ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

The Refuse(d) Communities

With the aid of a dedicated sister from Cairo, a destitute group known as the garbage people receive the help they desperately need.

The Citadel of Cairo casts an aura of elegance and grace over the city sprawled beneath its fortified walls. Located on the slopes of the Mukattam Hills, it commands a complete view of Cairo and the Nile, and beyond that, even the famous pyramids of Giza.

In the shadows of the Citadel, also in the Mukattam Hills, a community of 50,000 people live beyond another kind of fortified wall. Known as the garbage people of Cairo, they reside behind tenfeet high barricades of wrought tin.

Behind the tin walls are 40-feet mounds of putrefying garbage which stretch as far as the eye can see. Sandy, gently sloping hills have been replaced by mountains of assorted garbage. The stench chokes and gags and is made worse by the unmerciful heat of summer. Flies buzz in one solid mass, forming a tornado-like spiral which attacks everything in sight. Dogs and pigs roam freely along the narrow pathways that have been created from constant use, forming a labyrinth of huts and work areas. Here and there a dead animal can be spotted only haphazardly buried. Children play happily in the rubble, seemingly unaware of their unique surroundings.

This is just one of at least seven garbage communities that are scattered throughout Cairo. The garbage people make their living collecting and sorting the refuse of the wealthier citizens who pay 36 cents a month for their service.

Converging on the city’s streets each day, the garbage collectors ride in their donkey carts. They weave through traffic clogged with overcrowded buses, Mercedes and trucks carrying packs of camels to the slaughterhouse. In the evenings they return to their communities with the day’s collection mounted dangerously high and practically overflowing back onto the streets. Wives and children sort the garbage into piles of glass, cans, plastics, metal, cloth and rags. Nothing is wasted. The edible garbage is fed to the pigs who are fattened and sold. Middlemen buy the rest of the sorted refuse for recycling.

Arriving to live among the debris of the dumps is a Frenchwoman whose reputation is well known to the “rag pickers” as she affectionately calls them. Sister Emmanuelle, who is 73 years old, strides into the Mukattam compound bursting with energy and determination. Her faithful Egyptian driver of ten years is hardly able to keep up with her. Her head is wrapped tightly in a plain scarf and her feet are protected by a pair of heavy walking boots.

She carries a pail and shovel and is about to approach a distant hill of garbage when she is stopped by some of the people. They want to show her the new home they have built especially for her. Sister Emmanuelle slows her pace and follows the crowd which has gathered to lead her to her new home. Smiling and talking in Arabic, she stops along the way to kiss and hug the children. The crunching sound of garbage underfoot is drowned out by the happy chattering of the crowd.

Her new home is one tiny room that has been carved out from the side of a mound of garbage. A rickety wooden door swings open into a room of surprising cleanliness. The walls are made only of tin and cardboard, but somehow the smell from outside does not permeate. The room is sparsely furnished, with a cot tucked away in one corner, and a chair in another. Over the cot a simple wooden cross has been placed and a Bible rests on the chair. Outside, pigs are squealing and dashing about, but inside, all is quiet and peaceful. “Welcome to my Buckingham Palace,” Sister Emmanuelle gestures grandly, genuinely grateful for her new home.

Most of the garbage collectors are Coptic Christians who have migrated from rural Egypt in search of jobs. When Sister Emmanuelle arrived in Cairo ten years ago, she did not want to eliminate the people’s role as garbage collectors, but rather, improve their poor standard of living.

She knew that in many developing countries, a large part of the population is supported by the collection of refuse from the upper classes. In Cairo, with a population of more than 12 million people, garbage collecting represents a considerable number of jobs.

Sister Emmanuelle wanted to build a center for all the different communities of garbage people, a place which would be called “Center-Salam” or “Center-Peace.” Her vision called for a small maternity hospital, a dispensary, a technical school, an old-age home, and a kindergarten. It would be hard to convince the families that their children should go to school. Many children helped with the chores of collecting and sorting the garbage, and few families could afford to let go of the extra helping hands. In addition, all this building would require a lot of money.

With the help of volunteers, Sr. Emmanuelle sent out appeals to her friends in Europe and America. In March of 1980, a kindergarten was opened at the Center-Salam and the First Lady of Egypt, Mrs. Anwar el Sadat, attended the ceremonies. It was a triumph for Sister Emmanuelle, who eight years earlier could not get ten children to enlist in the school. Now, 125 youngsters are registered for classes. The school has six classrooms, along with a kitchen to teach the older girls nutrition and a sewing room where they learn needlework. Once the girls are 13 they must leave school to become engaged.

For the first time in the history of the garbage people, a mother can deliver her baby in cleanliness at the maternity clinic and know that her child has a good chance of surviving. The dispensary attached to the clinic is run by an Egyptian doctor. More than 25 women have permission from their husbands to use the clinic.

A school, clinic and dispensary, are all revolutionary concepts in a community that has been shunned, for the most part, by the rest of Egyptian society. Twenty-five women using the maternity clinic may not seem like many in a community of 50,000 people. However, old values and traditions were discarded by these women in order to make use of these facilities. Parents who never saw the inside of a classroom allow their children valuable time off from chores to attend lessons. Only someone with a charismatic personality such as Sister Emmanuelle’s could bring about these changes.

In her unceasing efforts on behalf of the garbage people, Sister Emmanuelle has brought the attention of many to their plight. A group of volunteers influenced by her devotion to the people work alongside her. This has enabled Sister Emmanuelle to leave the running of the medical clinic to others so she can move among the people she so cherishes. Traveling from community to community, living with the people, working with them, Sr. Emmanuelle convinces them that they should use the facilities at the Center-Salam. When her work in one community is done, she moves on to the next, hence, her arrival at the Mukattam Hills community.

“My interest is to lead a Christian life, to serve God in the best way I know how. I am not worried about trying to convert the people. I only want to give them a chance in life, like everyone else, that is all I am interested in.”

On May 10, 1981 there was a small ceremony to celebrate Sister Emmanuelle’s golden jubilee as a nun. She climbed up on top of a dilapidated donkey cart and read the same vows she had taken 50 years earlier at Our Lady of Sion Church in Paris. Hundreds of people crowded into the narrow pathway to hear the words. Her pale green eyes brimmed with tears as she spoke in Arabic. Everyone listened intently to the tall strong Frenchwoman who had brought such hope and compassion to their lives. A lot of work lay ahead of them all, but with Sr. Emmanuelle’s arrival a new impetus had spread like a ray of sunlight over the community at Mukattam Hills.

Jeannette Isaac is a freelance writer who has traveled extensively in the Near East.

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