Sister Hoda Chaker Assal
Sister Hoda Chaker Assal administers the Santa Lucia Home, which provides a loving and encouraging environment for blind children. Since joining the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross, she has served the community in a variety of ministries. From Cairo, Sister Hoda studied in Lebanon and received a degree in disability studies from the University of Alexandria in 2010.
ONE: Why did you pursue a degree in disability studies?
Sister Hoda Chaker Assal: I belong to the Franciscan sisters — our order cares a lot about people with disabilities in Lebanon and Jordan, and Egypt also. I studied general disabilities, but I specialized in blindness.
ONE: What do you think most people do not understand about blindness?
SH: People should accept the blind as equals. Blind people are normal people. They can’t see, yes, but they are still the same. So treat them as anyone else, not as special cases.
ONE: What has been one of the most challenging parts of your job?
SH: The difficult thing is to convince the children of their worth, specifically boys. I try to tell them: “Don’t get depressed, you will have your own life, you will have your own family.” For me this is the most difficult thing, to convince them and to prepare them for the world: “You are not here to be pitied.”
This is difficult.
ONE: What are some of the ways you cope with this?
SH: It is a difficult situation. In Egyptian society, men are expected to make money, to provide for the family. This is a lot of pressure on every Egyptian, regardless of their situation.
I always depend on giving them examples of blind people in Egyptian society who became famous, who live comfortably and are respected. For example, I mention Taha Hussein, the famous Egyptian author who became the education minister. He was blind. I mention Ammar El Sherei, the composer. He was one of the most wealthy and respected men in Egypt. He was blind. Then, I mention men who passed through here. They graduated, they make good livings, and they are blind.
So I keep telling them a lot of people did it, and you can do it, too. Don’t give up.
ONE: Do boys have a more difficult time with this than girls because of this social pressure?
SH: It is personal, according to the children themselves, boys or girls. It depends on how he or she is interacting with his blindness and if they have been reared from a young age to be self-dependent or not.
ONE: What about children who come to the home later, or those who have internalized their blindness as a stigma?
SH: It takes time. There’s another thing we depend on: They help each other. In this community, the children form a close circle. They help each other. For example, if one is talented in history or music, they start helping the rest, automatically. They do that with each other, so this helps all of them. They cooperate.
ONE: How do people react to a group of blind children on a field trip? How does society treat them?
SH: When we go on a trip, I am very happy that people open doors for them and welcome them.
ONE: What hope do blind children have who do not attend special schools or come to this center?
SH: They don’t go to school. Maybe the child or adult knows how to work simple things, by his hands, but they don’t go to school unless they go to a special school. There are a few schools in Upper Egypt, but they are not as prepared as we are.
ONE: What is a regular day like for you?
SH: I wake up 5:15 a.m. At 5:45, I wake all of the children and I go to prepare breakfast for them. After breakfast, I give them pocket money and snacks for school. At 6:45, our bus takes them to school. After that, I go to pray and I start preparing lunch and laundry. When they come back from the school around 3:30, they eat lunch. Then I take them to start homework and study. While they work, I go prepare dinner, which is served around 7.
Then there is free time — they can do whatever they want during their break time. I sit with the sisters for a while. At 8:30 the young children go to sleep and at 9 the older kids go to bed. Actually, they do not fall asleep then, usually not before 10 or 11. They keep chatting and joking. I hear them and stand at the door and say, ‘Go to bed!’ And they giggle and say ‘O.K.!’ But they keep talking. [She laughs.]
ONE: Can you share some unique observations that people might not know about blind children, particularly your charges?
SH: Sometimes it amazes me what the children can sense.
We had one boy who didn’t like to sleep without the light. I was putting him to bed. I turned off the light and left, but he started crying. Another boy told me that this boy was afraid of darkness, so I turned a faint light for him again. It was interesting; he has a sense of light, and it comforts him.
One day, I remember the power cut off while the children were doing homework and they stopped studying. I asked them “Why are you not studying?”
They told me: “How can we study in the darkness?” We laughed. They are so funny and make so many jokes.
They are very sweet and kind. You would love them. Another time, I forgot to turn the lights on for them. I noticed they were playing in the dark, I said: “How are you playing in the dark? I’m sorry I forgot to turn on the lights.”
They told me, &lquo;Sister! Did you forget we were blind?” Sometimes, I actually forget.
They have such a wide imagination and connection with their senses; they detect colors somehow, maybe by smell. The girls, when I change my frock from blue to white, they notice and tell me, “Sister, you’re wearing white today.” I don’t know how they know. I walk soundlessly — I have my whole life — but when I enter the room, they know I’m there and they know it’s me. They can tell each sister apart from the way we walk. Years go by and students still remember us from our voices. They have a very strong memory.