Egypt’s Orphanage Horrors – What Are We Going to Do About It?

140829_Egypt Question Mark
I love what Ashraf Khalil has done in his Aug. 26 article for TIME, “Egypt’s Orphans Struggle Long After Childhood Ends.” It’s a must-read. He casts light on the abuse of children trapped on the dark side of Egypt’s social services. The only issue I have with it is his omission of a key alternative model: family-based care.

Although the worst abuses in Egypt’s orphanages may still be lurking under the radar, Khalil’s article does a service by pointing to a horrific incident that made it onto video.  The clip purportedly shows the head of Dar Mecca Al Mokarama Orphanage beating kids as they cry and scream. The media is also reporting sexual abuse elsewhere, at the Rescue Childhood Association,  and talk shows are suddenly buzzing.

Can we be surprised, really, that this abuse exists? After all, as Khalil notes, “being an orphan in Egypt is akin to being in a lower caste of people. Orphans are widely labeled as ‘children of sin’ and assumed to be the illegitimate and abandoned products of extramarital sex. This label follows them throughout life, making it difficult for orphans to attend public schools…” Small wonder, then, that social services for orphans are so flawed.

What are we, as people of faith, called upon to do in the face of this abuse? I would argue that the most crucial thing each of us can do is lift up alternatives. It’s not enough to just criticize Egypt’s system, from the stressed-out, underpaid social workers, to some leaders’ noble attempts to care for kids in a group setting. Something more must be done. An alternative must exist. Let’s call it family-based care.

This model is something Coptic Orphans has more than a little experience with, since we’re now celebrating our 25th anniversary. The core of the idea is keeping families together. Orphanages should be a last resort. If the loss of a father traps a family in extreme poverty, as is too often the case in Egypt, the next step should be a search for all available resources that could keep the child with his or her mother and close relatives. What do the mother and child need? Food, medical care, housing, education? The latest research shows that most of these needs can be better met within the family.

Naturally, this model isn’t going to work every single time. But most of the time, it’s the best way to preserve the child’s emotional stability and ability to succeed in life.

How do I know this works? I’ve seen it. By the grace of God, Coptic Orphans is blessed to work with over 400 loving Church servants who regularly visit the homes of each of the nearly 10,000 orphans in our program. They develop a personal relationship with each child, treating them with respect and attentiveness. These servants assess each child’s needs — including how they can be more connected their family and their Coptic values and faith — and do their best to provide for them. Education — including individual tutoring and accelerated literacy courses — is the key tool used to help orphans break the cycle of poverty.

Based on my decades of first-hand observation, the family-based model is most suited for the goal we all share: seeing the child as a whole person, and bringing out his or her unique, God-given talents and love. It’s simply easier to nurture a healthy, well-rounded child within his or her own family unit.

I’m grateful for Khalil’s article, because it brings to light a reality we all wish didn’t exist, but have to confront. With that in mind, I pray that the abuses discovered in Egypt’s orphanages will be halted. And I equally pray that alternative models of care become available to all children. Scaling up the family-based model to serve Egypt’s huge number of orphans would be a challenge. But alternatives should exist. For that to happen, the conversation has to begin somewhere, sometime. Let’s start it today.

If you’d like to learn more about Coptic Orphans’ family-based model, which matches individual sponsors with fatherless children, please visit our page. If you’d like to help us promote awareness of the family-based model in your church, please send an email to info@copticorphans.org.

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.

4 thoughts on “Egypt’s Orphanage Horrors – What Are We Going to Do About It?

  1. I’m really proud to see CO devoting all their time and effort to ensure that our Coptic children have a sable life after losing a guardian. The Coptic children are the future of the nation and rightly so should be looked after . I congratulate you on the work you’ve achieved so far and pray that it will continue for many many years.

    1. Thank you, Chris, for your love for the children of Egypt!

      Your prayers are the most important thing in this struggle and we are grateful that you have the kids in your heart.

      Peace and grace,
      Nermien Riad

  2. I look at solutions from different perspectives:
    1. From the hosting family perspective: What’s in it for them? Specially if they represent an extended family who already has their own circumstances issues etc of living in difficult conditions as is!
    a. In addition to the obvious divine reward, it may be that CO sponsors could gift them a holiday, a nice Christmas dinner ($ to buy ingredients to make a nice Christmas/Easter dinner) as a surprise. So reward them for their good deeds on a regular basis; this can be linked to point 2c below.
    Sometimes, one will accept hosting an orphan when a parent dies or leaves etc, will be an emotional reaction to the loss, but down the track, the continued responsibility maybe heavy and some people my rethink it. I believe that if their is a mechanism to reinforce or renew the initial enthusiasm, this could support the cause, and minimise the negative behaviour that could result from the ‘rethinking it’ process mentioned above!
    2. Personalise the orphan to the sponsor:
    a. Creating a website that gives a brief about the orphans and their families (mom and siblings if applicable, where they live maybe with some photos) to the sponsoring families (for security purposes, could be available through special terminals at Coptic churches around the world)
    b. I wonder if providing the sponsoring person/family to select the orphan they wish to sponsor can initiate some bond (whist it is very different in purpose, I can’t but wonder what makes dating websites work, and how CO could use that aspect to the advantage of needing orphans)?
    c. Create lists of orphans’ needs based on different circumstances ( individual child, family (mother and child or mother and several children, or hosting family reward)) and the related cost of each of the needs, for sponsors to select (my analogy is a bridal registry where a list of needs and their related price is made available to guests to target presents to actual needs). Some of the donations could represent a one off, other could be regular, such. as monthly donations. The option of just donating an amount irrespective of where it would be used should also remain an option
    The point here is to personalise the need and establish a personal connection between the

    1. Dear Nevine,
      These are really interesting ideas! I agree that it’s critically important to reinforce the personal connection between each sponsor and child. We’re trying to walk a line that respects each child and family’s privacy, while still conveying to the sponsor their real needs. It’s a complicated set of issues, as I’m sure you know, since you’ve clearly given this a lot of thought. Along the lines of your other thoughts, we do try to make it possible for sponsors to celebrate certain milestones with the child and family each year by offering gifts to mark Easter, for example, or “back to school.” Education being central to what we do to break the cycle of poverty, that last one is really important. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts, and peace and grace to you and your family, Nevine.
      One Body in Christ,
      Nermien Riad

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