Susanna Akram conducts a class in sign language organized by the Better Life ministry. (photo: Roger Anis)
Hanna Zakaria, right, discusses his participation in the Better Life ministry. (photo: Roger Anis)
The Rev. Boulos Nassif strives to serve marginalized communities. (photo: Roger Anis)
The planned school will allow students to continue studying with the sisters past grade school. (photo: Roger Anis)
Children attend the Franciscan Sisters’ School in Beni Suef. (photo: Roger Anis)
A sister assists a student at the Franciscan Sisters’ School. (photo: Roger Anis)
Sister Veronique administers the Franciscan Sisters’ School in Beni Suef. (photo: Roger Anis)
Editors’ note: Through countless efforts across Egypt, the Coptic Catholic Church — although numerically small — works tirelessly to elevate lives and promote the flourishing of communities. The challenges are great, particularly when serving those who are marginalized. But some of the success stories offer inspiration and, in so many ways, signs of hope.
Fefi Abdel describes the home life of her youth with a sense of isolation and sadness. “My parents do not know sign language,” the 24-year-old says. “When I used to live in their house, I didn’t feel well; nobody understood me and I didn’t understand what was going on around me.”
When she goes on to say the Better Life ministry changed her life, it is easy to see why. The program, which addresses the needs of deaf and hearing-impaired Egyptians, has provided her not only with care, but also a sense of community.
“When I come here, I feel connected to the world. I’m very happy when I’m amongst them,” she says, signing her words faster than Mariam Nassif, the leader of the program, could translate.
Through this community, the young woman even met her husband, 22-year-old Dawood Milad.
“I liked him in secret for a long time, and he liked me in secret,” she says, face shining with a shy smile. “He proposed to me at a conference in Alexandria.”
Employed in a limestone quarry in Minya, a city south of Cairo, Mr. Milad works hard but earns little money — a limitation felt all the more acutely now, as the couple is expecting their first child.
“God has chosen Dawood for me,” Mrs. Abdel says. “We will live happily in peace, even with little money.”
Fefi and Dawood are just two out of about 100 hearing-impaired people who are served by the Better Life. Established by the Rev. Boulos Nassif — Mariam Nassif’s brother — the ministry has been serving the Coptic Catholic Eparchy of Minya directly for more than 20 years.
To the group’s members, the Nassif siblings are pillars — practically parental figures, as some say — always willing to discuss problems and share advice.
“The ministry here is not only spiritual,” Ms. Nassif says. “The families bring us their children early on and we become everything for them.”
Every Friday, two buses arrive at St. Joseph School in Minya around 11 a.m., after collecting participants from surrounding villages. The program begins with some recreational time, followed by group prayer. Finally, each age group is given a choice of workshops to attend in the various classrooms, where instructors — themselves often deaf — teach a variety of topics.
Through what the ministry receives in donations, Ms. Nassif says, it provides assistance to its members, including clothing, food, health care and school tuition. Furthermore, the program offers members translation services, which is particularly helpful when dealing with governmental entities.
Ten of its youngest members have received assistance to attend a primary school in Cairo for the deaf, as their local schools could not accommodate them.
Susanna Akram, 25, joined the group as a toddler, as did her sister. Her mother, Mary Farouk, also assists with various church programs that serve the deaf community.
“When Susanna and her sister were 3, I told myself, if they will not be able to live with me with [spoken] words, I could live with them with sign language,” Mrs. Farouk says.
Ms. Akram attended training in Lebanon two years ago and now assists younger group members, leading in prayers and then hosting one of the workshops.
“Deaf people have a lot of dreams, but to no avail,” Ms. Akram says.
“The deaf are absent from their own environment,” Father Nassif adds, “because there is not enough attention given to their condition.”
Father Nassif has a keen awareness of the special needs that often go unmet, especially at the margins of society. In addition to his work with the deaf community, he has spearheaded a number of other local initiatives, including a prison ministry.
In Egypt, he says, there are many faults in the popular understanding of disabilities in general. Deaf people may be viewed as lesser in intelligence or fitness for employment.
“They are normal people, like us,” he says, adding that they merely face a communication gap.
The Coptic Catholic priest believes the church can and must play a greater role in assisting such underserved communities. “Churches in general don’t have priests who speak sign language,” he says.
One of Father Nassif’s dreams is to build a school for deaf students in Minya. Although the ministry has the necessary experience and trained personnel, gathering financial resources remains the principal challenge.
Nevertheless, through this and countless other efforts across Egypt, the Coptic Catholic Church — though numerically small — works tirelessly to elevate lives and promote the flourishing of communities.
But it is a challenge that the church is facing with determination and a renewed sense of resolve.
In August 2013, amid clashes with security forces, supporters of ousted President Muhammad Morsi formed mobs and attacked Christian institutions across Egypt. More than 80 church and religious service buildings were looted and razed.
Among those buildings burnt was the Franciscan Sisters’ School in the town of Beni Suef, about 60 miles south of Cairo.
For more than 120 years, this primary school opened its doors to all members of the community, regardless of social class or religion. However, amid a conflagration of sectarian violence, the cross atop the building became a target.
In the reception room of the school, the sisters recount the horror they felt that day.
“They gave no choice to the four sisters at the building,” says Sister Nagat Samaan, superior of the community of women religious.
“The sisters fled without knowing where to go. The closest place that took them in was the home of a Muslim woman who used to work in the school.”
Sister Nagat recalls with sorrow the first time she set foot in the building after the attack. “The scene was very painful,” she says. “They destroyed and stole everything. I don’t want to remember it.”
Most Muslims in Beni Suef were upset, even angry, to learn what had befallen the school; many enrolled their own children there. A longtime community fixture, it was seen as neither religiously nor politically provocative.
“After the events, Muslim young people from the neighborhood came to apologize that they were not able to protect the school,” Sister Nagat says.
Although the sisters could not have afforded to rebuild with their own resources, the seeds they planted over decades of work within the community bore fruit.
When the army pledged to rebuild the buildings destroyed in the attacks, General Taher Abdullah, an alumnus, came to visit the school. Reminiscing about his time there, and speaking of his debt to the sisters, he helped to move the school on the top of the repair list.
About a year after its destruction, the building stood once more. It reopened to students in September of 2015.
Before the opening day, parents of the students came to help clean, decorate and otherwise prepare the classrooms.
“We all came to help because we consider this place part of our home,” said Eman Ali, mother of two students — Ali, in second grade, and Abdul Rahman, who recently graduated to a secondary school.
Abdul Rahman, 14, loved the sisters’ school, and would go as early as the doors would open. Adjusting to the “chaotic” system of the secular school he now attends has been a challenge.
“There is no education,” he says. “They deal with everything with beating and insulting. If you want to run from the school, nobody cares if you come or not.
“I got used to a high standard of education at the Franciscan Sisters’ School. But what I miss the most is the system.”
Mrs. Ali and other parents wish the Franciscan Sisters would add a secondary school, so their children could continue their studies with the same level of warmth and encouragement.
“Here, the children learn strong moral values, which helps us at home,” Mrs Ali says.
Shereen Bibawi, mother of second-grader Mahriel, agrees with Mrs. Ali, and is another voice urging the sisters to extend their school through the higher grades. Her older son, Philopater, now in his first year at a secular school, was ranked first in the class in his final year at the sisters’ school.
“I was crying when Philopater had to move to another school,” Mrs. Bibawi says.
Out of the 15 Franciscan schools in Egypt, the sisters’ school in Beni Suef is the only one without a secondary section. The school’s administration has responded to the wishes of the parents; last year, they began building a preparatory school in a building attached to the primary school.
But the work is proceeding slowly, Sister Nagat says, because of the lack of resources. But with the confidence and support of their community behind them, it is only a matter of time.
For 27 years, Fadel Labib Tobia, 47, has been working as a custodian at Salama Nashed Service Center in Samalut, about 120 miles south of Cairo.
While once alive with guests and activities, now Mr. Tobia says he cleans the rooms and finds them dusty again before they see use.
“I feel sad that there are no activities at the place,” he says. “I have spent all my life here.”
But where many might see a dusty conference center, Coptic Catholic Bishop Botros Fahim of Minya sees opportunity.
In his vision, the future of the Coptic Catholic Church begins with youth formation. The bishop believes that Salama Nashed Center is the best place to continue this mission — a site for education, training and community-building activities, much as those it once hosted.
Originally a hotel, the building’s previous owner was a Coptic lawyer named Salama Nashed. He donated it to the Catholic Church in the beginning of the 1980’s. As a sign of gratitude, the center was named after him.
In the years after, it was constantly busy with conferences and seminars.
After his own ordination in the 1980’s, Bishop Botros spent five
years organizing seminars and conferences in the center — especially during the busy summer months, when the center would host retreats and longer seminars.
“This house was part of my life,” Bishop Botros says.
In the years since his work there, it slowly deteriorated and fell out of use. Amid the political upheaval of 2011, it briefly ceased to operate altogether — and then again after terrorists staged a major attack on a bus transporting Copts in Minya in 2017, killing dozens.
When he was named bishop, he went to visit the center. When he saw its decrepit condition, he could not hold back his tears.
“Most of the events are usually held in the summer, and as you can see there is no air conditioning,” says Marco Eisa, 27, the manager of the center. “That makes it very difficult to host such numbers in the summer.”
He walks through the conference halls, taking stock of the work ahead. “There is no sound system; the kitchen is not equipped; we have too few blankets.” Only one of the three halls, which can accommodate 200 guests, is currently usable.
Bishop Botros began renovating the center about a year and a half ago with what resources he could allocate. Restoration has come a long way — the bedrooms are more comfortable, and the bathrooms function.
But much work remains to restore the luster he so fondly remembers.
“A lot of people met each other and became friends at this place,” he says. Soon, he knows, it will serve a new generation in the same way.
And the hope that has already taken root will continue to grow.
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.