Sister Maria Nino lives and works at one of the houses for orphans in King Mariut. (photo: Sean Sprague)
Father Luis Montes, who directs St. Aloysius School, makes time to play with the students. (photo: Sean Sprague)
All classes at St. Aloysius are coeducational. (photo: Sean Sprague)
An old tractor grumbles down a quiet country road in the sleepy oasis village of King Mariut, about 20 miles west of the Egyptian city of Alexandria. It rolls past an empty gas station, where an attendant listens to the radio in the warm sunshine, and a rundown pet shop, where two puppies pace back and forth in the picture window.
Not much happens in King Mariut. Residents eke out a living from farming their small plots or running small businesses. Wealthy Egyptians spend lazy summer days in their villas amid the lush fields.
But as the tractor makes its way and the roar of its engine fades, the laughter and shouts of children can be heard from behind a formidable gate, which faces the road and secures St. Aloysius Gonzaga School.
Classes are about to begin; some 140 schoolchildren can barely contain their excitement. Outside the schoolhouse, they line up anxiously in rows, fidgeting and fussing with one another’s hair, yet always mindful of the young women pacing among them pleading for calm.
“I love this school!” shouts 8-year-old Rojina, pulling her rainbow-colored knit cap tightly around her face as she jumps up and down. According to her teacher, she is one of the school’s brightest students. “I love learning and sports and praying and the nuns!”
Just three days earlier, the school had moved to the spacious, converted country home from a more traditional institutional-style facility. Father Luis Montes, provincial superior of the Fathers of the Incarnate Word and the school’s director, believes the move has been positive for his students. For him, creating a sense of family at the school is a high priority.
“They have a big garden to play in now, which is better than having recess on a paved schoolyard,” he says. A tall man with a warm smile, he has become a larger than life presence at the school, and in the lives of the students.
”The kids are very happy with the new school because it is more like a family house,” he adds. “That is good for the kids in a lot of ways.”
The students come from poor Christian families from all over the country. The majority, however, are girls from the towns of Assiut and Minya in Upper Egypt.
“Many of these children come to us because their families ask us to take them in,” says Incarnate Word Sister Maria Laudis Gloriae.
“They have problems at home, sometimes very serious problems. Many of our children have been abused … some are sexually abused by members of their family, such as their fathers or their uncles.”
About a quarter of the children, Father Luis estimates, come from homes where there was serious abuse. Some of the children lived on the streets. Others were forced by their parents to beg for their bread.
But in King Mariut, the children have a chance for a happier, healthier childhood. During the day, they attend St. Aloysius. After classes end, they go home to one of 10 nearby houses run by the priests and sisters of the Institute of the Incarnate Word.
Originally from São Paulo, Brazil, Sister Maria Laudis Gloriae lives and works at one of the larger houses, just down the road from the school. For the 37 girls and 9 boys who live there, it is home. One of the girls — a bright-eyed, curly haired 2-year-old — has lived at the home since the tender age of 2 months. Her parents, both of whom are poor and mentally ill, abandoned her on the doorstep of a rectory in Upper Egypt. The parish priest entrusted the infant to the sisters’ care.
Holding the bouncy child in her arms, Sister Maria explains that parish priests referred many of the children now living in King Mariut.
“Sometimes local priests know the history of the family, know the children and know if there is a problem. There are sisters who travel a lot in Upper Egypt, so the priests know us and know our work.”
The complex of school and houses in King Mariut make up what the priests and sisters of the institute call the City of Charity. According to Father Luis, the mission of the foundation is “to care about those whom no one else cares about.”
“In Egypt,” he says, “there are some great schools for rich children, but nobody cares about poor children. That’s why we care about them.
“We care about the most desperate cases,” he continues, “and it is a challenge. When we welcome them here, we do everything we can to bring them back to a feeling of a normal life and a happy childhood.”
A key aspect of a child’s healthy and happy development is a well-rounded, rigorous education. This is something the priests and sisters have had to build from the ground up.
In the early days, the community simply accommodated the children in its houses, sending them to public schools in the village. The sisters, however, soon discovered that some of the older children had never been to school. And, if they had attended school, many had fallen through the cracks.
“Sometimes, we may get a 15-year-old who does not know how to read or write at all,” says the priest. “They have been going to school, but that means nothing.”
To bring these children up to grade level, the sisters designed a basic literacy course. Once at their appropriate reading level, the children were then re-enrolled in the local public school. But the sisters noticed another disturbing trend.
“We discovered that the kids in the literacy program were learning more than the kids in the state school,” adds Father Luis.
From that moment, he and his community decided to establish their own school — St. Aloysius Gonzaga, named after the Italian Jesuit — which the Egyptian government has yet to accredit officially.
“After we saw what the state-run schools were like, we decided to expand our program into an unofficial school,” he says.
“We learned from experience. Running an entire school by ourselves was never something we planned in the beginning.”
St. Aloysius School follows the country’s standard academic curriculum, preparing students for the thanawiya ‘amma — Egypt’s tough high school exit exams. But teachers have their work cut out for them.
“It is very difficult for some of the kids to pass their exams because they come from the south, which is resource poor,” he says.
But the priest hopes that the warm, supportive atmosphere he and his fellow religious try so hard to create within the City of Charity will give the children the leg up needed to overcome these challenges.
The quality of education we give our students is much higher than it was in their previous schools, he continues. When the children first come to St. Aloysius, they are behind. But with effort, most of them achieve what they need to on their exams. They really do make it. We believe in them.
The City of Charity’s dedicated teachers and staff, lay and religious, express their firm belief in and love for the children in ways both large and small. In the morning, postulants and novices from the community help the girls get ready for school, reminding them to brush their teeth. After school, they play games with the girls in the yard. At bedtime, they walk down the line of bunk beds and tuck in each one.
Teacher Diana Shenouda also makes time to play with the students outside class. She sees firsthand the difficulty many of her students have adjusting to school and to their new structured lives in King Mariut.
“The kids don’t talk a lot about their problems — they are so young — but sometimes when you are playing with them, or chatting with them, you can sense what they have been through,” she says.
“You can tell many have had problems with their parents because they don’t like to talk about them. “Sometimes they say they hate them.”
Ms. Shenouda thinks of herself and the community of the Incarnate Word as surrogate parents. But when the children open up about their real parents and share their pain, Ms. Shenouda tries to teach them the importance of forgiveness and love.
“I tell them that they have to love their parents because God loves all of us,” she says. “We have to have love in our hearts, no matter what. Love is an important part of helping these kids — love for the kids, and love for their parents, too.”
Father Luis Montes has big plans for the City of Charity. But he worries that the global financial crisis will make it even harder for his modest community to bring them to fruition.
The recently signed lease on the schoolhouse expires in one year, and he fears he will have to move the school again.
He dreams that, one day, the City of Charity will have a 25-acre campus of its own, on which its houses and school will be in close proximity to one another.
Unfortunately, the realization of his dream will not be easy, to say the least. Located near the Mediterranean Sea, King Mariut and its environs are studded with opulent villas. As a result, real estate values are high, the cost of land far too expensive for the institute to buy property and plant roots.
Father Luis estimates that purchasing enough land for the complex would run more than $500,000 and almost $4 million in all to build the campus he desires. As it is, money is tight. The City of Charity costs $11,000 a month to run. And when the community signed the lease on the new schoolhouse, committing $6,700 in rent for the year, they had no idea how they would manage.
“We get the money from heaven,” he says. “If you ask where we get it exactly, I really don’t know.”
The sisters say they spend about 40 percent of their time soliciting aid, making 70 different appeals last year alone. While a considerable amount of financial support comes from outside Egypt, Egyptians themselves provide the lion’s share. In spite of the current economic crisis, the local people are generous. While some give money, many make donations in kind. For instance, a private school in Alexandria donated its old desks after a recent renovation. Local factories and local business leaders also provide much of the facility’s day-to-day necessities.
“People give us the things they know how to make,” says Father Luis. “Tables, wood, food, cleaning supplies, clothes, medicine, everything. Maybe 50 percent of the help we get from local people is like that.
“Really, at this moment, we are receiving more help from the community than ever before,” he continues, smiling at the children as they run around him in the yard. “But we are happy to be like this because it means we put our trust in God every minute.”
Based in Cairo, Liam Stack reports regularly for The Guardian. Sean Sprague is a frequent contributor to these pages.