Abanoub Sherif carries a beekeeper’s hat to his father’s apiary near their home in El Mahalla. (photo: David Degner)
After a study session, students Enjy Yussef, left, and Nermeen Said stroll the halls to unwind before dinner. (photo: Holly Pickett)
Myven Aihab prepares for winter exams and hopes one day to pursue a degree in anthropology. (photo: Holly Pickett)
For most of Gerges’s childhood, he could scramble and play outside with his little brother, but with difficulty. Gerges was born with a visual impairment — he can only see light and dark. There were no facilities for blind or partially sighted students in his impoverished village, and though he was enrolled in school, keeping up was impossible.
“Writing was very difficult for me,” he says. “I couldn’t see the letters.”
Living in a hamlet near the city of Sohag in Upper Egypt, some 285 miles south of Cairo, Gerges did not know any other children like him; the only visually impaired people in his village were two elderly blind men. His father, a farmer of limited means, was not sure what to do.
When the local parish youth group heard about the Santa Lucia Home, a special boarding facility for blind children run by the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross in Egypt’s Mediterranean city of Alexandria, they told the family at once. Though concerned an older child would have trouble catching up in school — the Santa Lucia Home usually admits younger children, starting boarders from the age of 4 or 5 — the sisters welcomed Gerges with open arms. The boy was afraid, however.
“I was leaving my family and I was worried they were sending me to some kind of jail,” he remembers.
That was three years ago, when he was 11, and Gerges took to Braille with gusto.
“It was easy to catch on, it came quickly,” he says. “It’s amazing, now I can read and write.”
Today, Gerges is thriving, recognized as of one of the program’s best students. A sensitive boy who is always asking everyone how they feel and what he can do to help, he likes to garden and has decorated the nave of the adjoining Santa Lucia Church with flourishing golden pothos vines. Recently, he started learning to play the keyboard.
In Egypt, children with special needs such as Gerges have many disadvantages. Yet at Santa Lucia, the nurturing environment and commitment to higher learning provides some balance. Named for the fourth-century saint and patron of the blind, St. Lucy — who, according to tradition, was blinded before her martyrdom — the home encourages children to rise above their limitations. They are taught that nothing is beyond their reach, and the children are expected to shine.
“We teach them independence,” says Sister Souad Nohra, the director of the home.
At the home, children who once might have spent their lives in the shadows — helpless or hopeless — are receiving an incalculable gift. Darkness is giving way to light.
The center cares for 5 girls and 11 boys between the ages of 4 and 18. Most students come from poor farming villages in Upper Egypt or the outskirts of Alexandria. The sisters provide for every need — from clothes and books to food and extracurricular activities, such as sports and music. They also organize field trips to the beach.
Upstairs in the center’s immaculately clean dormitory, the children have their own numbered cupboards. The children are expected to dress themselves. At meal times, students procure their own cups and silverware from dining room drawers, and then clean up after themselves.
“They have to know they can do these things by themselves. They are very proud; they don’t have to depend on anyone,” says Sister Souad.
The sisters run a tight ship. At 5:45 a.m., the children wake up to get ready for school and eat breakfast. They are expected on the center’s private bus an hour later. The children go to specialized government schools for the blind — the boys head to El Nour School in Alexandria’s Muharram Bey neighborhood, while the girls attend another school in the Zizina area. They return by 4 p.m. and eat lunch. Then it is homework time until dinner at 7, followed by free time until bed. Bedtimes vary based on age: on weekdays, 8:30 for younger children and 9 for older students.
The two study rooms on the ground floor of the home are pristine. Sturdy wooden desks, absent the graffiti commonly found in classrooms, are arranged in rows. Older students share three Perkine Braillers to type in English, French and Arabic. Sister Souad has recently ordered five more and is waiting for them to arrive to surprise the students. A U.S. import, the machines are a luxury in Egypt. If one breaks, Sister Souad has to ship them to the states for repair — the expertise for fixing Braillers, she explains, does not exist in Egypt.
The younger children learn to read and write Braille by hand, using a stylus and plastic slate — using a metal pin, they imprint each dot through a prearranged tablet. The center also has one computer that runs screen-reading software, allowing children to practice their typing skills without Braille. This technology has quickly become more common for teaching blind children in the West, but is still rare in Egypt.
If children have trouble with a class at school, the center brings in a tutor to make sure they catch up. Sister Souad says all their children go on to attend university, with many majoring in history, literature and English-language studies. “We are very serious about education,” Sister Souad adds.
But the children have spare time for fun, too. Every Saturday, the center holds a two- to three-hour music class for the students, who learn to play the guitar and keyboard. They sing hymns and compose their own music. If children want one-on-one music lessons, the sisters are happy to arrange it.
In the recreational room, there is a Braille library. Children can read a variety of books, including the Bible. A huge flat-screen television hangs from the wall and children love watching soccer — a sport where every play is narrated. Surprisingly, to the sisters, the kids are incredibly interested in politics and follow the news at night.
“We are always asking them what is going on and to explain it to us!” Sister Souad exclaims, laughing. “They listen to everything.”
The children recently requested a Braille copy of Egypt’s new constitution, which passed in January 2014, so they could read and discuss it.
The center’s oldest resident, an 18-year-old girl, went to cast her ballot on the constitutional referendum, which passed by 98 percent last January. Sister Hoda, the matron of the program, took her to a polling station. There, a judge asked her which way she wanted to vote and, with Sister Hoda as a witness, certified the young woman’s ballot as she solemnly endorsed the new constitution.
“She was so proud that day, expressing her equal citizenship,” sister adds.
For the children under the sisters’ care, the Santa Lucia Home is a buffer from greater challenges facing Egypt. In this impoverished country of 85 million, child malnutrition remains a serious problem. Some 30 percent of children live under the national poverty line.
This poverty is compounded in Upper Egypt, the native region of most of the center’s children. There, the poverty rate exceeds 50 percent according to a 2012 UNICEF report. In September 2012, a national survey reported that 86 percent of vulnerable families said their incomes were insufficient to cover monthly needs. Access to proper health care and sanitary water also remain a challenge.
Poverty and health care are not the only hurdles Egyptian children face. The country’s schools are generally overcrowded, with classes regularly containing between 40 and 50 children. According to UNICEF’s Egypt program, one in five school buildings are not fit for use and lack functional water and sanitation facilities. The curriculum relies on rote memorization and lacks an emphasis on critical thinking.
For children with any kind of disability, this weak system is even more problematic. According to a U.N. report on the rights of people with disabilities in Egypt, children with special needs are frequently stigmatized and socially excluded, leading to marginalization in many aspects of life. This can result in poor health, deficient education and a higher risk of abuse.
Egypt’s government passed measures to protect the rights of disabled people in a 1975 law, which was later amended in 1982. The law sets an employment quota of five percent for all public and private sector companies with more than 50 employees. Even with this in place, finding a job is still difficult. Companies that violate the law face small penalties, but they are rarely enforced and discrimination is rife.
Egypt has one of the highest rates of blindness in the world. According to the World Health Organization, between 3.3 and 5.6 percent of the population has a visual impairment. The most common cause of blindness in the country is trachoma, a preventable eye infection common in the developing world, caused by a microorganism that spreads through contact with eye discharge from an infected person or flies. Repeated infections cause blindness, but Egypt’s health care facilities are just not up to par to treat infections, especially among the most at-risk populations — women and children.
A 2001 study by the Egypt’s Ministry of Health, the British Columbia Center for Epidemiologic and International Ophthalmology, and Al Nour Foundation found that active trachoma in the Delta governorate of Menofiya (which lies between Alexandria and Cairo) was present in 36.5 percent of children examined between the ages of 2 and 6.
Santa Lucia is one of the few facilities in the country actively trying to ensure blind children grow into adults cognizant of their rights as citizens. But the country’s current political turmoil and security situation has complicated their efforts. Since the revolution, sectarian attacks have been on the rise and enrollment has dropped. The sisters think the reason they are not operating to full capacity is family fear of being separated from their children during these uncertain times. “I hope things will get better and I pray for it. But for now, the parents are afraid,” says Sister Hoda.
Abanoub is a 17-year-old student from El Mahalla el Kubra, an industrial city in the Nile Delta about two hours’ drive from Cairo. When he first came to the home at the age of 5, he admits, he was terrified. “But then I got used to the place and I felt that I wanted to stay there forever. I built a new life for myself and made new friends,” he says. He is currently in his second year of high school and wants to attend college and major in psychology. He recently started learning the guitar.
But the transition from a school for the blind to a university can be a challenge. Sister Souad says they begin preparing children for the task from day one.
“We tell them, ‘One day, you will leave here and go to university with all kinds of people around.’ Since they are prepared, the transition is normal. We encourage them to take recorders to class, then listen again at home. They study normally.”
One of their students recently received a scholarship to study in the United States.
“I hope other blind children learn that going away from their family is not that difficult; it can be much better for their future,” Abanoub says.
“We teach them there is nothing they can’t do,” Sister Souad says proudly. “They are normal children. The only difference is they cannot see, but that doesn’t mean they can’t live a normal life.”
A frequent contributor to ONE, Sarah Topol’s writing has been published in The Atlantic, Esquire and The New York Times.