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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Rebuilding a School in the Heart of Cairo

The Christian Brothers tackle Egypt’s desperate need for schools.

You must go deep into the narrow, dusty streets of Cairo to get to the Christian Brothers’ school in Khoronfish.

Keep walking past the leather shops, spice markets and gold souks of the bustling Khan El-Khalili bazaar…

Past the rows of ramshackled tenements on the verge of collapse…

Past scrawny dogs with mangy skin and sad, liquid eyes cowering under parked cars…

Past the alleys littered with rotting garbage and flies…

And past the dark hovels where children spend the day hammering out furniture, weaving carpets, or pounding flour into soft mounds of pits to sell in sidewalk stalls.

But by the time you reach the School of St. Joseph in the predominantly Christian quarter of Khoronfish, you’ll understand why the French brothers who run the school believe that they are needed in Egypt.

For the brothers, who are mandated to serve the poor, there could be few places in the world more beckoning than Egypt. It is the most populous country in the Arab world. Egyptian officials estimate that half their people live below the poverty level, while the government struggles to control a foreign debt of more than $44 billion. Egypt is one of the United States’ main allies in the Middle East, and it receives an estimated $2.3 billion a year in U.S. government aid of which little impacts the quality of life for Christians.

At last count, Egypt had 54 million people, but every nine months there are about a million more Egyptians. The country is so overcrowded people are forced to live anywhere they can – in teeming inner-city slums, in mud huts on the outskirts of towns, even in the crypts of ancient cemeteries.

There are so many children the government cannot build schools fast enough. Teachers are sorely needed in the country to offer children a way out of their families’ poverty.

The Christian Brothers have been serving the children of Egypt for 136 years. In Cairo they now operate two schools – St. Joseph’s, for the neediest children in Khoronfish, and the College de la Salle, only blocks away from Cairo’s bustling train station.

In a cool, cavernous room of the spacious College de la Salle, Brother Clause Robbe, the college’s director, recalled the history of his order in Egypt.

“The first brothers arrived in Cairo and chose Khoronfish as the site of their first school,” said Brother Robbe, who has worked in Egypt for more than 15 years. For seven of those years he was in charge of St. Joseph’s. Brother Michel Raimondi now runs the school.

“When the brothers set out as missionaries and settled in Egypt, they dedicated themselves to helping the children of Khoronfish by educating them,” Brother Robbe said.

The original school in Khoronfish attracted wealthier students who paid tuition, he continued. Soon, however, the brothers opened two primary schools nearby to serve the children of families which could not afford to pay.

“So we had a main school for children from well-off families, which helped support the two schools for children from poorer families,” Brother Robbe said.

“This system continued from 1854 to 1954. In these schools there were Muslims, Christians and Jews. And among the Copts, or Egyptian Christians, there were the Catholic and Orthodox, but mostly Orthodox.

“And they all got along well together,” he continued. “The Jews and the Muslims had to attend catechism classes. That was ridiculous…stupid…but it was the mentality of the times.” Now the brothers who run St. Joseph’s and the College de la Salle do not require their Muslim students to attend Christian religion classes.

Over the years, St. Joseph’s expanded to offer classes for kindergarten through higher grades. And Khoronfish gradually changed from a pleasant suburb to a densely populated branch of Cairo, with increasingly poorer families.

The free school found it needed more space, so the brothers moved their upper classes to the College de la Salle, which they opened in the heart of Cairo. The college now has about 2,480 students “from kindergarten through baccalaureate,” Brother Robbe said. Fifty-three percent of the students are Christians – Catholic or Orthodox – and the rest Muslim.

The college is set in spacious grounds with a beautiful chapel and imposing buildings. It offers a wide variety of courses and activities for its students, including a French library and music, drama and sports clubs. Recently, students began operating a radio station. They even publish an annual magazine.

The young men at the college come from various economic levels. All of the 781 students at St. Joseph’s, from toddlers to 15 years old, are from poor families. They attend their classes tuition-free. They are supervised by four brothers and 43 teachers, some of them graduates of the school. Two thirds of the students are Christian and the rest Muslim.

St. Joseph’s offers the regular courses in mathematics, reading, history and French. In vocational classes the students learn trades to help them find work in a country where 25 percent of university graduates are unemployed.

The brothers insist on an atmosphere of religious tolerance. Brother Robbe conceded that this is no easy task, even in maintaining harmony between Catholic and Orthodox students. Cairo itself is a hotbed of unrest between Christians and Muslims, which is mainly attributed to Islamic fanaticism.

An American worker in the region who lived in Egypt for a year said he felt that Christians are especially vulnerable in Egypt because of the gains Muslim fundamentalists have made there. Those advances have been a cause of embarrassment for many moderates, including the president, Hosni Mubarak.

Many point to the Muslim Brotherhood, an underground group promoting literal adherence to the tenets of Islam, as a source of the tensions.

“Almost every week, another business owned by a Christian is set afire, or there is some other incident,” said one Arab Christian who lives in Cairo. “It’s the Muslim Brotherhood, no question about it.”

Brother Robbe said the Christian Brothers have encountered very few problems, probably because of their role as educators. Even the most fanatical elements of Egyptian society respect efforts to improve the country’s educational system.

With all the difficulties of Egyptian life, the Christian Brothers find they have to do a lot more than just run schools. Their teachers must also be trained as counselors, even social workers. In Cairo, education often comes a distant second to the struggle for survival.

Some children regularly miss school because they must work. Others cannot attend classes at all because they spend all their time trying to earn money for their families.

“There are many children like this in Egypt,” Brother Robbe said. “It’s a terrible situation. They work all day, every day. They want to go to school, but they can’t.”

By law, children in Egypt are supposed to attend school for eight years. But in a country where construction workers earn $4 a day, or a waiter earns $35 a month, families also depend on their children to earn money. A recent study on child labor in Egypt found that many families have no income at all but for what the children can earn.

According to government statistics, at least a million children are forced to work; seven percent of the Egyptian workforce is under 12 years of age. Many children work in deplorable conditions and are not protected against injury They are often seen on the streets carrying bundles more than twice their size. And it is no secret that inside workshops children operate dangerous machines and are exposed to toxic chemicals.

At Khoronfish, the school complex is open on Sundays especially to help working children. They flock to the school’s community center in their few free hours to play soccer, talk to the brothers or simply to do what children all over the world do best – play.

A few years ago, the Christian Brothers made a commitment to continue their mission to the children of Khoronfish. The renewal of their vows to the community involved a tremendous decision for the brothers. Until last year, their compound in Khoronfish centered around the original building they erected in 1854.

“But last year we decided to build a new school and to demolish the old one,” Brother Robbe said. Architects had convinced them that it was not feasible to try to repair the building, even for history’s sake.

“The building had become dangerous,” Brother Robbe explained. “And it just became too expensive to keep putting money into a building that needed so many repairs.”

Demolition began last year, and now only half the old building remains. The brothers hope to have their new school finished by 1993, but classes will continue throughout construction.

Egyptian brothers were able to come up with a quarter of the $1.6 millionneeded to demolish and rebuild St. Joseph’s, and they hope to raise the rest through an international campaign.

“We have received help from Christian groups around the world,” Brother Robbe said. Catholic Near East Welfare Association is among St. Joseph’s major supporters.

More funds are needed, but it doesn’t seem to daunt the brothers. Brother Robbe is convinced there’ll be enough to complete the project.

“We know the money will come,” said Brother Robbe with a calm, confident smile. “Our work here is too important.”

Joyce M. Davis is Middle East editor on the Foreign Desk of National Public Radio.

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