ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

Helping Cairo’s Handicapped

Thanks to a caring priest and a support group called Faith and Light, Egypt’s mentally handicapped find the support they need.

Fourteen years ago, Bernadette Labbad began attending a weekly support group for families of the mentally handicapped in Egypt’s capital city of Cairo, but she doubted it would make any difference in her life.

“In the beginning, I just didn’t know if it would help me at all. I came just to bring my children here, and then I would sit silently in the corner,” she remembers.

Like so many members of the group called Faith and Light, Bernadette shouldered heavy responsibilities at home and at work. She was a professional teacher, doubly exhausted by the demands of her students at school and two mentally handicapped daughters at home.

But she found new energy within the group and found herself again. Today, Bernadette is responsible for her neighborhood branch of Faith and Light, a group founded according to principles set forth by Jean Vanier, a former philosophy professor in Canada who has founded interfaith communities for the mentally and physically handicapped throughout the world. Members, who include the handicapped, their family and friends, meet weekly, pray together, exchange information and enjoy each other’s company.

“We provide people with psychological and spiritual strength. The handicapped discover God’s love for them here,” says Jenny Khouri, who likens the group to an extension of her own family.

“They see how precious they are in his eyes and they make so much progress.”

For family members, the group provides encouragement and ideas for putting constructive compassion for the handicapped into practice. Bernadette, for instance, was responsible for the group nationally until her official term ended several years ago. Since then, she has started educational programs for mentally handicapped children and a parents’ association. Bernadette has also trained teachers to deal with the particular needs of individual students.

At a recent meeting of Faith and Light in one of Cairo’s central neighborhoods, the spirit of joy and goodwill that inspires its members to act was positively infectious. Parents and friends mingled with handicapped men and women in a simple, whitewashed room, chatting, laughing and praising the accomplishments of their sons and daughters.

Clothed in a gray cassock, a priest sat near the center of several mentally handicapped men and women, each of whom wanted to gain his undivided attention. Now responsible for the Faith and Light movement in Egypt, Father Antoun Kabes likes to explain how his life was changed irrevocably by the group.

Soon after finishing his studies at the Coptic Catholic Seminary of St. Leo the Great in the Cairo suburb of Ma’adi, Father Antoun was asked to celebrate the Divine Liturgy for a group of mentally handicapped young men and women. Because they had never been taught to read and write, they could not understand the liturgy in Coptic or in classical Arabic. To address their needs, he celebrated the liturgy in colloquial Egyptian Arabic. “The response was overwhelming and they kept asking me to come back and participate in activities with them.”

“I was so touched,” the priest continues, “and I then decided that my true vocation was to work with the handicapped.”

Father Antoun joined the group as a member while Bernadette was overseeing its expansion in Egypt. Soon the young priest learned more about the overwhelming difficulties faced by mentally handicapped people in the country.

Few are allowed to enter the regular Egyptian educational system. There are no government-sponsored special education programs for such students in public schools. The government does, however, sponsor special centers, founded within the last decade, for the handicapped, centers that are open during school hours. Families praise this improvement to the system, but say much more remains to be accomplished to serve fully the needs of their sons and daughters.

“Parents are always wondering what will happen to their children after they die. It was a common topic of discussion at the time I became involved with Faith and Light,” says Father Antoun.

“When parents die, or when poor families are unable to provide for their children, the mentally handicapped are usually placed in psychiatric hospitals for the remainder of their lives,” he says ruefully, explaining that until recently young men and women in some families were simply locked away so as not to embarrass their socially conscious relatives. But this situation is what the priest has set out to change.

Five years ago, he began working on a project that would ultimately become his greatest personal goal: establishing a group home for abandoned and orphaned handicapped children. His plan was the product of long discussions with church officials and parents involved in Faith and Light, in addition to members of the handicapped community.

With the help of Coptic Catholic Patriarch Stephanos II Ghattas, Father Antoun was able to buy land in an outlying suburb of Cairo. Donations from private individuals and groups, including a substantial grant from CNEWA, have enabled workers to lay the foundation of the first building.

Permanent boarders will be Christian, but Muslim students are expected to be an integral part of a school that Father Antoun plans to run on the premises. Parents and friends of the mentally handicapped call the priest’s plan a godsend.

“If this happens, my own daughters’ dreams of interacting more fully with the community, of working outside the home, can come true. They always want to be more independent,” affirms Bernadette. “They must feel that they are capable of fulfilling their own dreams and needs.”

At almost every Faith and Light meeting, members talk about how a group home for the handicapped will immediately improve conditions for the handicapped in the country. The establishment will be the first of its kind in Egypt.

As it is expected to be a group effort, a team will oversee the daily operations of the home under the patronage of the Coptic Catholic patriarch. According to the home’s charter, the council must include Father Antoun, the mother of a handicapped child, the brother of a handicapped child and a young woman actively involved in the community.

Plans for one building on the premises, which will hold at least 90 permanent boarders and at least half as many students during the day, allow one complete floor for carpentry workshops. In these workshops, handicapped students will be able to earn an income and provide inexpensive furniture for sale at the same time.

Rooms for physical therapy and open halls for lectures are also part of the plan, as is an outdoor swimming pool that is intended to form part of the therapy program. On upper floors, 11 small units will provide orphaned men and women with a family-like atmosphere. A second building, scheduled to be built in the future, will house laundry space, workrooms for handicraft projects and a conference hall for the families of handicapped children.

But at the moment, Father Antoun’s dream is still in the planning stage. His group has raised only about half of the money needed to complete the central building. And for members of the Faith and Light community this means that expanding the support network for the handicapped will have to wait.

“We still have to worry, even now. What happens if the mother of adult handicapped children becomes sick? Now that our goal is so close, the need to finish the facility seems even more imperative,” says Bernadette.

But Father Antoun is optimistic, because, as he says, “this project is for the children and God will bless it for them. I managed to begin this project with only about $600. If we have come this far, there is no reason why we cannot finish.”

Jessica Jones, a freelance writer formerly based in Cairo, has relocated to Washington, D.C.

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