Girls, Tolerance, Pyramids (And Other Wonders of the World)

Side-by-side, Big and Little Sister, building Pyramids in Matay.
Side-by-side, Big and Little Sister, building Pyramids in Matay.

I’m in a huge, sunlit room, and all around me, pairs of girls are busy with markers, scissors, and construction paper. There’s a buzz in the air as they assemble models of Egypt’s greatest engineering feat, the Pyramids.

Don’t worry – it’s not a sweatshop churning out junky souvenirs for the tourists who are slowly returning to Egypt. It’s Coptic Orphans’ Valuable Girl Project, and here at this site in Matay, a town near the city of Minya in Upper Egypt, these are Big Sisters and Little Sisters, some of them pairings of Christian and Muslim girls.  And the project they’re working on, besides teaching teamwork and artistic skills, is also reminding them of the huge dimensions of all Egyptians’ shared cultural heritage.

I’m astonished, this July morning, as we tour this building that houses the Office of Human Services of the Coptic Catholic Diocese, our partner in this Valuable Girl Project site. Besides the roomful of girls in their pairs, there’s another room zipping with the sound of looms, where young women are producing clothing as part of a community-based development project. In fact, our partner is so well-established that they even make classy shoes — a table of them are on display, for sale, as you walk upstairs.

I’m grateful to have such on-the-ball partners, who are so rooted in their communities. Coptic Orphans is working with seven such community development associations through Valuable Girl, with the goal of academic retention, education, and literacy tutorship of girls and young women in high-poverty areas of Egypt. The program uses one-on-one mentorship, through which young women in secondary school, “Big Sisters,” become role models for girls in primary school, “Little Sisters.”

Coming back to the sunny workspace where the girls are nearly finished with their trios of Pyramids, I’m struck by the tolerance that’s evident in the room. Young women in headscarves tackle their project next to young women who are clearly Christian in dress, and there’s no discord, only occasional giggling at the sight of the visitors from “outside.”

This is what the Valuable Girl Project offers, beyond building the leadership skills of young women in a society that’s often hostile to the idea. Creating a safe space for tolerance is a difficult thing in Egypt, given the distrust that flared into violence in recent years. But these girls and young women are defying that distrust and building towards a tolerant society — one friendship at a time. Multiply those friendships across seven sites and 420 participants, and you’ve got the seeds of change.

Now the girls are beginning to stand up and describe their Pyramids, one pair at a time. I’m excited that they’re focused on this enormous feat, this engineering marvel that their ancestors pulled off together. But I’m even more excited about the new foundation they’re laying — for an Egypt of tolerance, co-existence, and peace — where young women, Christian and Muslim, can work together.

We’re going to move into a new stage of the Valuable Girl Project, and I’m excited to share the details with you soon. Stay tuned!

PS By the grace of God, we’re celebrating our 25th anniversary with the honored presence of His Holiness Pope Tawadros II! We’re also growing and hiring — please share our job postings with all the skilled, passionate professionals you know! 

 

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.