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Reclaiming Lives

As the car turns onto the main street, the overwhelming stench of garbage is one’s first introduction to the Zabbaleen quarter in Manshiyat Naser, a district in the sprawling Egyptian capital of Cairo.

Garbage is everywhere. Collected from other Cairo neighborhoods and carried to the area, piles of trash block the entrances of houses as residents carry out the process of sorting and recycling to make ends meet. To enter this world is to enter the lives of some of Egypt’s poorest people, and certainly among the nation’s most marginalized of peoples.

The Zabbaleen (an Arabic word meaning, “garbage people”) quarter is a settlement that sprang up at the far southern end of Manshiyat Naser at the base of the Mokattam hills, east of Cairo. It is an entire neighborhood of garbage collectors, who are mostly Coptic Christians. The streets, up to the hill, are unpaved and bumpy, and living conditions are poor. The district is subject to frequent landslides due to a lack of infrastructure, such as running water, waste treatment and electricity. In 2008, a huge rockslide buried a neighborhood, killing hundreds of people.

The inhabitants of the area are mainly farmers from Upper Egypt who relocated to Cairo to escape the poverty and religious discrimination plaguing the nation’s largely rural south. The people of the Zabbaleen quarter still retain their Upper Egyptian accent and other customs. Their Christian identity is clear; crosses and pictures of saints are visible everywhere. At the highest point of the settlement is the cave Church of St. Simon the Tanner, the largest church in the Middle East. Carved out of the cliff face, the site is like a fortress for the people there — a spiritual shelter amid tiring working days.

Walking through all this is Martina Isaac, 18, dressed in her school uniform. Each day, she takes public transportation to the Abbassiya neighborhood, about four miles away, where she attends St. Vincent de Paul School — a French-language school for girls run by the Daughters of Charity. It is one of the few private schools in Egypt that accepts poor students and does not set conditions with regard to parents’ education level.

The school is having a profound impact on some of the poorest of the Zabbaleen — nurturing hope and possibility among lives that began, literally, in a world of refuse and trash. The school is helping to salvage what could have been thrown away.

The story of Martina and her family — and of so many others in their position — is really a story of lives reclaimed.

Soon after finishing one of her end-of-year exams, Martina welcomes visitors to her house in Manshiyat Naser. Joining her is Sister Naglaa from the school.

Martina’s mother, Fayza Nos’hy, welcomes her visitors to her home. Martina has four siblings — Mary, who recently graduated from Commercial Secondary School; Marina, 23, an art teacher who studied also at St. Vincent School; Madonna, 15, an eighth grader at Good Shepherd School; and a younger brother, Mina, 13, in the seventh grade at a governmental school.

The family home is located near the cave church, on the edge of the cliff. As with most homes in Manshiyat Naser, the house is built out of bright red bricks. The ground floor is used for sorting garbage; just outside, a garbage truck lies parked to the left of the steps.

At 4 a.m., Martina’s father, Isaac, takes his son-in-law and Mina along on his route, collecting the garbage from a neighborhood in northern Cairo. From door to door, they haul garbage bags in a big container constructed of palms, carried on their backs. When they return around 3 p.m., Martina’ mother and sisters start sorting the refuse. They stand on the car’s trunk, dividing up recyclable materials such as plastic, paper, glass and cans, placing them in different corners around the car.

“For six or seven hours, we work in the middle of the dirt, bending over in the car,” says Mary, Martina’s older sister. “You can’t imagine how tired we are. My shoulder and my back hurt me, but I have no chance to stop or have a break. We have to unload the car so it can be ready for the next day,” she explains.

“You can’t even pause to drink water or eat clean foods. It is hard but it is not my choice.”

Mary is married and has three children — Jessica, Janista and Faltaoos. Jessica, at 4, is the oldest.

While working on sorting the garbage, Mary watches the children play, troubled because she does not have the time to rear them as attentively as she would prefer.

“When I finish, I go upstairs to find my kids asleep, covered in dirt. It makes me sad that I can’t raise them well,” she adds.

However, she believes a good education could turn the tide.

“Education would have made a difference in my life and in the lives of my children. This is why I want to enroll my daughter, Jessica, in a good school.”

Most of the parents in Manshiyat Naser are illiterate. They want their children to have a better future. A growing number of residents are giving increasing attention to education. The success of some children from the area, which has contributed to changing the lives of their families, has also encouraged other parents to invest in education. Many Zabbaleen have begun to look to St. Vincent de Paul School.

Seeing an opportunity, Martina’s mother, Fayza, asks Sister Naglaa for help in enrolling her granddaughter in the school.

The sister could make no promises, but she encourages her to apply.

The Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul have been serving in Egypt since 1844. They have nine convents in the country, where some 50 sisters live and serve locals by running dispensaries, schools, food pantries and programs that teach literacy and handicrafts to young girls in Upper Egypt.

St. Vincent de Paul School in Abbassiya, Cairo, is more than 100 years old. Its affordable fees — the equivalent of about $330 per year — make enrollment feasible for families of all social classes; it receives girls from various working-class neighborhoods in Cairo, such as Manshiyat Naser.

About 800 girls are enrolled from kindergarten to secondary school. About 150 girls come from the Zabbaleen quarter.

Three religious sisters run the school: Sister Amira, Sister Naglaa and Sister Josephine.

“Someone who was born in a poor family — doesn’t she have the right to receive good education and socially develop?” asks Sister Amira, the superior of the community and administrator of the school.

The school provides hot meals for about 150 students, which helps those who cannot always be assured of a balanced meal at home. A local Coptic businessman and a French charity help to provide the meals.

For those students who have difficulty paying, Sister Amira looks for donors to defray expenses.

“We have observed that poor educational attainment is directly proportional to malnutrition. So we choose those whom we know need support,” Sister Naglaa says.

As much as they treasure education, too many of the Zabbaleen are forced every day to confront the hard reality of life amid the refuse.

Difficult living conditions and poor health often force many children to drop out of school. Others may lose focus on their schooling because they are needed at home; they have to help their families collect and recycle garbage.

Martina’s class has only 23 girls. At primary school age, she had more than 70 classmates — enough to divide into two classes — but over time, one girl after another withdrew. Some transferred to government schools because their parents could not afford to pay even the reduced fees. In seventh grade, seven girls failed to pass, two more of whom were then transferred to a public school.

“When I meet these former students, they say, ‘We want to come back. People here insult and curse, teachers don’t explain,’ ” Martina says.

Mary adds: “When someone fails, the parents don’t see why they continue to send him to a school with fees.”

In the beginning, Martina’s parents were able to pay the school fees for their daughters. Due to worsening conditions, it became harder to make ends meet.

When Mina failed out of St. Joseph’s School — run by the Christian Brothers in the predominantly Christian quarter of Khoronfish — he had to transfer to a governmental school.

For a time, Martina’s parents considered pulling their girls from St. Vincent de Paul, but the religious sisters offered help. A French donor took care of Marina’s school fees, while an Egyptian woman covers the fees for Martina and Madonna.

During summer vacation, Martina works in a nearby clothing store, which pays her 700 Egyptian pounds a month — about $40. She uses the money to pay for the private courses she takes after school.

She used to travel by school bus; once her family could no longer afford the additional fee, she began taking public transportation.

After she returns from school, Martina naps for about an hour. Then she wakes up and begins her homework.

Youstina Mansour was 4 years old when she fell from the second floor of her house. She was seriously injured. Her mother, Aida Fekry, prayed to God for her recovery, vowing to give her a good education if she survived. When Youstina recovered, her mother fulfilled her promise. She sent her to St. Vincent de Paul School.

Youstina proved fortunate. Her five siblings all graduated from intermediate school, but never had the chance to further their education. They work today collecting and recycling garbage. They sort it and then sell the materials to recycling workshops in the area.

Mrs. Fekry says she learned about St. Vincent de Paul School through her sister, whose five daughters attended the school. All five went on to college; three of them have graduated while two still attend. The three graduates now work as French teachers, and have opened a center to give private lessons to the students in the neighborhood. Their education has changed the life of their family.

These days, Youstina does not work with her mother in recycling the garbage. She only helps with housework, her mother says.

“Sometimes, I ask myself, ‘Did I do wrong by sending her to school?’ She refuses to do anything with us.” Mrs. Fekry says, reflecting on this increasingly accentuated generation gap.

“At the end of the day, I tell her: ‘Focus on your studies, so you don’t face the hard life we live.’ ”

Youstina’s school fees were reduced. Her mother, who was widowed three years ago, pays throughout the year in installments when she has the money to spare.

Beyond basic education, the girls who attend St. Vincent de Paul School receive lessons that help to form them morally and spiritually — as with Catholic educational institutions the world over.

The school provides a forum to examine pressing issues in the lives of students. The girls discuss with their teacher topics relevant to their lives and needs, such as those pertaining to adolescence, love and tolerance. The sisters use the class to promote the sense of equality between the students, who often come from different social and religious backgrounds.

“Nowadays, the parents are too busy to raise their children and teach them the correct values and behaviors,” Sister Naglaa says.

“This society has changed greatly; much has been lost. When daughters leave for university, sometimes they come back telling us that they feel alienated in a society that lacks the values instilled in them in our school,” she explains.

The sisters hold this aspect of their work to be of the utmost importance — and no one, they insist, should be denied the chance for a better future, regardless of their social status.

“We give the opportunity to all,” Sister Amira says. “Sometimes the parents haven’t received any education, but they want to give their children a good education. If we all shut the door in front of them, where shall they go?”

Based in Cairo, Magdy Samaan is a Middle East correspondent for the The Telegraph. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy and a number of other journals.

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