‘Faith in God and Mission’ Make Coptic Orphans Different — 25th Anniversary Interview With Dr. Atef Moawad

Dr. Atef Moawad and Mrs. Ferial F. Moawad.
Dr. Atef Moawad and Mrs. Ferial F. Moawad.

Dear Friends:

In 2014, Coptic Orphans has been celebrating 25 years of love for the children and honoring the promise to stand with them, their families, and their communities in Egypt. Together, we’ve empowered over 30,000 kids to obtain better educations and break the cycle of poverty.

I asked Dr. Atef Moawad to talk about how we got here, from our humble beginnings in 1988. His encouragement and participation, which go back for our entire 25 years, have made a world of difference for the children. Because of him, Coptic Orphans was able to make its first presentation to a congregation in 1997.

Born in Beni Suef, Dr. Moawad came to the United States 55 years ago “when there were no Coptic churches or priests.” He is a retired obstetrician and professor at the University of Chicago, where he chaired the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. He attends St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church. We’re blessed to have had his wisdom and vision at our side for so many years. 

— Nermien Riad

Coptic Orphans (CO): Have you always wanted to “Bring Justice to the fatherless; plead the widow’s cause” (Isaiah 1:17) or was there a pivotal moment when you discovered your passion and commitment?

Dr. Atef Moawad (AM): We’ve always been taught, from our childhood, to take care of the orphans. When I was a child in Beni Suef, we were taught to go to the villages and the poor people and teach in the Sunday School movement. This was in the 1940s and 1950s. We saw what these villages were like, and we used to go every week to Sunday school, and then visit the people’s homes.

Later, when I was in medical school, my priest in Giza, Abouna Salib Sorial, used to send me to visit very poor families living in very small villages with no lights. I would visit the people there and I constantly saw the hard times these people faced, the difficult lives they led. It was heartbreaking.

Now, especially now that we’ve come to the United States and live better lives — because God gives us blessings  many times, we feel guilty, because these are our brothers and sisters. So these things are felt even more intensely, once we’ve come to the United States and God gives us more.

CO: You’ve stood with the kids for a long time. What nourishes you and keeps you going from day to day?

AM: I think we can’t claim to be Christians just by mouthing words and not really helping the brothers of the Lord. Because, as we’re told, on the Last Day, you’ll say, “We know You and spoke of Your work, and we even did miracles in Your name,” and He says, “I don’t know you, because I was sick, I was poor, and you didn’t come to Me.”

The only thing that sustains us from day to day is the love Jesus Christ gives us, and the reason for us to help others is not that we’re giving from us, we’re giving from what God has given us. It’s a duty. And it’s a duty for us to look after those who did not get the same blessings. They’re our brothers and sisters.

CO: Of all the stories and accomplishments of the last 25 years, what one, for you, best expresses the spirit of Coptic Orphans?

AM: What impresses me most about Coptic Orphans is how they’ve stood the test of time. There have been times where they didn’t have an easy time getting where they wanted to be, but they’ve understood exactly what their goals are, and they’ve gone about reaching them in a very methodical and logical way, not getting emotional at all about anybody or anything that’s in their way, and difficulties they’ve run into.

They’ve really stood very steadfastly in the face of adversities, whether those were in the United States or abroad. They’ve really been very, very steady, and that’s why they’ve succeeded, and never at any time have they lost their focus. Their focus is the children  they’ve never bothered about any of what I call background noise.

There are many stories that have touched my heart. I’ve been struck by my visits with the individual families with whom Coptic Orphans is involved, and by the Reps in Egypt. They are extraordinarily dedicated and humble, and they’re willing to go the extra mile. This is what’s really touched my heart.

CO: The last quarter-century has seen many organizations close, instead of growing and offering more to the community. What makes Coptic Orphans different?

AM: Coptic Orphans is always innovative. But before that, first of all, is their faith in God and their faith in their mission. That’s what they’re focused on, and that’s very important.

Second, the organization itself does not depend on one person. It’s really broad-based. It depends on local structures, the local Reps, who are close to the people who are being served.

Third, the organization has understood how to manage the process of becoming a nonprofit organization in the United States. They’ve understood the system very well  for example, how to apply for grants, how to deal with tax codes. They’ve gone about all this objectively, not emotionally, and they’ve been very organized in their accounting.

A fourth thing is, their overhead is probably lower than most of the charitable organizations that I know about, because many times they depend on volunteers and other dedicated people.

Last but not least, [Coptic Orphans founder] Nermien Riad is extraordinarily organized and has very good leadership qualities.

CO: Looking forward, God willing, what should Coptic Orphans aspire to accomplish in our next 25 years?

AM: I envision Coptic Orphans being accepted by many of our second and third generation [Copts] in the United States. What we are doing, and what we hope to continue doing, is to attract not only immigrants and their children, but reach even the generations that follow. My son, for example, is committed to this work, but I want my children’s children to be part of Coptic Orphans. So I know that Coptic Orphans is going to young people’s conventions and retreats, and giving them some exposure to the organization. Also, the program of getting people to visit Egypt, Serve to Learn, is very good.

The other thing that’s important is that we concentrate on telling other organizations, as well as the people at various churches, and people who aren’t Copts, to be part of Coptic Orphans’ work. Because, as you know, people go on missions all over the world. Coptic Orphans can be very helpful by telling them “Go to Egypt.”

In addition, I really hope Coptic Orphans will increase its giving to not only Copts, but also to Muslims. In other words, we need to show our love to everybody, regardless of their faith, or race, or gender. That’s what the Lord asked us to do — to love everyone.

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.