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 firstname.lastname@example.org.