ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

From Dust to Dignity

Training for an independent life in Upper Egypt.

Although in Egypt a government quota requires that 5 percent of all jobs must go to handicapped persons, life can be bleak for the disabled.

There are few wheelchairs, ramps are almost unheard of and there is no social welfare to assist children or adults with special needs. Those who cannot walk are often reduced to dragging themselves by their hands through dusty village streets or must be carried by others. Additionally, because mobility is so difficult, those who cannot walk are usually housebound. Unable to attend school, many are illiterate.

Recently, Egypt as a nation has been making accelerated efforts to improve social development and human rights, having signed many international agreements and implemented community reform programs. Nationally, the rate of adult literacy has improved in the last three decades and there are plans to decrease unemployment by increasing job training and developing basic services in rural and low-income areas. But while much progress has been made, life for Egypt’s poor, uneducated and disabled can be a continuing hardship.

“I was stuck in the house all day, sad and unable to walk – never thinking about the future,” said 26-year-old Sawy Abdullah Joda. He contracted polio as a child, catching the disease from a contaminated vaccine. For his first 25 years, he was a burden to his family, incapable of working in the fields, unable to get around unless he was carried. As Sawy entered manhood, he sank into depression.

Yet, his story is not uncommon in Egypt where training and care for persons with disabilities is scarce. But for Sawy and a small but significant group of others, their lives were transformed when they were accepted at a vocational training school in Minya, not far from Sawy’s village in Upper Egypt.

There Sawy is learning shoemaking. The school also offers courses in tailoring for male students and dressmaking for female students.

The Jesuit Center for the Handicapped is one of several projects in the region funded by CNEWA. The center is dedicated to youths who would otherwise have few opportunities for an independent life. Sawy has been at the center for six months and his life has dramatically turned around. He is already earning income from his new career and now, rather than frowning, he smiles easily.

The center, originally for boys, was founded in 1983. Since 1992, girls have also been admitted. There are now 40 students at the center and admission is equally divided by gender.

Students are bused from surrounding areas and they room at the center from Monday to Thursday. By having a three-day weekend in their villages, respect is paid to both Muslims, who pray on Fridays, and Christians, who worship on Sundays.

Minya’s population is about 20 percent Christian and 80 percent Muslim. Osama Iseq, the center’s director, said there are tensions between the two religious communities, fueled largely by Islamic fundamentalists.

“At first we had problems with bringing the students to the center,” he said. “There was one village we could not even get to because of anti-Christian feelings, but now there is no problem. Here Muslims and Christians get along. That students are eating, studying, living and working together is better than any discussion.

“We are trying to change the attitude of society and government toward the handicapped and that transcends religious differences.”

For 24-year-old Sulaymen Fadl, a former student and now a teacher in the tailoring shop at the center, there is no doubt that the training he received has been life-transforming.

“I used to crawl everywhere,” he said. “We lived in a village where there were no crutches available. I would be carried to the fields where my father worked. I just sat there all day.

“When I was 14, a charity paid for an operation, and now I walk with canes. I heard about the Jesuit Center and studied tailoring for two years. Now I teach there four days a week and in my village I have my own tailoring shop. I earn good money, am able to help my family financially and am soon getting married.

“This all would have been impossible without job skills.”

Safa, 27 years old, tells a similar story. She is unable to walk and had heard about the center from the priest in her village of Tela. She became a student and now is teaching dressmaking.

“I have been handicapped since I was a child,” she said. “At 15, I first heard about the center. I had never been to a regular school, though I did have some literacy classes. I studied dressmaking at the Jesuit Center. For the past eight years I have been running a workshop in my village.

“Recently, the Jesuits persuaded me to come back and teach.”

Nagah Ishak, a pretty and spirited young woman of 17, is like many at the center who believe they contracted polio from a contaminated vaccine.

“Always I felt I could not do what my friends could do,” she said. “I never went to school because there was no means of getting there. I had no wheelchair, I crawled everywhere and I did not learn to read or write until I came to the center, which the local priest told me about.

“I am truly happy here. My ambition is to complete my education and become a professional dressmaker.”

The center’s two-year course provides vocational training in the morning and literacy and simple mathematics classes in the afternoon. When students are finished with the course, they read, write, do basic arithmetic and are prepared for an independent life with practical job skills.

But while the vocational school is relatively new, the Jesuits have a long history of being educators in Minya. On the same campus as the Center for the Handicapped is a primary and preparatory school founded in 1889. The Jesuit Fathers school also receives scholarship grants from CNEWA.

The 800-pupil school is run by five Jesuit priests and one brother, two of whom are Egyptians, two are Maltese, one is French and the other is Dutch. Also on staff are a number of Christian and Muslim teachers.

Jesuit Father Joseph Mizi, the school’s director, said the school is one of the best in the district even though it primarily serves the poorer children of the area. Built in the 1880’s, the school was disguised so it would not look like a church. Today, it looks like any other school building, but the spire looks surprisingly like the minaret of a mosque.

Father Mizi said there is much poverty in Minya because there are just two factories supplying jobs. One is for cottonseed extraction and the other is for making cotton thread. There is virtually no tourism in spite of some interesting sites because of terrorist attacks on tourists in recent years. As a result, unemployment is high.

Egypt has one of the lowest per capita incomes of all countries in the Arab world. Its population of 60 million is dense relative to the area of the country that is actually habitable. While it might look large on a map, living space in Egypt is really not much more than the long, thin, emerald strip along the Nile, fanning out into a delta. The rest, apart from a few oases, is uninhabitable desert.

Christians make up about only 6 percent of the population, but with their many outstanding schools they have made a significant impact on the country. The Jesuits, by working with disabled persons and the very poor, are helping the nation’s most underprivileged to shine.

Our correspondent at large, Sean Sprague, travels throughout CNEWA’s world.

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