, nourished.
Sister Simone holds a bachelor’s degree in nursing, and a master’s in hospital management. A native of Alexandria, she entered the novitiate of the Daughters of Charity in Lebanon in 1966. After serving in Lebanon for more than 40 years, she returned to her beloved home city, but it was not the same Alexandria she had left.
“I was born in Alexandria during the monarchy era. The city was beautiful and clean.” After the revolution, she says, the city began to deteriorate. Over the course of a decade, spurred in part by nationalizations and the Suez Crisis, Europeans and others departed en masse, taking a great deal of wealth with them.
“When I returned back in 2008 it was even worse,” she continues. “I feel that there is all the more need for our service, because poverty here is greater.”
Yet, she says, even as the city has changed, her feelings about it have not.
“In my eye, Alexandria remains beautiful because it is my home, where I was born and grew up. I prefer it more than any other place.” Sister Therese entered the community 20 years ago. She moved to Alexandria seven years back to serve as a nurse in the dispensary. Prior to her service in Alexandria, she served in Qusiya and Port Said.
“In Upper Egypt, poverty is more obvious,” Sister Therese says. “I lived with the poor; my convent was as their house and their street was as my house.”
The sisters in Qusiya serve the poor through many programs and initiatives — such as teaching craft skills to women.
“Women from all villages around us in Qusiya were coming to learn knitting and sewing,” Sister Therese says. “We helped them to buy sewing machines, so they have a profession to help them earn a living.”
Most of these students, she adds, were Muslim. “The families feel safe to send their daughters to us.”
In the Saba Banat dispensary, Sister Therese provides whatever nursing assistance is needed, but mostly works at the clinic with ear, nose and throat patients.
Sister Eman has worked in education since committing to religious life 22 years ago. She moved among the various schools of the Daughters of Charity until she settled, six years ago, into St. Vincent de Paul School in Alexandria.
Her day at the school begins at 7:45 with the morning queue of students, but does not end with the school day at 2:30. Most days, she works late — inspecting classrooms, meeting with parents and solving various other problems that surface.
“The profession of education is not easy, but God gives us grace,” Sister Eman said.
“What distinguishes our service is a love for the poor.”
The Daughters of Charity have four schools in Egypt. The oldest of these is Alexandria’s St. Vincent de Paul School, founded in 1906 — a coeducational facility ranging from kindergarten to high school.
With the deterioration of Egypt’s system of public education, many families wish to send their children to private schools. However, private schools vary wildly in cost, highlighting significant class distinctions.
St. Vincent de Paul School serves middle- and working-class families, who suffer from inflation and the erosion of incomes, the result of the severe economic crises Egypt has faced in recent years. Nevertheless, the school guarantees a high-quality education steeped in the Christian tradition at an affordable cost.
“I invest in my sons and the school here makes my investment successful,” says Muhammad al Sayyed Gharabawy, 40, owner of a print house and father of three students.
“For me, it’s not only a school — it is a big family, where I feel safe to send my daughter every day,” says Eman Hassan, physician and mother of one student. “I trust these people.”
Before her daughter reached school age, the family searched far and wide for a good school. They chose St. Vincent de Paul School because of the quality of its graduates.
“Sometimes, someone distinguished draws my attention; in many cases, I discover that these people graduated from the sisters’ schools,” Mrs. Hassan says.
“My colleague at work graduated from the sisters’ school. She is so good, and I want to see my daughter become just like her,” Mrs. Hassan said.
Every year, some 600 to 700 children apply to join the school. Only 90 are accepted to both the English- and French-language sections. To ensure a fair chance to all applicants, the only selection criterion is age, with priority given to older applicants.
“The school works with us in rearing [my son] Mark with high moral and educational standards,” says Heidi Aziz, mother of one student.
St. Vincent de Paul School operates under the umbrella of the General Secretariat of Catholic Schools, which includes some 165 Catholic schools in Egypt. Those who graduate from schools run by the sisters are known for open and tolerant attitudes.
According to Sister Eman, half of the student body is Muslim and half is Christian, but the matter of religious difference is not an issue in the school.
Sister Eman recalls that a Muslim man belonging to a strict Salafi family came to the school to apply for his two daughters. She asked him, “Do you know that our school is a mixed gender?”
He replied, “Yes I know. I’m coming to your school because I will be reassured that my daughters will be in good hands.”
Private schools arrange to interview with prospective students and their parents. Some of these schools discriminate against children from lower social class, and Islamic schools do not accept Christian students. But St. Vincent de Paul School accepts all students, no matter their religion or parents’ occupation.
Once, Sister Simone recalls, a police officer came to the school, angrily complaining that a son of a cleaner sat beside his son in class.
In response, Sister Simone asked the man what had prompted him to enroll his son in the school.
He replied, “I came here because of the good reputation of your school and I wish for my son to be brought up by sisters.”
Sister Simone responded, “Where is the problem when other people have the same wish?”
“But not a cleaner!” he insisted.
Sister Simone pushed back. “Should we build a private school for the son of the cleaner?!” she exclaimed. “Our school is for the son of the cleaner in the first place. If you want your son to learn in our school, he will be side by side with the son of the cleaner.”
The officer left. The following day he returned and apologized for his outburst. He then astonished Sister Simone by offering to pay the tuition of the cleaner’s son.
Sister Simone replied: “The child is in our care, but what you could do is to ask your son to be friends with him.”
Based in Cairo, Magdy Samaan is a Middle East correspondent for the The Telegraph. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy and a number of other journals.