Grief-stricken by the death of her only son, Mona Fouad Massoud decided she no longer wanted to run Al Phara’na School in Ezbet el Nakhl, north of Cairo. So, in 2016, she announced her intention to sell and retire.
Parents expressed great concern that the private school would deteriorate under new ownership, but their concern did not last long. After a few months, the Coptic Catholic Sisters of Jesus and Mary came visiting as potential administrators.
“When the nuns were present, the people began to be reassured,” says Mrs. Massoud. “The presence of nuns in their habits, in a place where there are a large number of Christians, gave parents the reassurance that things will go well.”
The sisters purchased the school from Mrs. Massoud in 2017 and renamed it Notre Dame des Apôtres (Our Lady of the Apostles).
“It was divine intervention,” says Sister Lucy Ramzi Yacoub. “We were looking at the time to establish a new school when we found out by chance that there was a private school whose owner wanted to sell.”
Ezbet el Nakhl is an overcrowded working-class neighborhood with poor infrastructure. The name means “Hamlet of Palm Trees.” Until the mid-1980s, it was a small neighborhood surrounded by agricultural land, mostly farms of palm trees. But things turned upside down in 1989, when a new subway line connected the neighborhood with downtown Cairo.
The cheap, 30-minute public transit ride into the capital and inexpensive housing prices at the time contributed to rapid construction in Ezbet el Nakhl. Palm trees were cut down, farms were bulldozed, and the land was converted into a jungle of multistory apartment buildings and narrow streets. The homes became inhabited by poor migrants seeking work, mainly Christians fleeing interreligious violence in Upper Egypt.
The rapid growth of the population — now estimated at 1 million — was not matched by a similar pace in government services, as most buildings were built in contravention of the building codes. Sections of the neighborhood turned into slums.
The need was great and local residents stepped in to bridge the gap. During this time, more than 27 private schools were established. Mrs. Massoud and her husband, Shaker Iskandar, were among those who took initiative, establishing their school early in the urbanization process in 1988.
Located down a narrow road, off of a busy, bumpy street dotted with shops, Notre Dame des Apôtres School looks like a four-story apartment complex from the outside. Its two buildings — one for the preschool and elementary school and one for the middle school — are connected through a corridor. The school’s 150 teachers and 30 support staff serve 2,000 students divided into 55 classes, that is, five classes for each grade.
The school receives more than 400 applications each year for its kindergarten, which only has room for 160 students, says Sister Lucy, adding that tuition ranges from 5,000 to 6,000 Egyptian pounds ($200-$250), depending on the grade.
“With the high cost of living, some families are unable to continue paying tuition, especially since many parents are losing their jobs these days. We stand by them,” says Sister Lucy.
Almost 10 percent of students are either fully or partially exempt from paying tuition, she explains. The school also accepts girls from an orphanage of the Coptic Orthodox Church. In an arrangement made during Mrs. Massoud’s management of the school — which the sisters agreed to continue — the Coptic Orthodox Church and the school each cover half of the cost of tuition for these girls.
Mariam Wagih is among the orphans who graduated from Notre Dame des Apôtres. She ranked among the top 100 high school graduates in Egypt and is now studying English and Italian in the faculty of languages at Ain Shams University in Cairo. The education she received at Notre Dame helped her to excel at university, she says.
“I didn’t need to go to a private tutor as most students do because the teachers in the school do their best.”
When the Coptic Sisters of Jesus and Mary took over the school, they asked Mrs. Massoud to assist with the transition and to stay on as an associate director for a year or two.
“When the time came for me to leave, I felt like I was losing one of my children,” she says. So, when the sisters asked her to consider remaining as associate director, she did.
Sister Mary Rosette Abdo is the school’s director. She sits at a small desk she moved into the director’s office, placed beside the larger desk occupied by Mrs. Massoud. Sisters Adele Alfy and Youstina Isaac also assist Sister Mary Rosette.
Since her profession as a vowed religious 25 years ago, Sister Mary Rosette has served in Notre Dame schools in Fayoum, a city southwest of Cairo, and in Ahmed Said and Sharabeya, two Cairo neighborhoods. She began her service in Ezbet el Nakhl in 2017.
“When the order asked me to take charge of the school, I felt like Jesus in Gethsemane, because the school is big and the responsibility is huge,” she says.
The Coptic Sisters of Jesus and Mary were founded in 1969, when 16 members of the Congregation of the Egyptian Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus decided to establish a new community. They began their teaching apostolate at a school in Fayoum. Today, 60 sisters work in 12 schools, as well as in orphanages and dispensaries.
Notre Dame is one of 170 schools affiliated with the General Secretariat of Catholic Schools in Egypt. These schools are known to provide quality education, which has become indispensable to many lower- to middle-class families given the decline in the quality of free public education and the high cost of private schools.
Although many Catholic schools are located in poor and middle-class neighborhoods, Ezbet el Nakhl presents a particular challenge.
“The residents of Ezbet el Nakhl come from different parts and cultures of Egypt” and many have minimal education, says Mrs. Massoud. “These different backgrounds make it more difficult. You need to talk to and treat each person in a way they understand.”
Since they purchased the school, the sisters have been working to bring it up to par with their other schools, both in terms of activities and in-class resources, such as television screens and computers, which would allow the school to keep pace with current teaching methods and the demands of technology, says Sister Lucy.
However, the sisters’ efforts to date have made a significant difference already, says Malak Marzouk. The 14-year-old middle school student won a national drawing competition among school children on the theme of climate change. The winning art pieces were displayed at the Climate Change Conference COP27, hosted in Egypt, from 6 to 18 November. As part of her prize, Ms. Marzouk traveled 316 miles to Sharm el Sheikh, located on the Red Sea, to be present at the global summit.
“Before the sisters came, the school did not pay much attention to drawing class,” says Ms. Marzouk, adding she had no idea she was talented at drawing until the sisters began the various activities. “The nuns honor the talented children and encourage them.”
Don Bosco School in Alexandria is run by the Salesians of Don Bosco, a congregation founded in 1859 to educate and care for poor children. Established in 1896 in Karmus, today a working-class neighborhood in Alexandria, Don Bosco school is the Salesians’ first school in Egypt and one of the oldest Catholic schools in the country.
Father Jesudos Arokiam, a Salesian priest, served at Don Bosco Schools in Bethlehem and Nazareth before starting as the director in Alexandria in 2018. The school compound, located on a busy city block, has two sections. The first section is for the elementary and middle schools, totaling 1,115 students. There are two classes for each grade. Both schools are under the authority of the Egyptian Ministry of Education and students learn in Arabic.
The second section houses a four-year vocational school under the jurisdiction of the Embassy of Italy. Here, students are trained as electricians or machinists and classes are taught in Italian.
Annual tuition for the elementary and middle schools is about 9,000 Egyptian pounds ($390), among the lowest for private schools. However, since 2020, even this amount has been beyond the capacity of some families, whose economic situations were adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite providing tuition assistance, Father Arokiam says the recent increase in the cost of living resulted in 120 students transferring to public schools this past year.
Unlike most private schools that require a parent to have a certain level of education or social status as a condition for a child to be considered for admission, Don Bosco School accepts students based only on whether they pass the admission test.
“The fact that a child’s parents are not educated does not mean that he should not have the opportunity for a good education,” says Father Arokiam.
The school also works to provide students with a contemporary in-class experience and learning environment, suited to their needs. CNEWA’s benefactors contributed to the installation of television screens in the classrooms, which has improved student performance.
Marwa el-Sayed Mustafa, an Arabic teacher at the elementary school, says the television in the classroom has helped her tremendously with her teaching.
“This generation is different from previous generations,” she says. “Communications technology captures their attention, and when something is shown to them on a screen, their comprehension increases compared with traditional teaching methods.”
Two of the most important features that students and parents alike appreciate about Don Bosco School, as well as Notre Dame des Apôtres, are the respectful treatment of children and the absence of corporal punishment, still commonly used in schools in Egypt as a disciplinary measure.
“If we make a mistake, the teacher writes what someone did wrong in a notebook, so his parents may read it later,” says Youhana Ayyad, a third-year middle school student at Don Bosco School. “If the student continues his behavior, the school calls his parents to discuss the cause of the problem to solve it.”
Father Arokiam says all Don Bosco schools, in Egypt and elsewhere, follow the same “Preventive System” developed by St. John Bosco, the founder of the Salesian congregation, in the way they relate to children. It is based on three pillars — reason, religion and kindness — that guide their approach to teaching and raising children and young people in the moral life, the priest explains.
“St. John Bosco taught us to cooperate with young people with respect and love,” says Father Arokiam.
“Don Bosco School is known for its service to people, especially in working-class areas. People here respect the place because they see our work.”
Based in Cairo, Magdy Samaan is the Egypt correspondent for The Times of London. His work also has been published in the Daily Telegraph, CNN, Foreign Policy and other journals.
The CNEWA Connection
The Coptic Catholic population in Egypt is small, but mighty. As CNEWA’s primary partner in Egypt, the church provides social services to all members of society, ensuring educational, medical and psychological needs are met, especially for the most vulnerable segments of society, such as those with special needs, refugees and displaced families. Notre Dame and Don Bosco schools are but two examples of the good work of the Coptic Catholic community for the common good, and why CNEWA is eager to support their activities.
To support this important mission, call 1-866-322-4441 (Canada) or 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or visit https://cnewa.org/work/egypt/