‘I am Forever a Changed Person’ — Alex Khrestian Thinks Back on Serve to Learn

"I wasn't someone who normally does things like this, I never went on a trip to a foreign country with people I never knew, but it really is life-altering," Alex Khrestian says of Serve to Learn.
“I wasn’t someone who normally does things like this, I never went on a trip to a foreign country with people I never knew, but it really is life-altering,” Alex Khrestian says of Serve to Learn.

Summer will be here soon, and the April 15 deadline for Serve to Learn applications is coming up fast.  To make sure that you can hear about Serve to Learn directly from people who’ve done it, I’m bringing you another in our series of “alumni” interviews!

If you’re not already familiar with Serve to Learn, here are the facts: It’s our unique summer program that brings people from all over the world to Egypt to teach kids basic English through fun activities. This year it runs July 4-26. Arabic and teaching skills are helpful but not critical; what’s most needed are respect, kind hearts, and high energy!

I’m grateful that Alex Khrestian, who was part of Serve to Learn 2010 in El Barshaa, El Minya, agreed to be interviewed. A native of Cleveland, Alex is currently a second-year medical student at the University of Toledo. Here’s what he told us:

For you, what was the most moving or life-changing part of Serve to Learn?

Serve to Learn was the first time that I ever really went anywhere truly “impoverished.” I had been to Egypt and while it is definitely a change of pace from living in the United States I wouldn’t call it impoverished or even third world. Living in Alexandria or Cairo is much like living in any city in the United States. With Serve to Learn, I actually saw places in Egypt my own relatives (who still live there) had never seen. I saw true poverty for the first time. It was no longer a “story” or “infomercial” about how $1 a day could help some sick, poor kids in some African country. Poverty became a real thing to me for the first time; it wasn’t just a word anymore. It had faces, emotions, good and bad, it was something I could see and feel and for my short time there, I took a few steps in the shoes of “poverty.”

When I planned my trip, it was very self-centered; I remember focusing on the hassles of everything I needed to “do” before I went to Egypt. I didn’t even want to go but I knew it would look good on an application to medical school and it would be an excuse to visit my family in Egypt. Very little of my thoughts were directed towards the actual “service” I would be doing. I remember going through stores looking for things to give the kids and thinking, “What is this even for, why am I buying things from a dollar store? Who would even want this stuff?” So many negative thoughts flowed through my head that only God could have foreseen good coming out of it. There was even a period when I thought I had made a mistake signing up.

But despite all my initial feelings, doubts and uncertainty, I had made a commitment and I was going to fulfill it. Once I got to Egypt, I felt a bit happier that I had come, but my heart still wasn’t where it should have been, I was mainly happy I was in Egypt. I thought I would end up close to some city and I would be able to visit my family once in a while. It wasn’t until I ended up with five strangers in the middle of nowhere in a place called El Barshaa (which I had never even heard of) that I realized, this trip was nothing like what I had imagined. And for that I am thankful because what I had imagined was not an experience that would have stuck with me four years later and changed me so much that I would share my inner struggles with others about the trip.

During my time in Barshaa, I met a lot of great people, both in the small village and those I worked with. I became a part of the most amazing community of people I have ever met. Watching the children run up to you and each one ends up tugging on a different limb all because they are excited to play with you or just to sit down and hear about what “America” is like, gave me a sense of joy and fulfillment that I had never experienced before. These people had so little in the ways of material possessions and comforts but what they lacked in earthly things, I could tell God had more than balanced out with his heavenly peace and joy. The children softened my heart and God used the three weeks I spent there to give me new perspectives and purpose in life. The children have been such an inspiration to me and I am grateful for having had the opportunity to be a part of Serve to Learn 2010. I went in looking for something to put on my application to medical school but God had bigger plans for me. Not only did I get accepted to medical school, a fact I know Serve to Learn was invaluable in achieving, but God also gave me things I never expected, like around 40 new brothers and sisters in a small village called Barshaa who few even in Egypt have ever heard of.

Today, I know I am forever a changed person, and I know this because even as I pursue my dreams thousands of miles from that small village in Egypt, I still keep them in the back of my mind. And it is because of Serve to Learn and the lasting impression the children have left in my spirit that my career goals have become ever so slightly less self-centered. I now wish to one day return to the place that feels like a home away from home and use my medical skills to give back to the village that taught me so much. And with God’s help and Coptic Orphans, I know I shall succeed in this endeavor.

Did Serve to Learn deepen your understanding of Egypt and your roots?

It gave me a greater appreciation for the struggles that rural communities go through because it is very different than the urban life of Egypt. So in a sense, I became more aware of how living in Egypt likely was back when people mainly lived an agricultural life.

Given the chance, what would you have done more of during the program?

Personally, I would have loved to just have more free time to play with the children. Take them maybe into a nearby city and expose them to life outside of the village. I think sometimes the children are trapped by economic circumstances from experiencing many things and as someone without financial burdens I would have liked to spoil them a bit.

What advice would you give anyone considering applying for Serve to Learn?

DO IT! If you have the time, this is absolutely something you should do. If you even kind of want to do it at all then you are going to be happy you did. Like I said, going in, I probably had the worst reasons to be there, I wasn’t someone who normally does things like this, I never went on a trip to a foreign country with people I never knew, but it really is life-altering. You will not be disappointed. It may seem like a hassle initially, you may be weighing the pros and cons, but I promise you no matter how long the list of cons is, or how many excuses you may be thinking up why you can’t go, once you go you will find that the only thing that “cons list” is good for is wiping your butt, because sometimes they do run out of toilet paper in the villages :)

Any final thoughts?

I think that’s all I have to say.

I hope everyone takes Alex’s advice and applies for Serve to Learn. Still have questions? You can learn more by reading the Serve to Learn FAQ, or by writing to us directly at info@copticorphans.org.

Still can’t get enough Serve to Learn promo material? Check out our new Serve to Learn video (courtesy of co-geniuses Fady Hanna and Mark Yacoub—thank you!) or absorb the“Top 5 Myths Why You Can’t Take Part in Serve to Learn Debunked.” 

PS  If you have a second and want to help the cause, please go to the top of this post and hit the “Like” button. Or if you’re already post-Facebook, whatever social media you use. Thanks!

About Nermien Riad

Nermien Riad founded Coptic Orphans in 1988 after volunteering for an orphanage in Cairo. When she saw that most of the children had living widowed mothers who simply couldn’t afford to feed them, she gathered family and friends to sponsor children in Egypt. Today Coptic Orphans works through a network of 400+ church-based volunteers in Egypt, who visit fatherless families in their homes and make sure they get everything they need to unlock their full potential. That way, they don’t have to get married off as child brides, work as 10-year old family breadwinners, or go to live at an institutional orphanage.